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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Alutiiq Whaling

The little blue flower in the top photo is Monkshood (Acconitum Delphinafolium); it blooms in August and is mostly found in the alpine.  I photographed these specimens down in the Refugium (see Floating the East Fork - September 2006) near Red Lake.  What's special about the plant is that Alutiiq whalers mashed up its root to make poison for killing whales.  Its poison, acconite, is a very powerful neurotoxin.

The Alutiiq had a unique way of hunting whales.  Rather than a communal hunt were a group would go out in a large boat, kill a whale and drag it home - the Alutiiq hunted whales alone in a kayak.  They would lance the whale with a poisoned spear and then wait a few days for the whale to die and float ashore.  Owners marks on the lance would indicate who killed the whale (and owned the largest share) when it did finally float up on shore.  This does not seem like a very efficient way to hunt whales, but Russian accounts from the 1830s report that around 40% of the whales struck were recovered.  A much higher success rate than when the Russians  tried to get the Alutiiq to use western methods!

Alutiiq whalers were considered powerful shamans, and were feared by the rest of Alutiiq Society.  They often lived alone and generally had a secret cave where they created the poison and performed the rituals used to kill whales.  Whalers were associated with crabs because they would dig up the bodies of powerful people and use their fat to mix with the acconite (acconite is a lipid based poison).  The Alutiiq did not eat crabs because they fed on the dead.  Whalers believed that the more powerful the person they used to make poison - the more powerful the poison.  A whaler once told the manager of the Russian American Company, Aleksandr Baranov, that when he died he planned on digging him up to make whale poison.  He meant it as a compliment on how powerful he found Baranov!  

The slate whaling lances pictured are from the Fisher Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.  The mask depicts a crab and was collected by Alphonse Pinart on Kodiak in the 1870s - it is now in a museum in France (the Alutiiq Museum will be having an exhibit of some of these masks opening this May).  Finally, the painting of the lone whaler killing a whale is by Mikhail Tikhanov - he painted it while visiting Alaska in 1818.  The original painting is at the Royal Academy of Arts in Petersburg, Russia.  Patrick

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