People of the Whale

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5). Modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text-only or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Related resources provide suggestions for integrating this story with your science and literacy instruction. Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students?

Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

People of the Whale

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.2

The Inupiat of Alaska’s Northwest Coast sometimes call themselves the “people of the whale.” The whale they mean is the bowhead whale of the Arctic Ocean. To the Inupiat, the bowheads are life itself.

For hundreds of years, the Inupiat lived along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. They built their houses from the jawbones of the whales. They lived by the rhythms of the sea. Each year, they awaited the migration of the whales.

When the whales arrived, the Inupiat paddled small boats out into the sea. They carried harpoons of stone and bone. They used these tools to kill the animal they cherish above all others. When the hunters returned to shore, the entire community helped to pull the whale up onto land and butcher it. Everyone shared in the meat. And the jawbones became the walls of their houses.

Then changes came. First, large whaling ships from the south came for the whales. Whalers from Europe and the United States killed bowheads, one after another after another. Soon the whales became scarce. By the time commercial whaling ended, the whales were almost gone. For a short time, even the Inupiat hunt stopped. But small groups, hunting as they had for hundreds of years, finally resumed the hunt.

But the changes kept coming. In the 1970s, rising seawater chased the Inupiat from their homes at the edge of the sea. They built new homes, farther inland. The Inupiat used wood and stone instead of whale bones.

Today, the Inupiat way of life is changing again. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising. We call this global warming or climate change, and it means that the bowhead whales are harder to find than ever before. Bowhead whales feed on tiny animals called zooplankton. Zooplankton live near the edge of the sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean. But as temperatures in the Arctic go up, the ice melts. The zooplankton follow the shrinking ice, and the bowheads follow the zooplankton.

The Inupiat hunters find themselves traveling farther and farther to find whales. The trips become more dangerous. The weather is harder to predict. When the hunters return to land, the shore ice is not as strong as it once was. This makes pulling the whales from the water more difficult and dangerous than before.

There are other threats, as well. The North Shore of Alaska is rich not just in whales and their food but also in oil. The oil is buried beneath the ocean floor. It is often right below the bowhead’s migration path. As the ice melts in the Arctic, drilling for oil becomes easier. Oil exploration threatens to drive the whales even farther from shore.

Still, the Inupiat are adapting. They are finding new ways to hunt the whales. They are adopting new techniques. They are learning to live with new realities. They are doing what the Inupiat have always done. As the ice melts, they remain dedicated to their way of life, and to the whales they cherish.

In some places in the world, people still argue about whether climate change is real. The People of the Whale live with climate change every day.


harpoons — spears used in hunting whales and large fish

zooplanktonfloating organisms, such as krill, found in the oceans

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.9) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.5). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version of this article for grades:
Print book versions of this article for grades:

Notes for assembling the books:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book.

To assemble the book this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom.) Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

People of the Whale

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page. Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

Literacy Set
This set includes three levels of e-books and foldable PDF booklets for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5.

Related Resources

Lessons and Activities about Arctic Peoples
This article from the “Peoples of the Arctic” issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears highlights lessons and activities that can teach students about the Inupiat and other Arctic cultures.

Peoples of the Arctic: Virtual Bookshelf
This article from “Peoples of the Arctic” issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears highlights children’s literature about the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

For Alaska’s Inupiat, Climate Change and Culture Shock
This article from Discovery News is a source of background knowledge for teachers whose students are reading “People of the Whale.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.