Whaling captain Herbert Ipalook Sr. is sitting in the driver’s seat of a white pickup truck. It’s parked at the center of a sandy baseball field in Nuiqsut, a village of about 400 on the North Slope, not far from where the Colville River meets the Arctic Ocean.
It’s the day of the summer solstice, and all around Ipalook’s truck, a celebration is beginning. Today is nalukataq, a feast hosted by a successful whaling crew. And nalukataq is special.
“Special, because it was created thousands of years ago, and passed down to the younger generation, to the next generation,” Ipalook said.
Ipalook upholds this tradition. In fall, Nuiqsut’s whaling crews travel roughly 80 miles by boat to the village’s camp at Cross Island, north of Prudhoe Bay. From there, last year, Nuiqsut’s crews harvested four bowhead whales. The Ipalook crew took one of them.
“It’s about the whale. The whale gives up to you, to the people that worked really hard,” Ipalook said. “Some people might get left out, some people will gain, but everybody gains something to eat.”
Next to Ipalook’s truck, folding tables are weighed down with big, steaming pots and colorfully frosted cakes. The baseball field’s bleachers are filling with family members and neighbors, kids and elders, bundled up in puffy coats, furs and blankets and waiting patiently with paper plates and cups. People wish each other “happy nalukataq!”
The crew starts serving: homemade goose and caribou soup, bread, crackers and hot drinks.
Later, the focal point — the whale — arrives in large plastic tubs. It’s prepared several ways, like mikigaq, fermented meat, urraq, cooked meat and muktuk, frozen skin and blubber, carved into hand-sized chunks. The crew carefully distributes the whale based on the number of people per household, and everyone’s coolers start to fill up. Some is eaten on the spot, and the rest is stored for take-home, in plastic containers or ziploc bags.
Vera Ipalook, the whaling captain’s wife, is at the center of the action. She plays an important role, working long hours with the crew to prepare the whale for nalukataq.
In between making sure everything is going smoothly, Vera sneaks in a few hugs. Her family is here from near and far — almost all her kids and grandkids, she says. But it’s not just about the relatives. She wants everyone there to feel welcome.
“I make sure that my crew have big smiles on their faces, to keep people happy,” Vera Ipalook said.
There are many moments of joy. Like the candy — there’s so much candy. Every half-hour or so, Hershey’s chocolates, Laffy Taffy, Sour Patch Kids and the like are tossed over the bleachers, and all the kids pounce.
There’s even more candy during the event nalukataq is known for: the blanket toss. A circular sealskin blanket is suspended about ten feet above the ground. Men and women grab hold of the edges and start pulling in unison, and one brave soul holding a bag of candy jumps on top.
Getting the timing down isn’t as easy as it looks. But when it’s done right, the person on the blanket is catapulted upwards, and candy goes flying. It makes your average trampoline look tame.
Once everyone has their turn on the blanket, the day ends at Nuiqsut’s city hall, where the village gathers for drumming, singing and dancing. The sealskin from the blanket toss becomes a dance floor at the center of the room.
A line of men in folding chairs leads the singing, keeping time with shallow hand drums. James Taalak is among them.
“I have been drumming all my life. Since infancy. Since probably before I could walk,” Taalak said with a laugh.
Taalak says nalukataq songs have been passed down for generations, heard not just in Nuiqsut, but across the Arctic, in Canada, even parts of Russia.
Some of the music has even more universal themes:
“Some songs will urge people in the crowd to come out and dance,” Taalak said. “You know, get them motivated.”
And most everyone does — elders and children, Nuiqsut residents and visitors from far away, all take their turn on the sealskin blanket.
“It’s an open celebration for anyone that’s present,” Taalak said. “There really isn’t anything held back, as far as community — not just community service, but that feeling of being welcome.”
The dancing continues into the early hours of the morning. On the wall behind the drummers, there’s a line of framed photographs of elders who have passed on: Nuiqsut’s past leaders, whaling captains and whaling captain’s wives, looking on as today’s generation carries forward the nalukataq tradition.