|Film Description:||This is an umiak used by the Inuit (Eskimo) people living on the northcoast of Alaska. Umiaks were used for hunting whales and for traveling long distances with a number of people and their gear. This fine example was collected by William Van Valin around 1913. It is made of a wooden frame tightly covered with walrus hide. Everything is either sewn or spliced together. Nails were not used because they rust and can cause the skins to tear. The average length of an umiak was about 30 feet with a width about five feet. Some umiaks also had a small mast in the bow with a square sail, usually made from reindeer hide. |
The umialik or whaling captain was a man of considerable wealth who could afford to own and maintain an umiak. An umialik achieved his status because of his excellent skills as a hunter, his positive relationship with the spirit world, his entrepreneurial capabilities, and his personal charisma. His following usually included members of his extended family, as well as the families of his six or seven crew members. In exchange for their support and work, the umialik provided them food, clothing, shelter, and goods
Whaling was and still is a central focus in the lives of northwest Alaskan Eskimo people. It involved an elaborate series of ritual events designed to influence the whale spirits, as well as practical tasks associated with equipment manufacture and repair, outfitting the umiak, the hunt, and the distribution of meat, skin, and blubber. These activities commenced each fall, when the sea-ice began to freeze, and ceased only with the final celebration, in May or June, after a hunting season.
Once an umialik and his crew spotted a whale, they launched their boat, silently sliding it into the water. The harpooner stood at the bow of the boat, with harpoon in hand, poised to strike the animal. The umialik was at the stern, directing his crew of six men who paddled the boat toward the animal. The whale was struck by a harpoon, tipped with a bone or ivory head, which became deeply embedded in the wound. Long thong lines with three inflated sealskin floats were attached to the harpoon head. As the whale
attempted to escape, the great lengths of the line with the three floats were thrown clear of the boat. This was a tense and dangerous moment. If the lines became fouled they might snap; if they became tangled around a man or part of the boat this could spell certain disaster. But if all went well, the floats would act like drags, and the fleeing animal would soon tire. The whale was then dispatched with lances tipped with stone points, of chert and obsidian.
When the whale was brought to the shore, the umialik's wife left her house and went down to the ice edge with a container of fresh water and offered the whale a drink. The animal was then butchered, and the meat was carefully distributed. After returning home with a whale, the crew would remove the walrus skin from the umiak and use it as a trampoline to celebrate a successful hunt.
At the conclusion of the whaling season, the crews paraded through the community and visited the children in their houses. The umialik was at the front of the line followed by the harpooner. These men wore wooden face masks and chest plaques decorated with
whaling scenes. They both frightened the children and caused great merriment. The community then gathered for a feast of whale meat and blubber. During this feast, the nature of the captured whales was discussed, the animals' spirits and the quality of the meat were praised, and all expressed the hope thatthe whale spirits would be pleased enough to return the following year.
Umiak's are still used today by the Yupik and Inupiat Eskimo because they are easier to maintain than aluminum boats!