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Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition Paperback – August 19, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The yearly hunt for bowhead whales of the Inupiat (Eskimos) living around Barrow, Alaska, is central to their culture and traditions. A new book that is part anthropology, part documentary, and wholly satisfying captures the lives of these people. Hess, a photographer and writer who has worked for years among Native Americans, spent a number of years living with the hunters and documenting their hunts for bowhead and beluga whales and smaller prey, such as sews. The Inupiat initiated the author into the hunt the same way they initiate their own teenagers--by putting him to work cooking for the hunters, cleaning the camp, and helping to move the umiak (whale boat) to its launch site by snow machine. The skill of the hunters and their knowledge of the biology of the whales generally allow for a successful hunt, and the blubber, meat, and other whale products not only provide food but are the basis for the entire culture as the sharing of the whale ties the community together. The aboriginal right to hunt bowhead whales (an endangered species) remains controversial, but Hess' book presents a strong case for the cultural and spiritual side of the argument and as such is highly recommended. Nancy Bent --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

Through intensely atmospheric pictures and a rawboned text, photographer and journalist Hess documents here his 20-year association with the annual Iupiat whale hunt in Barrow, Akaska. The text has the quality of fleshed-out diary entries, as Hess recounts the specifics of the hunt and select incidents from this frigid North Slope landscape. There is the search for a hunter gone missing on a night too cold to be out; the multinational rescue of three gray whales doomed by thickening ice; and a rogue storm that rudely exposes the burial place of a shaman. Hess does a yeoman's job explaining the tradition of the hunt: how the whale morphs between dietary mainstay and ages-old relict in the Iupiat cosmology; the hunter's conduct; and how the sorry history of Yankee whaling in the region has affected the Iupiat by taking numberless whales to satisfy the demand for corsets and leaving behind disease and quotas on the native harvest. But its the photographs that really sing. The black-and-white images project a deep antiquity situated squarely in the present, skillfully conveying both the respect accorded these creatures and the wholesale joy and sense of community the whales bring to the far, far north. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Sasquatch Books (August 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1570613826
  • ISBN-13: 978-1570613821
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 11 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,295,236 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Chris Wooley on December 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book is a milestone among recent publications on Alaska because it portrays Alaska's Native people in an unvarnished and realistic way. This is NOT a commercial "coffee table book" or a series of pretty pictures suitable for note cards. A short story, hopefully, will illustrate my point.
When I was living in Barrow in the late 1980s, the mayor asked me to meet with a visiting photographer who had requested information on traditional whale hunting (I was a staff anthropologist at the time). The Anchorage photographer [NOT Bill Hess] wanted to "reconstruct" a whale hunt. This commercial photographer pleaded to have me call him in Anchorage next time a whale was harpooned so he could catch the next plane to Barrow (he had already talked the airline into sponsoring him). He promised that he would stage the photograph to show the local people in the best possible light and make them appreciated by all the tourists who come to Alaska.
After nearly throwing up, I politely told him that the Inupiat whale hunters were quite capable of taking care of themselves and did not need to be "airbrushed" and marketed for popular consumption.
Then I met Bill Hess. I immediately connected with his visceral understanding of Inupiat culture which he communicates so elegantly in words and photos in this book "Gift of the Whale." This book communicates a vision of contemporary Inupiat life that is unvarnished and somewhat raw; but - from my firsthand experience - authentic.
Bill Hess knows what it's like to sweat while breaking a sled trail through jumbled ice floes at 20 below. He earned his unique chance to communicate the symbiotic relationship between Inupiat hunters and the bowhead whale.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have done a great deal of reading in my life, yet never have I been more absorbed in a book than I have in 'Gift of the Whale'. I highly recommend this elegant, enjoyable and informative piece of work.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John P. Milon on June 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a stunning visual presentation combined with a moving, unpretentious text. The drama of the three grey whales, the search for footprints . . . it is all powerful stuff. I have only been living in Barrow for nine months but so far there isn't a word that doesn't ring true.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Anne M Jensen on October 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Bill Hess is a very gifted photographer, who works almost exclusively in black and white. He has spent a great deal of time with the people the people of the North Slope whose lives are shared in this book. For a number of years he was under contract to the North Slope Borough to produce a magazine about life on the North Slope (Uinniq-The Open Lead, which makes it clear that the people of the North Slope felt that he represents them clearly and fairly.
One could enjoy this book for the photography alone, but it is so much more than that. Whaling is a central focus of North Slope Inupiat culture; it is an inextricable part. People here know that; and the whalers carry it out as a sacred trust on behalf of the whole community.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bryan Newman VINE VOICE on September 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
Bill Hess as created a masterpiece. His grainy and moody black and white capture the bowhead hunt, Point Lay beluga hunts and Inupiat life in respectfully frank perfection. The book contains several stories that are threaded in and out of the Inupiat Bowhead hunts and gives a good look into the subsistence lifestyle of the Eskimos who live on the edge of the Arctic ocean.

Hess' journalistic writing style is easy to read and appreciate. He was able to get a close-up view on many things most will never have a chance to see from subsistence hunts, search and rescue missions and the 1990's attempt to free three ice-trapped gray whales which had captured the medias attention. It was interesting how different the story that reached us was compared to the situation and conclusion was on the ice.

If you have interest in whale hunting or Eskimo lifestyles, get this book. It is a great visual and prose look into this arctic world.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Judith A. Meyer on November 18, 2008
Format: Paperback
The book Gift of the Whale is an eye opening view into the life of the Inupiat and the importance of the whale hunt to their life and traditions. The photos are awesome, and realistically show people involved in the struggle to survive in the harsh environment of northern Alaska. The narrative is interesting and informative.
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