Learning Curve: Subsistence Living

Please be aware that this post contains details of cutting up an animal. If that offends you, I suggest that you skip this one.

One of the first things I learned about my new home was the fact that many of the natives still practice aspects of the same subsistence lifestyle as their ancestors. Inherent to this way of life are a variety of ways to live off the land, including berry picking, fishing, and hunting. Within my first month up here, I went berry picking twice and got to see firsthand how drift fishing works. I’ve yet to go hunting; quite frankly, I don’t know that I want to. But I did participate in part of a hunt this week: The skinning, cleaning, and cutting up of the kill.

It started Tuesday night with a text from Mary, who teaches middle school. The text read, “Can I cut up a seal in your kitchen?” Being the curious person that I am, I said sure. First, though, said seal had to thaw. So I opened the windows and cleared the kitchen table. Ten minutes later Mary, Kelly (another elementary teacher), and Sam (one of the school support staff) were at the door, seal pulled behind them on a sled. We stacked the chairs, pulled the table off to the side and rolled up the rug before laying down a large plastic tarp and some cardboard. It was easier to just pull the sled in to the house than to try carrying the frozen carcass up the stairs; lifting the seal out of the sled and on to the cardboard took all four of us. It was a spotted seal, probably four feet from nose to tail. We set it on its back, as its front had been cut open to drain the blood. While we worked, Mary told me that Sam had caught the animal and would be taking the meat and blubber; she just wanted the skin for a hat and to try her hand at cleaning the kill.

By the following evening, the carcass had thawed enough to cut. Kelly and Mary came over after school, along with Mary’s foster son, Cal. I got Cal settled in the living area with some building blocks and stuffed animals before grabbing my camera and joining the others. After sharpening the uluuqs (traditional Yup’ik knives), the work started. The first task: Skinning. Having skinned numerous animals in science classes over the years, this looked easier because of the thick layer of blubber between skin and muscle. Interesting fact: The sound made by blubber separating from muscle resembles that of breaking Styrofoam. I say looked easier because I spent the night documenting the proceedings with my camera and keeping an eye on Cal. As Kelly teased, the Yup’iq consider the cleaning of the animal to be woman’s work, so I was fine. Also, I have to be honest, I just didn’t feel any desire to do more than take pictures and play with Cal. At one point, I was using the digital camera while Cal used the iPhone’s camera, with the result that I’ve got quite a thorough record of the night’s work.

Once the skin was removed, one task became two. Mary got to work separating the blubber from the skin, while Kelly turned to cutting the meat off of the bones. The blubber will be processed to make seal oil, used by the natives as flavoring and a snack in and of itself. The meat can be frozen, cooked, or dried and smoked. As they worked, I alternated between taking pictures and keeping an eye on Cal. The kid was almost as fascinated as I was by the cutting process; he was especially taken with the claws that got removed from one flipper.

A little over two hours and almost 200 pictures later, the job was done. Kelly and I bagged up the meat and blubber while Mary bagged the skin and got some cardboard boxes to make transporting everything easier. The loaded boxes were placed on the porch for Sam to pick up, and Cal and I got the living area straightened up. For a five-year-old, he’s a very good cleaner. I finally closed the windows I’d opened the previous night to keep the smell down. While I ran the tarp and cardboard to the trash house, Mary wiped down the floor with Pine-Sol. The kitchen table and chairs were moved back in to place, and less than 24 hours after the seal was brought in there’s almost no sign it was ever there. I don’t know that I’d ever volunteer to help with a project like that again, but like so many things up here I’m glad that I participated once.

1 comment
  1. ravinj said:

    Very cool! I’m really enjoying your stories about living in rural Alaska.

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