Museum of Nature: Exhibition explains truth behind Inuvialuit beluga hunt

It’s a wonder that city-dwelling guardians of the natural universe haven’t yet condemned the hunting of belugas, those white whales that are seen in meme videos being curious, playful and cute — so far as something as big as a whale can be cute.

The hunt, which may seem anachronistic, continues to this day, as seen in a new, compact exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. It continues because the annual harvest remains vitally important to the people of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, which “extends from the western Canadian Arctic islands to the Beaufort Sea coast and Mackenzie River delta.” Though the tools have changed — whales once hunted from kayaks are now stalked using motorboats —  Inuvialuit people still seek the whales each summer in the Mackenzie River estuary.

To say the hunt is bountiful is an understatement. A single whale provides food for an entire family for an entire year. In a part of the world where survival has always demanded resourcefulness, practically no part of the whale is wasted.

The exhibition takes the viewer through the entire history of the hunt, and how it’s done. There’s information on how the whales find (echolocation) their own food (small fish), where they live off the northern coasts of Canada, and how they migrate to the mouth of the Mackenzie in late June — just in time “for a community feast during Canada Day celebrations in Tuktoyaktuk.”

The exhibit also explains how while beluga populations in some parts of Canada are endangered, those being hunted remain stable due to careful management between the Inuvialuit hunters and the federal government.

Amid such tales of bureaucracy there is humour:  a panel shows how, across cultures, mothers-in-law sometimes get no respect. “According to Inuvialuit legend, a long time ago a young man threw his hated stepmother into the ocean. She became a beluga whale, and the sound of her complaining gives belugas their Inuvialuktun name: qilalukkat.”

The exhibition is formally titled Qilalukkat! Belugas and Inuvialuit: Our Survival Together, and it was curated by Myrna Pokiak, firstly at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.

Myrna Pokiak. Courtesy Museum of Nature

Pokiak, a cultural educator, lives in Yellowknife with her husband and three young daughters, but grew up by the sea in Tuktoyaktuk. Recently, she took her daughters back to the region to experience the cultural tradition of the whale harvest, and to see how and why it remains so important.

“I am obligated to teach my daughters our history, the traditions my family continues to practice, and experiences like the beluga whale harvest — a necessity for the physical, spiritual and mental health of Inuvialuit families and communities,” Pokiak says.

There’s much in the exhibit to keep young visitors interested. Artifacts include a beluga skull, carvings of whales and hunters, and real, deadly harpoons. There are buttons to push to learn how to pronounce words such as “mipku” (dried meat), and “ulu” (woman’s knife), and “mamaqquiarnaqtut!” (delicious!).

There’s a full-size reproduction of a smoke house, where driftwood fuel is used to smoke and dry hearty slabs of skin, blubber and meat. There’s even a realistic looking artificial fire, complete with smoke, which is a nice touch of atmosphere.

The smokehouse. Courtesy Museum of Nature

Next to the smokehouse is information about the community ice house in Tuktoyaktuk, built in the 1960s (Pokiak’s grandfather was project foreman) and “one of the few in the world still in use today.” The ice house is, an accompanying video explains, “built deep within the permanently frozen ground.”

It’s all part of an ancient, balanced relationship, where every part of the whale has its use. A whale-shaped exhibit offers flaps that can be lifted to reveal the use of that part of the whale — the meat, the organs, the skin, the oil. It’s another example of a resourcefulness and a respect for the natural world that most of we city dwellers can hardly comprehend.

Qilalukkat! Belugas and Inuvialuit: Our Survival Together is on and the Museum of Nature until September 2021. For more:

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.