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Telling Alaska’s Story: Putting the seal to good use

It’s a part of traditional Alaska Native culture that’s still alive today: the idea that every part of an animal that’s been taken can be put to good use.
Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 6:22 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s a part of traditional Alaska Native culture that’s still alive today: the idea that every part of an animal that’s been taken can be put to good use.

That’s clear inside the Qasgiq, a traditional Yup’ik and Cup’ik men’s house on the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center where educator Paul Asicksik is discussing the importance of seals in Native culture.

“When a young man captures his first seal he actually doesn’t get to keep it,” Asicksik said. “And what he’s taught to do is to give it away. And from our cultural point of view, it teaches us not to be stingy.”

The Qasgiq holds a display of items made from hunted seals. Asicksik said, first and foremost, the meat is an important part of coastal people’s diets.

“The seal is actually very rich in omega-3′s, so it boosts up your immune system and lowers your cholesterol,” he said.

But a seal is much more than a meal, according to Asicksik, who said that nothing goes to waste. The fat is rendered to make oil that is then burned in lamps, and the skin has a number of interesting uses. When blown up like a balloon and tied off on both ends, it can act as a buoy for hunters.

Asicksik explained that hunters will attach a rope to the “seal float” that is tied to a harpoon. When an animal is struck by the harpoon, hunters can use the seal float to locate it.

Asicksik said another use amounts to “one of the world’s oldest Ziploc bags.” Native Alaskans use an inflated seal to store food underground in the permafrost.

“By doing that, it keeps it preserved, it keeps it fresh, and the seal oil that’s used to preserve it, it’s actually a natural preservative and it helps it from getting any kind of frost on it,” he said.

Seal intestine is also put to many uses, according to Asicksik.

“They can take the seal intestine and they’re making things like a skylight. It’s thin enough and it’s translucent that it lets the light go through,” he said.

Because the fresh intestine is waterproof, it can be carefully stitched and made into clothing like rain jackets, while the seal hide is often used to make water resistant gloves and boots.

Asicksik said Native culture teaches the importance of not taking more than you need, which is also true of hunting both seals and whales.

“Whatever decides to give itself to me that day then we are thankful for whatever we can get,” he said.

Indigenous Alaskans feel that making sure to use all of what they are given honors the animal and a culture that depends on nature to survive.

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