At the Athenaeum, Moby-Dick turns 160

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 26, 2011

It's been 160 years since the publication of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and the Providence Athenaeum has been celebrating with a lecture series, "Hark! The White Whale!"

Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco spoke in September. And in early October, the library sponsored a walking tour of Melville's New Bedford.

Next up, on October 28 from 5 to 7 pm: Aquinnah Wampanoag artist and historian Jonathan Perry will discuss the significance of the whale in Wampanoag culture and in his own art.

Some of that art, which uses whale bone, teeth, and baleen — a bristle-like filter-feeding system — will be on display.

We caught up with Perry for a Q&A in advance of his appearance. The interview is edited and condensed for length.

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WHALE FOR THE WAMPANOAG? When you're just a small human being, [you're] fairly insignificant [in] comparison to something like a whale — it's an enormous being that is able to travel multiple oceans, that sees things on a daily basis that we can only imagine. It's like getting an insight into that world on loan. I think that's how our people tended to look at things – and how we tend to look at things today.

I look at whales and I think about all that they meant to our ancestors. [There is] the simple sign of spring coming — here's the migration of the whale. It's also a sign of maybe some of the leaner times coming to an end, because of course, now our men can go out and harpoon a whale and bring a whale home. It could actually mean the difference between starving or living, at times.

The [whale] provides so much, in giving its life, whether it's [harpooned or it's] a beached whale, distressed, and therefore seen as a gift, perhaps from Moshup — the great giant of our legends. A being that you could eat right then and there, you could smoke and store, oils for lamps and torches, as well as for cooking, baleen that could be used for artwork and for toolmaking and jewelry.

And I'm speaking in a traditional sense — the whaling industry, of course, being a whole other thing; it really wasn't the ideal for our people. It ended up being one of the things that our folks were heavily involved in.

DO YOU HAVE SOME REGRET ABOUT THAT? I wasn't there. It's very difficult to judge our ancestors. The early days of whaling, a lot of our people weren't given a choice — a lot of our people were held in indentured servitude or, because of debts, were essentially forced to serve on whaling ships.

My own family was heavily involved in the whaling industry. My great-grandfather was lost at sea. All my family went through difficult times in that industry from what I understand.

WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF TASHTEGO, THE WAMPANOAG HARPOONER INMOBY-DICK? The character, as I saw him, could have been fleshed out a bit more. But considering how [Native] people were portrayed in this time, I suppose I don't have an awful lot of negative things to say about it.

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