Eddie Bodfish

Iñupiaq Elder from Wainwright, AK, descendant of a Boston whaler

Eddie grew up in Wainwright, Alaska, a small Inupiaq village south of Utqiagvik, now called Utqiagvik. Here he talks about what it was like to grow up out at fish camp for three months of the year and then start whaling for his father’s crew until he went to high school in Sitka, Alaska.

He talks about how whaling crews had to walk 9-15 miles out on the ice to get the whales because Wainwright, unlike Utqiagvik, is tucked into a bay, and to get the whales, the whalers have to walk out to the open sea where the whales pass during migrations.

Interviews

2009

Eddie Bodfish, who was born (May 17, 1941) and raised in Wainwright, Alaska, and who worked many years as airport manager for the North Slope Borough, shares his adventures growing up in a small town and living a traditional lifestyle centered around hunting, fishing, and whaling. When he was young, there were no jobs so he grew up spending summers at Fish Camp, where he trapped red fox and hunted ptarmigan, ground squirrels and as many as 40 caribou in a summer in order to feed the family for the whole year. He took his homework from school and remained at fish camp until the day before Thanksgiving. They had dogs at camp but he remembers walking 25-30 miles in a day to check 14 traps, set far apart. At 9 years old Eddie started whaling. He and his brothers would leave school and walk 9-18 miles out on the ice to their family whaling camp and come home days later. (Wainright whale camps are farther out from land than camps in Utqiaġvik because Wainright was built on a bay and not a point jutting into the ocean). He describes becoming a harpooner at 13 or 14 years old and eventually running his own whaling crew. Whaling with sled dogs in those days was a whole different situation than using snow machines as whaling crews do today. Eddie’s story offers a captivating glimpse into Alaska’s wilderness and the rich cultural heritage of indigenous communities.

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Eddie Bodfish, a native of Wainwright, Alaska, shares his experiences of attending high school in Sitka and his subsequent career in engineering and airport renovation. Despite his ventures outside of Alaska, Eddie’s passion for whaling remained, and he fondly recalls stories from his days as a whaler. He discusses the challenges of hunting whales on the ice and the clever tactics employed by the whales to evade capture. Lots of personal stories here, including falling through the ice when he was a teenager chasing a whale and harpooning a young whale that had just nudged his boat and “given itself” to the hunters. Eddie also reflects on the changing regulations imposed on indigenous communities and the impact on their traditional way of life. He highlights the difficulty faced by those without jobs in providing for their families and mentions the importance of seal hunting during tough times. Additionally, Eddie reminisces about the abundance of polar bears in the past and the significant increase in the value of their skins. Polar bears are still hunted for their skins in Canada but not here on the North Slope of Alaska.

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