harpoons (precontact) North American Arctic and Northwest Coast cultures

harpoonsA harpoon is a spearlike weapon that is used to hunt whales, seals, and walrus. Indigenous Americans, from Alaska to Greenland, hunted with sophisticated harpoon points that detached from the shaft while remaining fastened to a hand- held line. The shafts were made in sections that connected with a flexible joint, preventing them from breaking. This was an important consideration given the scarcity of wood in the Arctic. Although people from other parts of the world used harpoons, theirs did not have detachable points.

The Inuit of what is now West Greenland called harpoon hunting¬†maupok, which means “waiting” because it required extensive knowledge of the habits of sea mammals as well as the ability to predict and imitate their behavior. Aware that seals use their claws to scratch breathing holes in sea ice and revisit those holes often, a hunter would wait by one. When the seal came up to breathe the hunter would harpoon it, let it thrash and then pull it to the surface and kill it with a blow from his fist. To lure the seals closer, a hunter would sometimes place an ice pick into the ice and whistle along the shaft to imitate the sounds a seal makes or would drag an ice pick or special scratcher along the ice to rouse the seal’s curiosity. (See also CALLS, ANIMAL AND BIRD)

The Inuit also used harpoons for “peep sealing” that began with chopping a large hole in the winter ice. Hunters chopped smaller hole near this and then inserted a long-shafted harpoon into it. One man stood ready to thrust the harpoon while another stretched out on a bench, and covered his head so he could see beneath the water. When he viewed a seal swimming toward the smaller hole he would signal the man with the harpoon to spear it. Even hunting seal on land with harpoons required infinite patience. Cautious animals, seals only sleep about a minute at a time. The hunter would wait silently and when the seal slept, would move closer until he was finally in thrusting range.

When the men hunted seal from boats they attached seal bladder or sealskin floats to harpoon lines. The bladder marked the spot where the seal had been speared. It also exhausted the injured animal by providing resistance as it thrashed in the water. When the seal had given up the fight, hunters dealt the death blow and then used the harpoon line to tow it ashore. To make the latter task easier, hunters blew air into the animal’s nostrils to inflate the lungs so that it would float better.

Hunters used a number of harpoons for whale hunting. (See also WHALING.) They attached several seal skin floats to each line, so that the huge sea mammal would encounter more resistance in its efforts to flee and would tire more quickly. The whale hunters also tied floats to their boats so that they would not capsize. The Makah and Nootka people of the Northwest coast, also hunted whales with detachable pointed harpoons and floats.


Sources/Further Reading

Maxwell, James A., ed. America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest Books, 1978.

Murdoch, John. Ethnological results of the Point Barrow Expedition: Annual Report of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology 1887-1888 Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892.

Oswalt, Wendell. Eskimos and Explorers. Novato, Calif.: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1979.

Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcomb E. Washburn, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas Vol. I, Part I, North America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.