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We Build Alaska

The Sunday Minefield – June 23, 2024

The weather has been amazing all over the state! It was even great this weekend in Barrow, where I fortunate to attend a Nalukataq whale festival. Political fundraisers and campaigning continue for the candidates running for 50 of the 60 legislative seats up this year. Lieutenant Governor Nancy Dahlstrom (R – Alaska) got a big endorsement from Donald Trump in her bid to unseat Representative Mary Peltola (D – Anchorage). Anchorage Mayor-elect Suzanna LaFrance announced more key appointments and plans for her swearing in ceremony on July 1. And two legislative candidates have officially withdrawn.

A friendly message and reminder to all our readers. The Landmine is made possible by myself and a team of awesome Alaskans. I recently returned from Juneau for my sixth session in a row reporting on the Legislature. We will again be providing in-depth coverage for both the primary and general elections. If you enjoy the content we provide, please consider making a one time or recurring monthly donation. You can click here to donate. We have a system that makes it super easy. We would really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone who has been supportive.

First Time at Nalukataq

Nalukataq is a yearly whaling festival held in many North Slope communities. It’s an important community event where whaling crews and their families share whale meat from whales that were caught in the spring. It’s also a summer celebration with all kinds of cool activities, including the blanket toss. Before this week I had only heard about it and seen it in pictures. I was lucky enough to get invited up this year to attend a Nalukataq in Barrow held by Crawford & Laura Patkotak, Isaac & Thea Leavitt and Ned & Dora Arey, Sr. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience I had.

I got to know Mayor Josiah Patkotak in Juneau when he represented the North Slope in the House before being elected North Slope Borough mayor in October. He had told me I needed to get up to Barrow sometime, especially for the whaling festival. My friend Cale Green and his girlfriend Taylor Thompson got jobs with the Borough earlier this year and moved up to Barrow. While talking with Cale in May, I decided to buy a ticket and come up to Barrow for the Patkotak Nalukataq. It was a big plus having a place to crash. And I always wanted to spend a summer solstice at the top of the world!

I flew up Thursday afternoon. I had never been to Barrow before so I didn’t really have any expectations other than I knew it was going to be an experience. The first thing I noticed was the chaos at the airport. For whatever reason the Alaska Airlines terminal up there is extremely small. So all those in the confined area where the bags are dropped have to unload all the bags in a kind of chaotic assembly line formation. They stack them in order to make room for more bags being dropped in the small baggage slide. The experience reminded me of one time I was at an airport in Uzbekistan. You had to push your way around and through people in order to find your bag! Alaska Airlines really needs to expand that facility.

Cale picked me up. It was a beautifully sunny day but was a bit chilly. We took my bags to his house and then headed to the area where the Nalukataq was to be held the next day. Little did I know I was going to be put to work right away! They surround the area with scaffolding covered in visqueen in order to keep the wind out. I helped get the visqueen attached to the scaffolding. Cale had to leave to do some other work so I met and chatted with a bunch of the locals getting things setup. There was a spirit of excitement and happiness in anticipation for the festival the next day.

 

Once the area was all setup they setup the blanket toss for a test run. The blanket is attached to long pieces of wood that are attached to each other and firmly planted in the ground in four sections. Each base is tied together and ropes at the top are attached to the blanket. Once that was setup people started jumping. Unlike a trampoline, the person on the blanket does not jump. A ton of people hold rope handles on the blanket and thrust it up and down. The person on the blanket is catapulted in the air when all the people exert upward force on the blanket. It’s quite a workout!

Once we were done we met up with a bunch of people for some food and drinks. It was 10 pm and the sun was still up like it was 2 pm. I knew the sun was going to be up all day but to see it just rotate around the sky at the same angle relative to the horizon for 24 hours is jarring. Mayor Patkotak told me that we would be getting started at 5:30 am. I thought he was joking. He was not. The whaling crews wake up early to raise their flags at 6 am for the Nalukataq! We headed back to Cale’s soon after. I fell asleep around 11:30 pm with the sun shining bright through a few gaps in the blinds.

If you know me you know I absolutely hate waking up early. So waking up at 5:30 am with the sun up like it was the middle of the afternoon was not a great start. We headed over for the raising of the flags. Then it started to get real. Cale dropped me off at a big garage where they were preparing to get a bunch of the food to the Nalukataq.

What became evident to me quickly was the amount of work that goes into the one day festival is immense. It’s literally months of work and preparation that includes catching the whale, cutting it up, storing it, and then preparing it and all kinds of other food and desserts. It’s a great deal of work and extremely important to the culture of the Iñupiat people.

I was tasked with helping with the mikigaq, fermented whale which is considered a delicacy to the Iñupiat. The mikigaq is fermented in plastic containers for several weeks. When it’s done it needs to be poured into buckets for serving. I will be honest, the smell of it was intense and something I was not prepared for. Experiencing that at 7 am was a hell of way to wake up. I helped another guy hold the containers while a woman scooped the mikigaq into buckets with her bare hands. They absolutely loved the stuff! I was still coming around.

Once we were done I helped with some clean up and then met up with Cale. We headed to breakfast at the Top of the World hotel with Mayor Patkotak and several whaling captains and their crews. I got to know many of them over the two days I spent in Barrow. They were all down to earth and very friendly and inviting. One thing I noticed at the hotel was a bunch of older white people wearing really goofy clothes and holding binoculars. I was told they were birders, who apparently come from all over to observe migratory birds on the North Slope.

After breakfast we headed a bit out of town to a large freezer to pick up the whale. This is when I should have heeded Cale’s advice about wearing clothes I did not care about. I was wearing a pair of nice jeans and my North Face hoodie. When the whale is killed it’s cut up and stored into large plastic sacks. There must have been a hundred of these sacks in a large freezer container. Not wanting to just watch, I got into a line to help load them onto a trailer. Each sack was handed off from one person to another in a very efficient manner. I had not expected to be doing this so I was not wearing gloves. What I quickly realized was my hands and hoodie were completely covered in whale oil. If you have never smelled this stuff it’s a smell you won’t ever forget. And getting it out of clothes is nearly impossible. I have only just gotten the smell off my hands.

When we were done loading whale one we headed to a different kind of freezer to load up whale two. This whale was stored in a underground ice cellar in the permafrost, known as a sigluaq. Someone was down there loading the bags into a large bucket. Mayor Patkotak pulled them up using a rope attached to the bucket. This whale was smaller than the first one, but it was still a lot of sacks. And more whale oil!

We then headed back to the main area where the Nalukataq was being held. The first thing I did was sneak across the street to the Top of the World hotel to wash my hands and attempt to get the whale smell out of my hoodie. I succeeded in washing my hands but failed miserably getting rid of the smell. I put my gloves on but those ended up getting covered in whale oil too!

Once I got back I was put to work by Laura Patkotak, Josiah Patkotak’s mom. I was partnered with a woman named Sarah, who is interning at the Borough for the summer in the law department. She’s starting her third year of law school in the fall. She was a great partner! We started by serving different kinds of soup to all the people attending. But before that many community elders started off the festival with a big welcome and prayers. You could feel just how important the whale is to their culture. It’s hard to put into the words the respect and gratitude they have for the whale.

The area is divided up into numbered sections. Different teams take food to the different sections. Mayor Patkotak was the emcee for the event. If I ever get married I want to hire him to be the emcee. Dude has jokes. Part of his emcee duties were to inform everyone what was being served and make sure everyone was taken care of. There were a lot of people in attendance. Soup, bread, and desserts are served first. Then the whale. The whole thing lasts many hours.

The different parts of the whale are served at different times. And they make it clear how many pieces each family can get as to not run out. Everyone is respectful but a few people might have tried to get an extra piece or two! Some of the people were amused seeing two white people, who were clear first timers, serving the whale. When we got to serving the mikigaq, Sarah and I were given a bucket and were sent to a section. Thankfully someone figured out this was a bad idea. Mikigaq is a delicacy and is in high demand. It was made clear that each family would get a large handful. The woman who came over told us we would for sure not be able to say no when people asked for more, so we were replaced for that one. She was definitely right!

While I was sitting down taking a break I was given some mikigaq to try. It was not bad but was definitely a unique taste. Even after I swallowed it I could still taste it. Stan Brower from Wainwright, that I had met earlier, suggested I eat some of his pickled whale to kill the taste. It definitely did that. But the piece of pickled whale he gave me was so spicy that I spent the next ten minutes trying to find milk. I was unsuccessful.

When the food part of the Nalukataq concluded, there was a little break before the blanket toss. When we came back for the blanket toss I realized that my face had gotten sunburnt. In addition to the sun being up 24 hours a day, I learned that the sun hits different at 71 degrees north latitude. I asked several locals if they had any sunscreen. I was mostly met with laughter. My friend Robyn Burke gave me a ride to the Stuaqak, the store owned by Mark Begich, to look for sunscreen. I found the last small bottle! It cost $9, but I would have paid more. The high prices of food and goods in that store really puts life up there in perspective.

Back at the blanket toss there was excitement in the air. Sun screened up, I was helping pull the blanket up and down for those jumping. Many of them threw large bags of candy in the air that the kids ran around to quickly collect. Some of the more experienced people could do back flips on the blanket! After someone is done, there is a massive competition for those who want to go next. They rush to get lifted onto the blanket and be the first one to stand up. After a while I decided I would give it a shot. Bad idea. I quickly got a boost to get on the blanket. But before I could stand up another person on the blanket kicked me hard in the face! I sure hope it was an accident. Because the next thing I knew I had flipped backwards head over heels off the blanket and onto the ground right on my ass. I did not make a second attempt to get on the blanket. Minus the kick in the face, the blanket toss was a ton of fun.

After the blanket toss was done we all headed to the elementary school to watch drumming and dancing. This was incredible to watch and participate in. But it was 11 pm at this point and I was pretty exhausted. The day before Mayor Patkotak told me it was going to be a 6 am to 6 am party. Just like when he told me we would be getting started at 5:30 am and I thought he was kidding, I also thought he was kidding about that. He was not.

After the drumming and dancing, a bunch of us headed to a garage to hang out and continue the celebration. A lot of the men were playing games. One involves two men laying on the floor on their stomachs and interlocking middle fingers. Then they pull to see who rolls over first. It’s kind of like arm wrestling but with the middle finger instead. I tried that one but stood no chance. Another involves two men sitting down with their legs out, facing each other, while both grip a wooden dowel. Both keep pulling until someone lets go. These games make it clear just how important hand strength is in their culture.

By 4 am I was beat. Cale and I left to go back and get some sleep. But before I left Mayor Patkotak told me one thing I won’t forget. He asked me what I thought the day signified. I responded by saying the longest day of the year as it was summer solstice. He said no, it signifies the first day of the next whaling season. Whaling is a way of life for the Iñupiat. If you ever think or hear someone say that they should stop hunting whales or don’t need to do it anymore, understand that whaling is an integral part of their culture. And they don’t do it for money. All the work leading up to the Nalukataq is volunteer. And all the whale and food they give away to the community is all free. This is why a strong economy (resource development) is also now an integral part of their culture. They are both linked.

A big thanks to Mayor Patkotak and all those who let me experience and take part in a deeply important cultural event. It’s something I will never forget.

Other Happenings 

Anchorage Mayor-elect Suzanne LaFrance made two more key staff announcements this week. Bill Falsey, a former municipal manager who served in the Berkowitz administration, will serve as chief administrative officer, a new position. Eva Gardner will serve as the municipal attorney. LaFrance also announced that her inauguration ceremony will be held at Town Square Park on July 1 from 12 pm – 1 pm.

Legislative Budget and Audit is meeting tomorrow morning. One of the items is “Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation update.” Very interesting.

Donald Trump endorsed Nancy Dahlstrom for Congress this week. He also managed to attack Republican Nick Begich and Mary Peltola at the same time. It’s starting to get loose!

Representative Dan Ortiz (I – Ketchikan) and former Representative Bill Thomas both officially withdrew from their races this week. Both had previously announced they were withdrawing.

This Week’s Loose Unit

For this week’s designee we head up to North Pole. This week’s Loose Unit is now-former Mayor Mike Welch. Welch was relieved of his duties this week after an executive session of the North Pole City Council. It apparently had to do with some procurement issues involving the repainting of some candy cane light poles. That is very loose.

Welch had suffered a concussion earlier this year but returned to work in April. But what is really loose about the whole thing is Welch voted for his own ouster! Welch had also filed to challenge Representative Mike Prax (R – North Pole). According to this News-Miner article, Welch’s number has been disconnected. Very loose. It seems Mike Prax has done it again and will once again be effectively unopposed.

If you have a nomination for this week’s Loose Unit, or if you have any political news, stories or gossip (or any old pics of politicians or public officials) please email me at jeff@alaskalandmine.com.

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andy
24 days ago

You are so lucky to attend a Nalukataq. I loved traveling to Barrow for work, though I was usually there around winter solstice more than summer.
The bag chaos at the airport is a right of passage. Chinese buffet at Sam and Lee’s, $10/ga milk at the AC, industrial strength seagulls by dumpsters with hand painted messages like “Alaska Natives are the Healthiest People in the World”, ” Smokers Lose, Quitters Win”, and “Dab 4 Life”.
I told my wife our next home will be on Cake Eater Rd.

floridawoman
24 days ago

You might want to check if Welch had a TBI.
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Great write up….fermented whale is an acquired taste I never aquired.

Media Critic
23 days ago

My favorite part of the story was Jeff getting kicked hard in his face. That should happen more often.

Akwhitty
23 days ago

That’s a Whale of a tale Jeff. Nice read.

WhalingCapt’sWife
22 days ago

So glad you made it up north Jeff!!

Hugh Wade
18 days ago

“Loose Unit” is cool. Pointing out, and calling out, bullshit and bullshitters that aren’t otherwise recognized for their loose-unit-ness. Could you make it a separate section, and maybe even have a Hall of Fame with Links and pictures of each offending individual? Whatever you do, keep doing it, and thanks for doing it!