Baleen is a strong yet flexible material that comes from whales. Made from keratin (the same protein that makes human hair and fingernails), baleen is connected to a whale’s mouth, and its long bristles help filter krill from the sea water.
Alaska Native peoples have been hunting bowhead whales and using their baleen for thousands of years. Baleen was used to make buckets, cups, and other containers as well as ice scoops, sled runners, fishing line, lashing, and nets. Today, the subsistence hunt for whales is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and hunting is allowed only for registered members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Although people continue to harvest whales, baleen is now used primarily for production of art and other cultural objects.
Synthetic materials, such as plastic and fiberglass, are more commonly used to craft items once made with baleen. For instance, modern plastics have largely replaced sled runners, and, in general, sleds have been replaced with alternate modes of transportation, such as snowmachines.
The success and dominance of plastics in the 20th century has led to environmental concerns. Plastic littering the world’s oceans are having affects that researchers are only just beginning to understand. Pollution and climate change are contributing to rising ocean temperatures, dwindling sea ice, and coastal erosion, which, in turn, negatively impacts marine wildlife, including the bowhead whale populations.
Steve McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1990.14.5.AKNative.7.8
Doug Ogden Photographs, Anchorage Museum, B2019.7.169