Tomorrow morning my three months in Barrow are up and I will be headed south to the lower 48. After a whirlwind last day, I am torn with excitement to see my family and friends, and sorrow to be leaving my new family and friends in Barrow.
Last Thursday, on Thanksgiving, I really learned what this community is about. I had been told that traditional Iñupiat culture is based on sharing. I had also been told that the harvested muktuk and meat from the whales is shared with the whole community. Yet I didn’t really understand the scope of the sharing until I helped “serve.” A new friend of mine, and whaling captain, Herman Ahsoak, invited me to join him in “serving” the community at the Presbyterian Church on Thanksgiving. I didn’t really know what this meant, but without any other plans for Thanksgiving, I thought, why not?
I arrived around 11am Thanksgiving morning and men were hauling box after box from truck beds into the church. It was dark and cold and car exhaust was swirling in the red and white of idling cars. In the church kitchen I had to wear my down jacket as the room filled with a piles of frozen boxes. Women streamed in with huge pots of caribou, duck and goose soup. Coffee was brewed up by the gallon. And as the church began to fill, I was put on coffee duty, serving those entering the pews with their coolers, settling in for a long day.
All the servers worked in the back, emptying frozen boxes of muktuk into rows of bins. Around 1pm, when everything was finally ready, the servers all paired up, one man and one woman, and were given a number. The number designated the section of rows that team was responsible for serving. As number 2, Herman and I lined up at the beginning of the servers, and carrying a pot of caribou soup, we made our way up the aisle to begin. One by one I ladled a scoop of soup into families bowls they had brought from home. The people sitting in my section were excited for the serving to begin and they all dug into their steaming caribou soup. Next we served blocks of muktuk, three large pieces per family. And then we served more muktuk, this time 4 per family. And finally on the last serving of muktuk, we gave out 12 per family! We followed the same process for whale meat, whale fin, fish, and finally stewed fruit. Between each round, the servers head to the back room and refill their bins again to the brim with meat to be passed out.
So where does this meat come from? A certain section of every whale harvested in the spring and fall is set aside to be passed out to the community on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The crews and their families work hard to cut and prepare the whale, soup and other foods that are passed out to the community. And this happens at every church in town. Each whaling crew passes out boxes of meat to every church. After 5 hours of serving, families left the church carrying coolers full of food for the winter season. Now that’s sharing!
Then, only two days later, on Saturday, a friend of mine, Jenn, and I joined Herman’s family to help them cut up more muktuk for Christmas. After spending 5 hours serving, and who knows how many hours preparing to serve, Herman and his family were already preparing to do it all over again on Christmas.
While this Thanksgiving was by no means the traditional American Thanksgiving I was used to, I am so very thankful to Herman and his family for inviting me to help serve the community and be a part of their Thanksgiving tradition. (I have to admit, however, that I did have a very nice traditional Thanksgiving turkey after serving, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds!).
As I prepare to leave tomorrow morning, I am so grateful for all of the wonderful times I have experienced here in Barrow. So many people have opened their hearts, stories and homes up to me and I will never forget the hospitality and kindness that I have been shown.