Tommy Swan stood on the ice near Kivalina last weekend, cutting the belly off a several-foot-tall bearded seal, or ugruk. Three younger men watched him quietly from the side.
“I’m lucky and blessed by my son Tommy and his buddies to have caught a total of 11,” said Frances Douglas. “He has a good sized boat to deal with a few types of weather conditions.”
At this time of year, northernmost communities like Kivalina begin the bearded seal hunting season. To perpetuate the tradition, hunters bring their younger brothers and sisters or family friends to pass on their knowledge. Swan, for example, brings with him one or two young hunters from the village, mostly boys, Douglas said, and trains his teenage nephew in all aspects of hunting and safety.
“Every young man is patiently waiting for this season to begin because it means he can participate in his favorite activity – Ugruk hunting,” said Janet Mitchell, a resident of Kvalina. “The more you teach young people, the more ability they will have to support themselves and their families.”
The art of landing a marine mammal takes skill, Mitchell said: a hunter must balance on a fast-moving boat, hold steady during the sudden stop, then aim and fire at an ugruk. If the animal is on land, the hunter must place the gun on the boat as quickly as possible without damaging it, pick up the harpoon and throw it before the ugruk begins to sink.
“Your aim has to be sure, your reflexes sharp if you want to land this ugruk,” Mitchell said. “And you have to be aware of the rope attached to the harpoon. Make sure you’re not on it or you’ll swim in the ocean water.”
Hunters learn this skill on their first hunts from an early age, while women pass on the day-to-day skill of caring for meat, as well as the use of bearded seal skin to make boots and skin boats.
“Everyone has heard the phrase: ‘Give a child a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach the child to fish and he will eat for a lifetime,” Mitchell said. retire knowing that we have done our job.
Enoch Swan, now 15, has been hunting since he was 10.
“My dad taught me how to hunt Ugruk by taking me to the ocean, telling me what to do,” he said, “like shutting up and watching the harpoon rope because the Ugruk is very big and strong: he can pull people out of the boat if he is not careful.”
For thousands of years, the Inupiat have hunted ugruks, the largest seal in Alaskan waters, and the animals have become the most important seal species for Alaska’s coastal villages, providing large quantities of meat, oil and hides for hide boats and boots. , according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
As the ugruks are giant animals, most of the time the men throw the harpoon, and the younger hunters first learn to hunt the seals which are smaller and easier to handle. Swan didn’t land his first ugriuk until he started owning his own gun when I was 14, but the activity was one of his favorite pastimes for a long time.
“I like to go Ugruk hunting,” he said. “We still use seal blubber for seal oil and meat to store for the winter to eat and use the skin for other things.”