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Bringing home the whale, part 2: Tattoo of whale tails created in honor of ancestor taken by museum; three whales are brought home

When he was a young teen, Qaiyaan Harcharek wanted a tattoo, but his mom told him, "not before you turn 18." This gave him some time to think about just what kind of tattoo he should get. As he pondered, his mom, Iñupiat educator Jana Harcharek, told him of Amayun, his great grand amau six generations down. Amayun had seven whale tails tattooed across his chest - one for each of the bowheads he had harpooned.

As he grew, Qaiyaan hunted with the Payuuraq crew of his uncle, Payuuraq - Poe Brower, Jana's brother. After proving himself on the ice and in the boat, he became harpooner, harpooned one whale and later another. Both to honor his grandfather and the bowheads that had given themselves to the crew and community, Qaiyaan decided his tattoo would be two whale tails, on his chest - just like Amayun. He faced a couple of problems. With no sketches or photographs of Amayun's tattoo, he could not know the look or style.

And he could not just walk into any tattoo shop anywhere and let just anyone tattoo the images of the whale so sacred and vital to his family and people into his flesh. The tattooist had to be someone who would understand the significance. A little over five years ago, he and his mother traveled to New Zealand with a delegation of Iñupiat, including about 30 elders, to study the language revitalization programs the Maori had instituted to keep their culture strong. There, he met reknowned Maori master wood carver Mitch Hughes.

"In the same way I was brought up to go whaling, he was brought up to be a wood carver, starting at a young age," Qaiyaan recalls. Hughes wanted to expand his art into human skin and had just purchased some tattoo equipment. Ocean and whales are important in Maori belief, culture and art, and so the two agreed - Hughes would do the tattoo. First, Hughes tattooed a traditional Iñupiaq design once commonly used among women into the chins of Jana and coworker Fannie Akpik of Barrow. Then Hughes tattooed two whale tails into Qaiyaan's chest. He worked in symbols that told of man who had a whale friend, spoke of the abundance of food in the sea, and put in a crescent moon to signify a calm ocean.

Over the next five years, Qaiyaan harpooned three more whales. Last Christmas, Qaiyaan returned to New Zealand with his family, now including Jamie Smith and their daughter, Aagluaq. Hughes added three tails to the tattoo. He also gave Jamie a chin tattoo in traditional Iñupiaq style.

Hughes did not charge for his service, but still some of Qaiyaan's friends teased him that his trip to New Zealand made his most expensive tattoo ever. To Qaiyaan, to honor the whale, his culture and his grandfather Amayun it was worth it. To spend time with the Maori in New Zealand - all the more worth it.

Now, a sad chapter in this story:

In the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, grave robbers working on behalf of some of the world's most prestigious museums came to Barrow and plundered Iñupiat graves. They took both artifacts and bodies for the museums to study and even put on display. Qaiyaan's family learned the Smithsonian had a torso with seven whales tattooed across the chest. They looked into the matter and became convinced this was Amayun. They wanted to bring him home. The Smithsonian promised to work with them in their effort to get Amayun's torso repatriated, but, the torso was reported lost. Yet, they believe it must be somewhere in the Smithsonian. On a recent visit to Washington, D.C. for an Inuit studies conference, they toured the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

"When we walked in, we got this uneasy feeling." The Smithsonian is exempt from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, is still required to work with indigenous Americans to repatriate their looted artifacts and ancestral remains.

"It's important to us. We're going to pursue it," Qaiyaan promised. "It would be awesome to have my grandfather brought back home, to put him back where he belongs."

The meat on the table, by the way, is from the sixth whale Qaiyaan has harpooned. He has no immediate plans to go back to New Zealand, but perhaps in a few more years - maybe for one more tattoo or perhaps more. "As long as we keep getting blessed. I hope the great whale keeps giving itself to us, but it is not up to us. It is up to the whale if we get any more."

This is the whale Qaiyaan harpooned this year from the back of the boat of his uncle and captain, Poe Brower, who was driving. It had appeared that another boat was going to get the whale, but Qaiyaan saw the bowhead nudge that bowhead to the side and then come to the right side of Poe's boat. Qaiyaan harpooned it from the back of the boat. Fellow crewman Jamie Tuckfield followed immediately with a harpoon from the front. Perhaps because they had gotten wet, the bombs did not blow, but they had two more darting guns handy so they struck it again and it died within three minutes.

Qaiyaan had been in Anchorage just before he went whaling and there he saw his Aaka - his maternal grandmother Sally Brower,. "I will be in town (Barrow) on Wednesday," she told him. "You can cook me a whale on Wednesday."

Poe Brower and crew had just a few whales before Wednesday, but could not come within striking range.

Now it was Wednesday. Poe's mother and Qaiyaan's grandmother had just arrived in town. They had a whale for her.

Above is the safety boat, owned by Gilbert Leavitt. It will not hook up to the tow line but will follow along over many hours, in position to hurry in fast should there be a mishap, a boat get overturned, or someone pitched into the water.

As his flag flies over the Payuuraq boat, Captain Poe receives congratulations from Qunnik Donovan on Aiken boat #2.

Roy ties onto the tow line.

On the way back to Barrow, a trip of several hours.

Pat Hugo, whale behind, safety boat to the side.










In the Savik boat, Roy cuts dried caribou brought by Pat for lunch.

After a whale is dropped off at the landing site at an old, little-used, US Air Force airstrip about five miles north of Barrow on the Chukchi side of the spit, the boats turn back to the north to take a fast drive of about ten to fifteen miles up around Point Barrow into the Beaufort side and then down to the boat launch in the lagoon.

Isaac Leavitt happily flashes a peace sign from the safety boat as Amaqak Leavitt drives.

Two other whales were landed on the same day Savik crew helped Payuuraq Crew bring their whale in. Children watch from the beach as the crew of Lucy Leavitt nears the landing site towing bowhead.


The other whale was brought in by the Patkotak crew of the highly successful and respectful elder, Simeon Patkotak, who now stays on land as his son, Crawford, runs the crew.

Josiah Patkotak throws the rope as Samealu Patkotak prepares to jump onto the beach. He has a special mission to run.

Traditionally, when a crew landed a whale, they sent a young runner back to the village, carrying a flag, to let the people know a whale had been landed and it was time to come out and help. Now, every crew carries a radio and there are radios in every home and every Iñupiaq family Barrow knows when a whale is taken.

The tradition is still honored. Samealu hits the beach running, with Josiah at his side, thrilled to carry the message. Johnny Leavitt looks on.

For those who don't know, the "Barrow Whalers" on the sweatshirt is the name of all the sport teams that come out of Barrow High School.

The run is briefly interrupted by hugs - from Samealu's mother Laura Patkotak, wife of Captain Crawford, and Josiah's wife Flora.

The whale has been brought home. The hunters are safe.

Now the community will work to cut, divide, store the whale and to get ready to throw a feast for the entire community - as readers will see in parts 3 and 4.

Speaking of feasts, tomorrow is not only Thanksgiving, but the birthday of my youngest daughter, Lisa. I think I will have to take a break from this story until we have finished the Thanksgiving and birthday feast of celebration we are about to hold here in this house in Wasilla.



Full series index:

Preview to Barrow fall whaling story: Early morning with Savik Crew on the Beaufort

Bringing the fall whale home, part 1: The hunt

Bringing home the whale, part 2: Tattoo of whale tails created in honor of ancestor taken by museum; three whales are brought home

Bringing home the whale, part 3: A boy becomes a man - throws the harpoon, carries the flag; whale is cut, divided

Bringing the fall whale home, part 4: The community gets fed



Reader Comments (5)

great pictures and I love the Tattoo, Happy Birthday to Lisa and a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your Family

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Have a great holiday, Bill. And happy birthday, Lisa!

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert Lewis

Hi Bill! Great photos! Why are all the boats following in perfect single file on the way back? Is this a ceremonial procession or just coincidence?

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkathy in KY

Thank you, Twain, from Lisa too.

Kathy, if you look closely at the photo, you will see a blue rope going from boat to boat - the same blue rope that in the next photo reaches back from the Saviik boat to the whale. All the boats are attached to that line, pulling the whale.

November 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterLogbook - Wasilla - Beyond

I love the photos! They are spectacular! I also wanted to tell you that you misspelled one of the names. Pauyuuraq. That is how you spell it and not "Payuuraq".

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJustice

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