March 28, 2016–Bernadette Adams, Woman Whaler
She will tell you her first thought was providing for her family and her village, never mind that in 2014 when Bernadette Adams struck a bowhead whale with a harpoon, striking and accurate and deadly blow with her first throw, she made history becoming the first woman in her culture to ever do so.
Adams is a 34 year old Inupiat woman, born and raised in Barrow, Alaska, where every year for thousands of years crews of men push off shore in small boats to hunt whales for their village.
Alaska Natives living along the Arctic coast rely on the whales for food and materials to make tools and equipment. Hunting whales is for survival and for their cultural identity.
“Since I was 7 years old, I have wanted to go with the men,” Adams told a reporter.
Every member of the village has an important role to play during whaling season. These roles for the whale hunt are assigned from a young age. When a boy turns 10, his father starts taking him out on the sea ice to teach him to carve trails and build camps. Meanwhile girls learn to clean the meat and pots, divvy out portions and cook.
That means almost all whalers are men.
Hunting whales still remains the province of the men, but occasionally women do go along in the boat. Adams was in Whaling Captain’s George Ahmaogak Sr.’s boat, 20 miles off Alaska’s northern coast in the Arctic Ocean in September of 2014 when she spotted something under the surface.
They chased the whale for 30 minutes before she was able to get a clean shot. Being an Alaska Native, she would never boast about this. Adams has been whaling for six or seven years during the fall hunt, so she’s knows how important the entire crew is for a successful hunt.
“You can’t get close enough to a whale without a good driver,” she said. “I give a lot of credit to the driver… but we talked and we both said we couldn’t have done it without the good Lord.”
By the time the whale was brought to town and the meat, muktuk and organs were harvested, it was getting dark. A large portion of the whale goes to the captain who hands it out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, while the rest is divided up and given out to the crew and the rest of the community. Locals line up outside the captain’s house the day after to collect a portion of the bounty.
“It’s a good time to see the community come together; that’s what we do during whaling,” Adams said. “Whaling is year round, you get ready for it all year long.”
Adams hunting career began at an early age shooting ducks with a bb gun. Her father taught her to hunt caribou, walrus and s bearded seals which are killed with a hand held device, much like a whale harpoon. “I happen to have no brothers, so I had to find some way to help the family out.”