Gift of the Whale

The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition

The Iñupiat Eskimos have lived and hunted in the Arctic region of Alaska for 5,000 years. Central to their lifestyle and survival is the bowhead whale, a primary source not only of food, building materials, and barter goods, but also of art, legends, and cultural identity. The Iñupiat communities continue to pursue the bowhead in their annual hunt. They conduct the whale hunt under the strict supervision of federal and state agencies, and may strike between 60–80 whales in their annual season. The International Whaling Commission has allotted the Iñupiat a block quota of 255 bowhead whales from 2008–2012. The average annual number of whales landed has been forty-one over the past ten years.

The exhibition features the photography of Bill Hess, who documented the bowhead hunt in his book Gift of the Whale: The Iñupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition. With patience and openness, Hess earned the trust of the Iñupiat community, and was invited to document the hunt. His photographs share a startling and deeply moving portrait of a community fully engaged in the pursuit of the bowhead whale. The exhibition will provide visitors with a glimpse into a contemporary society that owes its survival to the hunting of whales, not unlike the island of Nantucket at the height of the Golden Age of whaling.

The exhibition will include: Photographs by Bill Hess; the documentary film The Eskimo and The Whale; an Eskimo kayak and Arctic carvings in ivory from the NHA collections; the building of a traditional Umiak by wooden boatbuilder Corey Freedman; Iñupiat music; speakers/presenters Bill Hess, Robert Hellman, Bill Tramposch, Ben Simons, and an Iñupiat whaling captain; possible video exchange with Barrow, Alaska and Nantucket school children.


The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

We use cookies to deliver our online services. Details and instructions on how to disable those cookies are set out in our Privacy Policy. By clicking I Accept, you consent to our use of cookies unless you have disabled them.

> >