Eugene Brower

Former President of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, Whaling Captain, and Iñupiaq Elder 

Inupiaq Eskimo elder and whaling captain Eugene Brower knows the ice in the Chukchi Sea off Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska, through many thousands of hours hunting the bowhead whale. Out there, he has seen some amazing things. Eugene was born in 1948 to Annie (Qaġġun) and Harry (Kupaaq) Brower, Sr., and his growing up was focused on living off the land. Some of his earliest memories are of living in a small sod house at Iviksuk on the tundra inland from Utqiagvik. He learned to hunt, fish, trap, run a dog team, and be a whaler from his father, who was an accomplished subsistence provider for his family. Eugene started whaling at age eight under the mentorship of Luther Leavitt, Sr., and became a harpooner at age twenty-seven in his father’s whaling crew (Kupaaq Crew). In the early 1990s, when his father became ill and was no longer able to go whaling, Eugene was put in charge of their crew. He started his own Aalaak Crew around 1992, after his father passed away. Eugene was mayor of the North Slope Borough from 1981-1984, and in 2005 retired as Fire Chief from the North Slope Borough Fire Department. Currently, he is on the Board of Directors of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), and President of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association.

Interviews

2009

Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, recounts a remarkable encounter with a polar bear, which he considers the most memorable experience from his lifetime of hunting and observing wild game. He describes the scene on the shorefast ice, where he and his family witnessed a polar bear about a quarter of a mile away. As they watched, belugas at the edge of the ice. Suddenly, the massive polar bear emerged from the water and climbed onto the ice. Eugene marvels at the bear’s strength as it effortlessly lifted and maneuvered blocks of ice. The bear stood on its hind legs, surveying the surroundings, and then dropped the ice on a beluga and with a single swipe of its paw extracted the prey from the water.

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Eugene Brower, Iñupiaq elder from Utqiaġvik, Alaska, discusses the challenging transition from a subsistence lifestyle to a cash-based economy. He explains that while the availability of cash brought convenience and access to necessary products like groceries, ammunition, and rifles, it also introduced financial burdens with the high cost of supplies for hunting such as the casings, fuses, black powder, and plastic caps. Eugene acknowledges that the rate of return on their investments is uncertain, but it is necessary to continue spending significant amounts, ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 per season, in order to continue the traditions of the Iñupiat. Maintaining snow machines alone requires a substantial financial commitment, with annual costs reaching approximately $1,000. Eugene expresses his concerns about replacing outdated snow machines, highlighting that some of his equipment dates back to the 1980s with 15,000 miles of use. These remarks shed light on the financial pressures faced by individuals transitioning from traditional subsistence practices to a cash economy in the context of hunting and living in the Arctic region.

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Eugene Brower, an experienced observer of Arctic ice and whale migration, in the days before satellite technology, relied on his own observations while walking across the frozen landscapes. He explains how he would search for logical spots and landmarks, such as the Will Roger Wiley Post monument, to gauge the movement of ice and the path of the whales. The whales, he notes, follow a specific route between points, avoiding sudden turns along the shoreline. Eugene recounts a journey that took 16 days to cover a trail of about 16 miles, highlighting the challenges involved. He describes the presence of multiple crews and the teamwork required to track and strike the whales. Eugene reflects on the migration patterns of the whales, noting how they steadily travel north while communicating with each other through sounds that carry over long distances. His firsthand experiences offer valuable insights into the behavior and movement of these majestic creatures in the Arctic waters.

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Eugene Brower reflects on his various roles and positions of leadership in the community of Barrow, now called Utqiaġvik, Alaska. He mentions becoming the president of the Barrow Whaling Captain Association in 1972 and subsequently being re-elected and serving as president multiple times. Eugene also mentions stepping down from the position, hoping that someone else would take over the responsibility of managing the whalers. He briefly mentions his three-year term as the mayor of Barrow for one term, and his involvement in the city council. Eugene highlights the need to be a jack of all trades to survive in the old days, mentioning his varied roles as an equipment operator, laborer, and electronic technician. Eugene shares his humble beginnings in a sod hut, where he never could have imagined one day becoming the mayor of Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska.

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Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower shares his knowledge about the design and behavior of sealskin boats in the Arctic. He explains that sealskin boats are intentionally designed to be quiet, allowing hunters to approach seals without being detected. Eugene emphasizes the importance of paying attention to wind direction, as seals have a keen sense of smell and can detect human presence. To minimize any scents, one side of camp on the ice is kept clean, while activities such as cooking, disposing of coffee grounds, and using the bathroom are carried out on the far side of camp, away from passing whales. This careful separation ensures that whales won’t catch any human scent from the camp. The bowhead whale, Eugene says, can even sense the presence of humans underwater and can react by submerging deeper or altering their behavior. Hunters have to remain still and quiet while observing approaching whales. These insights provide a glimpse into the tactics and strategies employed by hunters in sealskin boats as they navigate the Arctic waters and interact with the natural behaviors of whales.

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Eugene Brower of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, discusses his role as a whaler and the responsibilities he took on when his father fell ill. He talks about being a half owner in his family’s whaling crew from the age of 27. Taking on a crew at a young age, Eugene learned how to select the campsite, determine the placement of the boats on the ice, and assess the ice conditions. He reflects on the challenges of interpreting ice formations, pressure ridges, currents, and the impact on the ice of winds from different directions. Eugene acknowledges that he made a few mistakes initially but managed to survive and learn from those experiences. He mentions their preparations for the upcoming whaling season. He notes that the crew size varies from 12 to 16 members, depending on the year and the level of success in their whaling activities. Eugene emphasizes that a successful season leads to a larger crew over time.

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Eugene Brower recounts an encounter with a rogue walrus that lives in the pack ice year-round and preys on seals. As they paddled closer, the animal’s massive grayish head emerged from the water, revealing its impressive size. Excitedly, Eugene and his companions started paddling back to shore, fearing it might attack them. Their boat was moving so swiftly that when they reached the ice, it launched them into the air. The ice was only about as thick as their arms’ length. The walrus came alongside them and emitted a loud noise, stopped to observe the men closely. Eugene estimated the walrus to be about 12 feet wide and over 20 feet long, making it the largest walrus he had ever seen. Initially, the group considered shooting the walrus, but Eugene’s father intervened, reminding them that it was an animal living in its natural habitat, sustaining itself by feeding on seals. His father emphasized the importance of letting the walrus be, as provoking it could result in destructive behavior, such as breaking up the ice they were on. Eugene’s father warned that the walrus could easily break the ice if it came in fast and went on top. This captivating story offers a glimpse into the awe-inspiring encounter with a magnificent marine creature and the wisdom of respecting nature’s balance.

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Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower recounts a memorable encounter with a white whale. He describes how he was initially preparing to harpoon the whale, estimating it to be around 25 to 27 feet long. However, his father, who had been sleeping in the tent, suddenly emerged and urged him not to strike, emphasizing the rarity and preciousness of this white whale. Frozen in response to his father’s intervention, Eugene ultimately decided not to throw the harpoon. He reflects on how he now finds himself in a similar position, advising his own crew members and saying “no” when necessary, explaining the reasons behind his decisions. Eugene shares that he has encountered the same white whale four different times, recognizing it by a distinct mark on its blowhole. He mentions that each whale has unique markings, allowing each one to be identified over time.

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Eugene Brower, an experienced Alaskan whaler, shares his journey from a young helper to a skilled harpooner and captain, demonstrating deep knowledge of whale anatomy and behavior.

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Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower shares memories of his childhood and the challenging living conditions his family faced. He describes their small living space, which was about 8 by 10 or 10 by 12 feet in size, with a unique makeshift stove made from a five-gallon GI can. The stove was fueled variously by blubber, wood, and coal obtained through bartering. Eugene reminisces about their modes of transportation, from using small boats made with caribou skins and dog sleds in winter to later transitioning to snow machines. He recounts the journey they would take from their camp down the river and along the coastline to reach Browerville, a cluster of houses where his grandfather’s two-story house stood. He mentions the original trading post, which is now a restaurant, and how they would visit the store for supplies, traveling with dog teams and sleds. Eugene reflects on the isolation of their living situation and the changes they experienced over time. This narrative provides a glimpse into Eugene Brower’s upbringing in a remote area before Barrow, now Utqiaġvik, Alaska, was a bigger town, and the resourcefulness required to navigate the harsh Arctic environment.

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In this conversation with Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower describes the process of setting up a fishing net under solid ice. He explains that his father used a two-by-four piece of wood, cut to about half an inch thick, and wrapped the ends tightly with grooves. This created a 16-foot long stick. They would start by cutting a hole in the ice, then lay out the net, cutting holes along the way until reaching the other end. A twine with a weight would be dropped through the holes, and a piece of wire with a coil was used to hook and pull the twine from hole to hole, eventually reaching the other side. They would then place the net on that side and pull it underneath the ice, spanning about 50 to 60 feet. Eugene’s father had homemade tools, including a small block to measure the width of the mesh. He would continually adjust the net. Additionally, pieces of whale ribs, obtained after drying out and removing the meat, were used as weights for the net. A float, made from a flat piece of wood about three to four inches long, was attached to the top of the net.

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Eugene Brower shares his experiences as a harpooner during his whaling days. At the age of 27, after 19 years of experience, Eugene became a harpooner. He recalls his first harpooning attempt, where he mistakenly threw the harpoon like a javelin, missing the whale entirely. This frustrated his father, who left in silence and returned hours later with a wooden post. Eugene’s father crafted a new harpoon handle by attaching the brass portion of the harpoon to the post and securing it with a small nail. After reloading the harpoon, Eugene tested its weight and found it to be heavy but satisfactory. Another whale surfaced in front of them, and Eugene, using all his strength, successfully struck it with the improved harpoon. The harpoon penetrated and immobilized the whale. Overjoyed by his first successful strike, Eugene and the crew tightly secured the whale and paddled back to shore. His father, impressed by the accomplishment, advised him that he didn’t need to throw the harpoon as forcefully next time. Eugene reflects on the exhilaration and sense of achievement he felt in that moment, as he had struck his first whale and experienced an indescribable rush of emotions.

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2022

Peter Lourie, Paul Shepson, Craig George, and Eugene Brower engage in a conversation discussing Eugene’s retirement from the Barrow Whaling Captains Association after 41 years as president. Due to health issues, he transferred his whaling equipment to his son Frederick Brower, who has become a successful and confident young captain. The crew consists of family members, including Eugene’s brother, uncle, and other experienced whalers. Recently the town has had a successful whaling season, landing all 15 whales without any losses. The crew size varies but is typically around 16 people. While traditional skin boats are still used, the process of preparing the boats and equipment has evolved over time, with advancements like ready-made skins and synthetic materials simplifying the process compared to traditional methods.

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In a captivating zoom conversation with Peter Lourie, Paul Shepson, and Utqiaġvik resident Dr. Craig George, Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower shares his early experiences with whaling and how it has evolved over the years. He recounts his childhood initiation into whaling, learning from his father and his uncle, Luther Leavitt Sr. Eugene reflects on the past, reminiscing about the challenges of traversing pressure ridges with dogs and sleds. He describes traditional techniques for safe ice travel and the importance of understanding whale behavior. As the conversation progresses, Eugene and Peter discuss the changing population of whales and their awe-inspiring presence in the ocean. Eugene also discusses the practical aspects of whaling, from cooking blubber to the construction of skin boats using driftwood. Despite the physical demands and harsh conditions of whaling, Eugene’s passion for the hunt perseveres, and he proudly shares the legacy of his family’s involvement in this ancient Arctic tradition.

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Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower recounts his early experiences as a harpooner and the techniques he learned. He describes how he was taught to throw harpoons balancing them like javelins, while also learning where and how to strike a moving whale. Eugene explains the use of explosive tips and black powder projectiles, highlighting the importance of timing and precision. He shares thrilling encounters with whales, including an albino beluga and a whale saving another from danger. Eugene’s stories showcase the intelligence and remarkable behaviors of these majestic creatures, leaving the listeners in awe.

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In a conversation with Peter Lourie, Paul Shepson, Iñupiaq elder from Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Eugene Brower discusses changes in whaling due to climate change. Eugene shares how whaling methods have remained the same, but melting ice makes finding suitable spots to harvest whales challenging. He notes that younger generations are taking over as older whalers retire. The discussion turns to how whales can detect scents and the overall conversation highlights the importance of indigenous wisdom and its contribution to understanding the natural world.

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Eugene shares his perspective on the lack of knowledge about the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the federal government’s involvement in whaling among indigenous communities. He recounts the uproar caused by the moratorium on whaling imposed by the government, and the formation of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission to protect the Iñupiaq way of life. Eugene also describes his defiance during a grand jury hearing and the subsequent intervention of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. He highlights the unique cooperative agreement between the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the federal government, emphasizing the importance of enforcement and registration for whaling captains. Eugene expresses gratitude for Dr. Tom Albert’s support in documenting their whaling history and fighting for Iñupiaq rights. The conversation jokingly touches on Craig George, who arrived in Utqiaġvik with an Afro and was initially seen as a “hippie freak!”

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Craig George, in response to kind words from his friend Eugene Brower, explains that he started working at the animal research facility in 1977, where he met Tom Albert and developed a good working relationship. He became involved in logistical tasks and eventually joined the bowhead whale research team. In order to set up acoustic arrays and track the whales’ migration, the scientists incorporated traditional Iñupiaq knowledge about the bowheads, including their ability to swim under the ice undetected. This approach led scientists to increase abundance estimates and the verification of a population increase over time, as the Iñupiaq hunters had been telling the scientists all along. In turn, Eugene acknowledges the valuable training he himself received from both local and renowned scientists.

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Eugene discusses changes in working safely on the ice over the years. He and Craig mention the disappearance of multi-year ice, the presence of jumbled first-year ice, and the extended periods of open water due to climate change. They also mention the dangers of ice collisions and the responsibility of ensuring safety.

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Iñupiaq elder Eugene Brower is a deep well of whaling knowledge and Iñupiaq traditions. Here he talks about how much he really knows and is honored by Eskimo communities throughout the North Slope.

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