Thanksgiving feasts bring communities together
Across the North Slope, Thanksgiving is a time for communities to come together and share in the bounty of good food and good company.
While the holiday itself represents a painful history for many people, it's become more than its roots for many places, providing a day to look forward to, celebrating the people and land they love.
In Utqiaġvik, successful whaling crews bring out special portions to pass out to their friends and neighbors.
Churches across the town open their doors for an afternoon of singing, dancing, feasting and giving thanks for, among other things, the whale.
Caribou soup, goose soup, turkey and sides galore were on the menu at the church feasts this year. Crews handed out maktak, meat and flipper for families to enjoy at the table and back at home.
Up north, in Kaktovik, the day had an early start, with people hustling to make sure preparations were in place for the whole-town gathering happening later at the Qargi Community Center.
"Everybody gets up early to start making soup and donuts; of course you have to let the bread rise," said resident Flora Rexford. "We had a bunch of caribou that was caught and a bunch of Dall sheep and those are our main things, besides all the turkey and all the fixings for Thanksgiving — and the bowhead whale."
Sheep soup is a local favorite and is something many other Slope villages typically do not have on their Thanksgiving tables.
Once there's enough snow on the ground in fall and the rivers are frozen solid, hunters from Kaktovik head out to the mountains, about 40 miles away, to find the Dall sheep.
"It's the time of year when it's colder, but with the changing climate and weather, we weren't sure if the hunters could make it up to the hunting places because of not enough snow or if it's too rough," she explained.
Luckily, they were successful and were able to bring back enough sheep to serve for the holiday.
"We don't usually get it all year-round and it's very hard to come by because everybody likes it," she said. "The sheep soup is one of the things everybody looks forward to here."
Other residents heated up vegetables, made mashed potatoes or kept their ovens busy making countless pies for dessert.
Some of the preparations began much earlier in the season, though. The successful whaling crews, for example, have to make sure their catch is processed and properly saved.
"When the whale is caught, of course each of the crews get their share and they disburse that amongst the crews. But, the successful crew that catches the whale has to make sure they put a part away for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Nalukataq, also," she said. "They have to make sure they have enough for each occasion and then they put them away in the big, big chunks. When it comes time to cut them up, they go to the captain's house, they bring in all the muktuk, the meat and the tongue, depending on how much there is. They cut it up and have to freeze it again, and then get it ready to serve."
Unfortunately, a problem with a freezer in town meant one crew had part of its whale spoil. But, there was enough from all the crews combined to feed everyone well.
Rexford helped make mikigaq, which also takes time. It gets made and then taken outside to freeze. Right before the feast, it gets thawed out again to serve.
Servers take a special place in the feasts. They spend much of the early meal taking care of the other guests and then are served, in kind, by those they helped earlier. Seated together around a table, they enjoy their meal at the end.
"Being a server is a really awesome job, just to serve everybody who's there and make sure everybody has enough food," Rexford explained. "It's just a special time of year to see everybody out and about."
The meal starts with a prayer. After, everyone pulls out their drums for hours of singing and dancing.
"Usually the successful crews are honored during the dances. The captain usually goes up, and then all the crew comes up to follow and they do a couple dances for everybody and everybody celebrates and hugs everybody," she said. "There's not any specific songs; it's usually the fun songs they do. It's part of a good celebration because there's a lot of hard work to do."
Everyone joins in, from the youngest kids to the wisest Elders.
"It's so different. You don't get that everywhere you go. For the whole community to come out and to see family sitting amongst each other and to give everybody hugs and take family photos and being able to share [is important]," said Rexford.
From the start of the day until late at night, everyone is together, celebrating as one.
Now that the Thanksgiving feast is over, preparations are already beginning for the rest of the holiday season.
"Everybody's kind of taking a break," she said. "But, Christmas is coming up soon. What days are we going to cut? What days are we all going to be here? Because there's a lot of people who go out for Christmas shopping or even vacation, so if your crew caught a whale, you can't plan a vacation. You have to stay home and make sure you get all that job done. It's kind of their job to make sure the whale is cut up and ready for the next one. Some crews like to get it done a week ahead or a couple days before. It's just depending on the captain."
Along with the upcoming feast is holiday games and New Year's festivities.
It's a good start to a busy season that will be marked by what brings each community together — the people and the place we call home.