Sikujjausimajut Trapped in the Ice”

Taissumani: 2008-12-12

By Kenn Harper

Much has been written in the last few weeks about the mercy killings of 600 narwhal near Pond Inlet. Generally – and surprisingly – most of the southern media understood the situation and realized that the whales were doomed to die anyway as the patches of water in which they were entrapped became smaller and smaller and eventually froze over.

Of course, the lunatic fringe of animal rights activism condemned the cull as barbaric and the Inuit hunters as murderers. People with such closed minds will never be convinced that hunting has any place in modern society and are best ignored.

History shows that the narwhal population is very resilient. Research done some years ago by Randall Reeves and Edward Mitchell concluded that the decade from 1915 to 1924 was likely the period when the Baffin Bay – Davis Strait narwhal stock faced its greatest depletion, in part from exploitation by a British free trader, Henry Toke Munn, but also because of natural causes – including several large entrapments in the ice, similar to what happened recently.

Inuit refer to the whales caught in these entrapments as "sikujjausimajut" – literally, "those trapped in the ice." In the scientific literature, the phenomenon is usually referred to by the Greenlandic term, savssat (spelled in the old Greenlandic orthography.)

The recent hunt near Pond Inlet was mild by comparison with other historic hunts. Without providing details, Reeves and Mitchell stated, "We have reason to believe that during the ensuing decade [after 1915] two savssat hunts accounted for more than 3,000 killed narwhals."

A savssat (to continue with the Greenlandic term) usually occurs when the weather turns abruptly cold and ice forms quickly, trapping the whales in small areas of open water. They are then unable to swim under the miles of ice that separate them from the open sea.

Perhaps the most famous and well-described of all narwhal entrapments (at least until now) happened in Disko Bay, Greenland, in the severe winter of 1914-15. Morten Porsild, Director of the Danish Arctic Station at Godhavn, witnessed the events that happened there in February when two savssats formed. Porsild estimated that over 1,000 animals were killed.

Small savssats were not uncommon in Disko Bay. But these were large and news of them spread quickly and attracted hunters from far and wide, many inexperienced in this method of hunting.

The first savssat was a number of holes kept open by the narwhals in a belt of thin ice about 200 yards wide and six miles long. Porsild left a graphic description of the methods employed by the more skilled hunters:

"Every man placed himself astride a hole with his rifle loaded, awaited calmly the arrival of a school, shot one of the animals – if possible a male with a tusk – and harpooned it immediately after the shot; or, if he were exceptionally clever, he simply seized the animal by its nostrils or by one of the flippers. He then enlarged the hole, pulled his prey up, and proceeded with the flensing."

It was important that the animal be cut up while it still retained its body heat. Otherwise the carcass would quickly freeze and the task of cutting it up would require saws and axes and take much more time.

"By this procedure," reported Porsild, "the cleverest and coolest of the hunters got up to seven animals a day without leaving the spot first chosen. Others, less experienced, were not so methodical; running bewildered from one hole to another, they got as a rule nothing of their own, but had at last to content themselves with assisting others in dragging up their prey."

And some hunters, it must be said – and Porsild said it – were totally irresponsible, cutting the tusk from the dead whale and letting the carcass sink. One young hunter killed five large males in one day, taking only the tusks. "His profit for that day's work," wrote Porsild, "amounted to five months' wages of a day labourer in Greenland."

By comparison, then, the recent narwhal harvest near Pond Inlet was well managed by the Inuit themselves. They recognize these occurrences as natural. Although a tragedy for the whales, they are a godsend to the hunters who know full well that the whales are doomed to death anyway, through starvation or suffocation. Better to kill them as humanely as possible for their value in food and trade. Of course bleeding-heart bigots will never agree.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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