Set the Harpoon
WHEN THE SCOUTS REPORTED seeing whale signs and the shaman blessed the hunt, the harpooner sprang into action in a leadership role. The Inuit harpooner earned that distinction by virtue of having been successful in previous hunts. Typically, the harpooner’s family owned the umiak that would be launched to hunt a whale. They would also have been gifted and diligent in creating the harpooning tools—a sharp object that could pierce the whale’s blubber, a strong rope that could withstand the stress of the upcoming ride, and various weights and bladders that would slow the whale’s progress.
The harpooner was in charge of the umiak—standing or sitting in the bow, directing the boat’s course, bearing the ultimate responsibility for bringing the boat alongside a whale. Under the harpooner’s direction, the crew would set out from the edge of ice in the direction where they believed the whales would be arriving. They had prepared to be on the water for weeks, not knowing how long it would take them to find the whales, get close to a whale, sink the harpoon, and, ultimately, bring the whale back to land.
The oarsmen paddled, and fulfilled other roles as well, such as fishing for food along the way and keeping the line free and untangled. The shaman oversaw all activities, ...