Beluga, Seal, Walrus, and Other Things I ate Yesterday

I flew in from Boston at 11:30pm Alaska Time; I was four hours behind the east coast and felt instantly jet-lagged and an almost immediate sense of culture shock in returning to a region that was cooler yet sunnier, ‘developed’ yet wild, welcoming yet foreign.

Now a ‘Master’ of Sustainable Development, my first task, (after going to sleep) was to board another flight a brief 24 hours later, heading further north above the Arctic Circle. My destination was Kotzebue, Alaska, one of the larger Alaska Native Villages in Alaska with a population around 4,500 people. Landing at 8am after an hour and a half flight, we immediately noticed that despite the 23 hours of sunlight, the perpetual brightness had not yet melted all the snow; the temperature still hovering in the high 30’s to 40’s. A light fog was disguising the distance – the passing ice floats allowing me to imagine the Arctic adventure that awaited us.  Where the polar bears? Did the Alaska Natives living in tradition housing of any kind?

No, there were not, and they did not. Kotzebue has a deceivingly fresh feeling in the air: a cool, slightly humid breeze with an energy that recalls the ionized ‘still’ after a thunderstorm in my home state of Connecticut. We, (the group of “Emerging Leaders” assembled for the dialogue I was attending) boarded a bus towards the High School, which would serve as our home base for the next four days of discussion surrounding the topic of ‘Livable Communities and the Human Condition’ – Right up my sustainable development alley.  From the windows of the short bus the landscape was flat, and the buildings sat like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. Propped up on stilts like crunches holding the home a short distance above the earth to prevent melting of the permafrost below: a would-be victory of the Arctic over the western development which missionaries brought to the Inupiaq’s land only decades before.

Through discussion of race, Alaska Native identity, education, resource development, and cultural legitimacy, we elucidated the ever-present struggle for the simple respect and sovereignty that has in many ways been denied the Alaska Natives for over 100 years. Tears were shed through brave statements and uncomfortable contemplation, which filled the High School auditorium/cafeteria. We walked the streets and spoke with young people. We joined Karmen, a Kotzebue resident, hunter, Mother, and community leader who took us into the tundra outside the city to search for ptarmigan eggs (pronounced [tahr-mi-guhn]: a northerly grouse species). We collected “tundra tea” from a pervasive low-lying herb and marveled at the tree-less, soggy, quiet, natural landscape.

Kotzebue as a physical city seemed ironically forced and unnatural amidst the surprisingly fruitful land which sustained the remarkably resourceful, practical, and environmentally cognizant population whose 18,000-year ancestry gives attribution to their legitimacy. With the stored wisdom of their elders providing the basis for their physical, emotional, and spiritual success, I am continually baffled by the racism, oppression, and hardship, which my ancestors and countrymen have laid upon these people and this region.

Their food speaks to this, and during the last evening I was fortunate enough to partake in some traditional foods of the area. Complimenting the Walrus jerky my colleague Karlin had offered me the day before leaving from his recent hunt out of Nome, I sampled Mukuk (skin and blubber) from the Bowhead Whale. This first ‘new’ food was the hardest to convince my palate of: chewy, slightly salty and fishy – it reminded me of rubber and ocean water. Mukuk from the Beluga Whale however, was delicious! Only slightly reminding me of rubbery cheese in its consistency, it was boiled first, which softened the skin and may have been seasoned lightly with salt. I recalled my mother getting a chance to swim with captive Beluga’s at a Connecticut aquarium and it occurred to me that while the Beluga, like other dolphins, have a mouth which gives the illusion of a perpetual smile, it may be that a Beluga would rather give its life to the respect and needs of the people of Kotzebue then spend its life growing old, eating fish out of human hands and watching children stare at them with wonder from behind the glass.

Seal Oil was my favorite.  I started small, with a teaspoon full on the edge of my Caribou roast, (Caribou, by the way, being the wild form of Reindeer). Smooth and tasting slightly of sardines, I rushed back to the line to grab a bit more, this time marinating the entirety of my Caribou with it, and by the recommendation of the a Alaska Native women standing next to me, put a teaspoon’s worth on my salad as well. Upon mopping my plate clean with a piece of bread, I returned for a bit more and a small helping of Akutaq, alson known as ‘Eskimo Ice Cream.’ Akutaq, meaning “mix them together” is a whipped dish of fat (usually from fish or whale, or whatever is handy) and berries, (often blue berry or salmon berry). Despite my allergy to fish, and my inability to partake in the Shefish, Smelt, and Salmon on the potluck table, my spoonful of Akutaq left me happy and full. Karmen, seemingly impressed by my new love of traditional food gave me my own can of Seal Oil to take home! I am very excited to open it, and attempting to secure some moose to bath it in.

To work it all in, I joined the Northern Light Dancers in the final part of their Dinner-time show and stomped to the whale-skin drum beats of a culture whose fate seems decidedly undermined, yet clearly strained by the trappings of industrialism, the addictive nature of modern materialism, and the ‘beyond nature’ attitude of western culture. Thank you Kotzebue for allowing me to experience at least a little more of a side of humanity, which many of us may never get to see; a side of Us that harks to the possibility of a more resilient, centered, and environmentally appropriate future.

3 Responses to “Beluga, Seal, Walrus, and Other Things I ate Yesterday”
  1. Dale says:

    Chris, wonderful descriptions and stories! Though, it seems that the indigenous culture is still alive. If you ever get your hands on anything about mathematics in the cultures, let me know- I could talk about it in my classes!

  2. Johan Oudheusden says:

    Wow, amazing experiences you are having up there! Never take it for granted.

  3. Ann Ives says:

    I agree ( although, I loved being so close to them), that the beluga whale would be happier in the wild, then behind glass, even if it’s life is shorter………it’s value is greater!!!

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