Object: Ivory Harpoon

Harpoon Head
North America: Alaska
Ca. 20th Century
Materials: Ivory

Harpoon heads have been a key component to survival for indigenous people since around 500 AD.  This particular head is made out of walrus ivory with a crevice at the tip of the head for a metal or stone point and a hole in the center for a line attachment.  The design of this head is commonly referred to as a toggling head design which refers to the ability of the harpoon head to rotate once inserted into the animal’s skin to ensure that the line remains embedded.

Whaling is a long-standing tradition distinct to Inuit communities that reinforces concepts of kinship and sustainability.  The specific design of whaling harpoons are passed down by males in the same kinship group. Whaling is organized by kinship networks of hunting crews who use wooden canoes and search for breathing holes to find bowhead whales. Once the whales have been spotted, hunters thrust their harpoons into the whales. The whales do not die immediately, so the hunters follow them using a system of buoys attached to the harpoon heads until the whale becomes exhausted. Once the whale dies, the whale carcass is taken to shore where kinship groups extract and distribute the meat, fat, and bones for food and tools. This process is known as flensing. Cultural beliefs require that every part of the whale be utilized as a means of honoring the spirits.

Whaling has received much criticism in recent years by the governing powers of North America and environmental organizations that have become concerned about the preservation of endangered whales.  By 1970s, the International Whaling Commission successfully banned the act of whaling due to the impact the commercial whaling industry at that time had on whale populations.  However, the ban largely ignored the significance of whaling in Inuit culture. In response to indigenous movements, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) was created in 1976 as a means of preserving the cultural practice of subsistence whaling among Inuit communities. Since 1981, Inuit groups participating in the AEWC Commission have worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to come up with an annual quota of bowhead whales that are allowed to be hunted. For example, in 2008, 67 whales were permitted to be killed among the 10 Inuit whaling groups in Alaska.

[Benjamin Norrick]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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