Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).
Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.
The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.
One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.
Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.