In early May, as tensions at the state capital were beginning to simmer over the budget, Rep. Josiah Patkotak was facing a different sort of challenge: the explosive in his harpoon wasn’t igniting.
“When I nicked the rope that’s attached to the toggle harpoon it stopped the momentum of the whole assembly,” he said. “The bomb didn’t get triggered.”
Patkotak was in a small aluminum boat on a lead in the ice with two other crew members between the Chukchi and the Beaufort Sea north of Utqiaġvik. The explosive was lodged in a 38-foot bowhead whale during its spring migration. Patkotak said it was unusual that the whale didn’t dive after his first strike, allowing the crew to hit it again. The second strike had enough force to trigger the explosive cap in his harpoon, which helped kill the whale quickly.
“It was a really good whale to catch,” said Patkotak. “It had really good unaaliq, we boil skin and blubber and eat that.”
Patkotak has continued subsistence whale hunting for the last three years as he’s served in Alaska’s House of Representatives. It might make him the only legislator in the state’s history to leave during session for a subsistence whale hunt. Reggie Joule, a former Democratic representative who represented the huge region from Utqiaġvik to Little Diomede Island and the Bering Straits for nearly two decades beginning in the mid-90s, said he can’t recall any precedent.
“The fact that he made the decision to and continues to engage in subsistence, especially for whaling — I think is a pretty incredible statement,” said Joule.
That statement, Joule said, is that feeding the community comes before all else. Joule himself gave up whaling shortly before being elected to the Legislature, and can’t recall others leaving during the session for other subsistence activities. He said part of the reason others haven’t left is the timing: most subsistence activities take place in the fall and summer.
“If it came to moose hunting season — you’d see people leaving, make no mistake,” he said.
Leaving during the session comes at a cost. Patkotak said he’s heard some grumblings from fellow legislators about his absences. Between lobbying for opening the Willow oil development in Washington, D.C., and his two-week trip home that included his whaling trip, Patkotak missed more than 50 votes, more than any other legislator. The committee he chairs hasn’t met this session.
Despite that, fellow legislators acknowledged the importance of subsistence traditions.
“Whaling is really important for his community. And when they catch a whale, like, you know, it helps out a lot of people and puts food on a lot of people’s table,” said Rep. CJ McCormick, a Democrat from Bethel, a region also heavily dependent on subsistence. “I think it’s awesome that he gets to do that.”
Patkotak said it’s also important in a more civic way.
“Arguably, you’re living the same, if not similar, life as the people that you’re representing,” he said. “The folks at District 40 are predominantly Iñupiaq people that live a cultural subsistence lifestyle.”
After killing the whale, Patkotak and his crew hauled the 40-ton bowhead onto the frozen sea ice. He and his crew got to work cutting it up. Within a day or two, they’d boiled it, then packaged it in Ziploc bags together with Cool Whip and berries or sugar and dried fruit.
“You get on the VHF and you say, ‘Everybody come in and we’ll bless the food,'” he said. “Say a prayer, bless the food, and then invite everybody over to come and eat.”
He also brought whale meat to Juneau and shares it with his wife and three kids — and whichever legislators will take it.
He said the cooperation needed for a successful whaling hunt — from sewing skin boats to keeping watch for the season’s first migrating whales in subzero weather — is an important lesson.
“You can have those disagreements with them, but when it comes time for whaling, we all work together with the community to feed the community because we understand the important aspect of being able to eat that traditional food,” he said. “It rises above all of that other stuff.”
He said he’s not sure which is harder: coming up with a budget, or whaling. But he said he knows he’d much rather be whaling.