Uasau Soap: Weaving The Arctic World Together
Silently, I move towards destiny. Quietly, you Iñupiat, await my destiny. I can hear you as I move, I can see you as I surface. Together we wait, both know what the other thinks. Although we live in different worlds, we exist for each other. I move towards you Inupiat, because it is my destiny. You wait for me because I am your destiny. Quietly, I approach you, silently you move towards me. I give you your culture. I give you myself, Bowhead Whale. – Joseph Sikvayugak recounting what the Bowhead Whale spoke to him before the hunt in Alaska on September 27, 2019
While it may sound unimaginable to think that a whale would speak, let alone to the person or people who will take the life of the whale I’d urge you to take some time and read this incredible account of how a deep relationship between humans and whales might be forged and how modern scientists are turning to indigenous people for their understanding about how whales live.
Regardless of your thoughts on this mystery, whaling among the Iñupiat fosters relations. Thickens the bands of kinship. Weaves the Arctic world together. Death feeds life there. No other way. Among humans, family and communal ties are strengthened and renewed through hunting and sharing of the body of the whale. Between the Iñupiat and the land and water the relationship is deepened as well. And the relationship between the Bowhead and the Iñupiat is also enriched year after year.
The Bowhead can reach 200 years old and sixty feet long and can weigh a ton per foot or more. They are sleek black barnacled giants and due to their attractive size were hunted commercially nearly to extinction. While the whales certainly suffered due to the hunt, the social and cultural vibrancy of Iñupiat also suffered as well. But in the last forty years the whales and Iñupiat have had a revival together with both populations finding their way back with their cultures braided together. Iñupiat ethics and worldview are rooted in the physical and spiritual relationship and admiration for the Bowhead who holds a central place in the subsistence spiral consisting of annual sets of cultural and social events and practices that rhythmically organize community life.
A whale hunt isn’t like hunting for a deer where there are just untold numbers of them out there and you can basically sit in blind and knock out a few in a day with a rifle scope. Not that it is absent skill to hunt deer but the whole endeavor is that much harder. There is a manner of approach. There are people to gather in, gifts for the land and the whale, and prayers to be spoken. There is nothing immediate or inevitable.
Now as I understand it and have read, there is a special relationship between the captain and the whale. While the whole village prays for the whale so that they might be well fed in all dimensions, the captain dreams of the whale and courts the whale in the dreamspace and if all goes well the Iñupiat understanding is that the whale gives himself to the captain in order to feed the people and deepen the Iñupiat culture. In exchange the captain organizes events to honor the whale individually but also the entire Bowhead population and that celebration is both within and beyond the population of the town where the captain lives.
It is very easy to romanticize this old path as beautiful as it is and that only the old ways will do. But Iñupiat use exploding harpoons and powered snowmobiles and outboard motors and English right along with Iñupiaq language and all the dances and drumming and song and storytelling. So these good people have wrestled with colonization and the near destruction of their culture and foodways to be in dynamic tension with the modern world.
I share all this because I am lucky enough to have the beginnings of friendship with Bernice and Justin Clarke who live in Nunavut, the vast Arctic province of Canada. May I be lucky enough to have enough time in with them via internet powered conversation and, if I’m doubly lucky to one day, in person, make true friends of them and I. Bernice is Inuk and she and her husband make soap made of the fat of the Bowhead whale. All their products are so profoundly from the place they live.
Their company is Uasau Soaps.
When Bernice, Justin, and I first spoke via a video call we had the shared experience of being a small business owner and maker but with the rare twist of knowing what it is to wrestle with massive amounts of animal fat in our kitchens and the incredible reverence for the animal from whence the fat came and how that animal was bound up in the place and the health of the place. That devotional quality that these two had was so stirring to me.
Now I don’t know if soap is a traditional Inuit product but certainly cleaning was and is. But while soap in the Arctic may not have a four thousand year pedigree (or more) like whaling does, Uasau soap might be another embodiment of Iñupiat weaving of tradition and modernity. Gathering in what has been snagged in the thickets of our time and making some beauty of it with all the ancestral capacity for grief and praise.
While you certainly won’t find any other soaps made of Bowhead blubber (and if you put tallow on your skin that shouldn’t bother you a bit) you also won’t find any other soap that has prayed over harder, wished for longer, and fed more people by its arrival. I can’t say what your experience will be but when I tried their soap and knowing all that goes into it, well, to me it was similar to what it was like when I held a three-hundred year old rosary that had the beads nearly flattened by being rubbed by innumerable forefingers and thumbs. Beads that were imbued with the oil of longing and the holiness of friction born petition. And of course some scents I liked more than others but the materia prima? Too good. It doesn’t get much finer or made by finer folk.
You could never truly know Nunavut until you put some serious time in there. I barely know the place and am humbled to have had even this small introduction whispered to me.
So do yourself a favor and spend three minutes and a bit listening to Bernice tell the story of this soap and how it came to be. And then support, if you can, this bit of human beauty making and culture laden work and tell the story well when the envelope or box shows up on your kitchen table by shopping at Uasau Soaps.