UNALAKLEET — Auntie Maggie was at the table, cutting meat that would later hang to dry. Larry was at the stove, cooking ugruk ribs, blubber and qiaq. “How are you folks?” I asked.
“Hungry,” Maggie said sternly. Knowing her tone was a joke, we all replied with laughter.
“I can’t cook the meat fast enough,” her husband and my uncle said in response. We all laughed, and Jacob and I walked outside to his sled.
Jacob went ugruk hunting the day prior. The ice that formed in March blew out into the Norton Sound and the open water had hunters preparing their boats, loading their hunting bags with supplies and checking the weather — specifically the wind.
“I look for calm winds. We had 16 mph east winds that day,” my younger cousin said. “I learned from the older generation of hunters that when we have strong east winds, it’s calm in Shaktoolik. And if it’s calm in Shaktoolik, it’s calm down south.”
‘Thanks for letting me harvest’
So Jacob, his 7-year-old son Judah, his older brother and a friend traveled 18 miles to Tolstoi — a place down the coast from Unalakleet. He said they got to the ice and there were 10 ugruks lying in the sun. After their first shot, all the seals but one swam out and away from the boat. Jacob was taught at a young age that animals give themselves to you to harvest. “The one that stayed popped up twice and gave us two easy shots,” Jacob said. He thought about that teaching after the animal’s behavior.
Jacob and his crew got two ugruks that day. Before butchering the animals, he gave them fresh water, as he was taught by his dad and uncles. “In my mind, spiritually, I said thanks. Thanks for letting me harvest.”
Only the heads, the stomach and the airways of the bearded seals were left on the sea ice. Everything else came back to town to either process or distribute to family, friends and those in need.
Jacob says when he’s distributing the meat, he feels successful, “knowing they’re happy and grateful for what they get. It gives you a sense of happiness inside,” he said. “Giving anything else, you can’t get that sense of fulfillment. That’s the biggest reward, in my opinion, is making other people happy to receive the food and seeing their smiles.”
I was one of those people with big smiles that day. The suddenly long, sunny days of spring and the melting snow ignites a craving in my body and soul for fresh ugruk meat and blubber.
Thanks to Jacob, I came home that day with my bag full of ribs, a piece of liver, blubber and qiaq. Walking toward my house, my 4-year-old cousin hollered at me from across the road.
“Hi Auntie!” Oliver said.
“Hi Babe!” I said with a smile and walked into the house.
Soon afterward, I heard a quiet knock on the door. I stooped down before opening. “Hi Oliver,” I said right in front of his face.
“How did you know it was me?”
“I know many, many things. I know a lot of things,” I said jokingly. He laughed, took his shoes off and walked right in.
“I just got some ugruk meat from Jacob,” I told him.
“He got one?” Oliver asked excitedly.
“He got two.”
“He always get everything,” Oliver said knowingly and with confidence.
“Mmhm,” I said with a smile. “He does.”
‘Thanks for dinner’
Soon after that, my 11-year-old nephew Kael stopped by with our cousin and Oliver’s big brother, Cody. They walked right in and as I was cutting meat and organs at the table, the kids were talking and telling stories.
“We’re going to stay here for dinner,” I heard Kael say to Cody. I smiled, happy knowing I wouldn’t be eating ugruk alone. And happier to know these boys enjoy ugruk meat.
I cut the pieces of blubber, liver, cleaned intestine and meat the way my dad showed me after my mom died. I then boiled the pieces I cut, thinking of how simple and fast this method of preparing food is.
And the boys ate. My naluagmiu-looking nephew asked for every piece but the liver. He asked for blubber, meat and grabbed more than his fair share of qiaq, the intestines. I didn’t mind one bit.
As we ate at the table I, in my mind, spiritually gave thanks. I expressed thank you to the animal that gave itself to Jacob. To Jacob, for being willing and able to go hunting and share his catch with me and my family. And I expressed thanks to the Earth for providing what it does for our nourishment.
The boys left and Cody said, “Thanks for dinner!” At that moment it felt like summer could begin.