The reading box was my sanctuary; its contents ignited my imagination and sometimes appalled me. It was there that I learned about baleen, the enormous rows of sieve-like material that hang from the mouths of certain whales.
Bored to tears in Sister Mary Jane’s third grade class, I was allowed to read ahead from the reading box, one of those student self-directed classroom kits they used to market to schools in the 1960s. The readings lacked depth but the segment about whales and their baleen thrilled and horrified me. Sitting quietly at my desk, I imagined the bowhead whale moving silently through the ocean, its great maw opened to take in its meal of acres of unsuspecting plankton and krill. The thought made me shiver in fear and delight; thus began my fascination with baleen.
During a trip to Alaska in 2014, I finally got to see and touch a piece of baleen, and see the beautiful and elegant items indigenous folks make from the mysterious material. Their use of baleen is a tribute to Native peoples’ ability to make total use of everything they hunt and gather for survival.
Black baleen, the kind I learned about in school, comes from the bowhead whale, often harvested by the Inupiat people from the North Slope area of Alaska along the Arctic Sea. Bowhead whales, up to 60 feet long, weighing as much 100 tons can have 300 pieces of baleen plates in their mouths. The plates have thin bristles for straining their meals of plankton and krill and grow up to 14 feet long. Most whales, it turns out, have baleen rather than teeth.
During the commercial whaling days, baleen was used to make things like stays for corsets and buggy whips. The Inupiat, however, have been harvesting the bowhead since time immemorial and in addition to eating the animals vitamin rich meat and muktuk (layer of blubber with skin attached) they traditionally used baleen to make fishing line, cups and other containers, knife blades, harpoons and
even sled runners.
Today, artisans make jewelry, carvings and baskets from baleen that is remarkably similar to the material composing human fingernails, only much thicker, according to Everett Thompson.
Thompson of Naknek, Alaska, is an artist of Yupik and Sugpiaq descent. Although he works primarily as a commercial fisherman, he also makes ivory and baleen carvings.
Some artisans create intricate baskets from strips of baleen. The baskets can be small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand and must be woven under water in order to keep the baleen pliable.
Baleen can also be made into plates and carved much like scrimshaw, according to Thompson. Although, the income from his artwork isn’t enough to earn him a living, Thompson claims that time spent creating carvings is an important reminder for him of how his ancestors survived in the harsh climate of the arctic.
“This has been a lifesaver for me,” he says. “It reminds me that our traditional ways sustain our spirits as well as our bodies.”