Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Inuit in Russia: Whale hunting as a way of life

Sea hunters on the shore of the Arctic Ocean

24 march 2023

In mid-March 2023, several archaeological finds from the ancient Inuit settlement of Ityk were presented at the Museum Centre Heritage of Chukotka. After more than a thousand years in the permafrost, a throwing stick, harpoon tips, stone knife and axe, as well as a unique hoe covered with drawings from the life of ancient polar hunters, have come into the hands of attentive and caring restorers. Earlier, archaeologists had only found ornamented tools. In October, a large-scale exhibition entitled 'Ancient Inuit Design, Practicality and Magic' will open in Anadyr and will run for two months. It will present new finds as well as exhibits from the museum's storerooms.

Inuit have been hunting sea animals for many hundreds of years. Those who now inhabit northern Chukotka came there at the end of the first millennium BC. They are not many—according to the 2010 census, a total of 1,738 Inuit live in Russia, while there are about 180,000 living in the world. Their culture and traditional way of life are a unique testament to how humans can adapt to life in incredibly harsh climates.

To some it's 'unspoilt nature' and to others it's lunch

In Russia, Inuit live compactly in the settlements of Sereniki, Novoye Chaplino and Uelkale in the Providensky district, and in the settlements of Lavrentino, Uele and Lorino in the Chukotsky district. These are seaside settlements whose everyday life and economy are closely linked to the sea-hunting industry. Today, like other indigenous people, the Inuit are allocated quotas to capture seals, bearded seals (sea hares), walruses and even whales. A number of them were actively recruited for whaling in the 19th century, for one could not find better hunters with tradition and experience handed down through the generations. 

Today, only indigenous people in the Chukotka Autonomous Area are allowed to hunt whales, as it is an integral part of their traditional way of life—in other words, there is not much else to eat on the Arctic Ocean coast. The Inuit go to sea in motorboats armed with harpoons and shotguns. The principles of sea hunting have not changed in the last two thousand years—the animal must be harpooned and rendered immobile and then shot with a long-range weapon so that it dies of blood loss. In this way, the carcass will not sink and the prey can be towed to shore. Hunting takes up to twelve hours and is an extremely dangerous activity. In the waves of the Bering Strait, an angry whale can easily drown its attackers, and if you add wind, fog and drifting ice to its anger... However, experience and skill usually win over the elements—for example, in 2017, 119 whales were caught by Chukchi and Inuit in the Chukotka Autonomous Area. Incidentally, only indigenous people are allowed to consume the results of marine mammal hunting. It is illegal to trade in this meat, so the only way to taste northern delicacies is at the table of a lucky hunter.

The remaining working life of the Inuit in Russia is centred around state institutions. Teachers, librarians, postal workers are paid very good salaries by the standards of the region thanks to the 'northern' allowance. During the Soviet era, the 'national settlements' had businesses that centrally processed the results of sea hunting and fishing, and the locals were organised into collective or state farms. After the decline of the 1990s, production is slowly recovering. In 2018, for example, the first modular workshop for processing sea animal fat for the region's domestic market was launched in the Lorino settlement. It is important to note that the Chukchi, who live in coastal settlements, are also involved in the sea hunting.

How to cook a whale

Not only are the Inuit famous for their ability to catch marine mammals, but they are also renowned for their refined ways of eating them. Like many peoples whose traditional diet is meat and fat, Inuit have an increased digestibility of these foods. For example, tourists shouldn't go straight for the mantak, the whale fat with skin. When hunters dump a whale carcass on the shore, there is an immediate queue for fresh delicacy. The Inuit of Chukotka prefer to eat the mantak raw, cutting the thick layers into small cubes and sprinkling them liberally with salt. Whale or seal oil is said to go well with fresh berries picked in the tundra.

In Inuit cuisine, it is common to sour the food, which increases the digestibility and prolongs the storage of meat. Sometimes, though, culinary genius gets out of hand and kiwiak is born. These are at least 400 gull carcasses that were sewn into a seal skin and buried on the coast for three months to a year and a half. According to sea hunters, this dish has extremely strong flavour and health benefits, but it can only be eaten outdoors. According to doctors, such delicacies should not be eaten by Europeans, as they contain cadaveric poison. However, Inuit can enjoy such dishes due to a combination of hereditary digestive physiology, a particular type of microflora and culinary traditions.

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