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Kanchalan, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Russia, 689514

First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

The Chukchi based their traditional economies on reindeer husbandry in the interior of the region and marine mammal hunting on the coast of what today is called the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. Numbering nearly 16,000, the majority live in small rural villages. Traditionally, marine mammal hunters (Chukchi and Yup’ik) and reindeer herders had close trading relationships, the center of which was food related – whale fat and seal skins for reindeer skins and meat. 

At one time, Chukotka was one of the world’s largest regions of reindeer husbandry, in terms of numbers. In the 1980’s there were over 500,000 reindeer. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a more precipitous decline in herd size than anywhere else in Russia. The number of reindeer fell to around 90,000 in 2001. However, thanks to regional supports to hunters and herders, numbers have recovered and investments have been made in processing facilities and equipment. Here we present two traditional Chukchi dishes from the Nizhnekolymsky District of Sakha Republic (Yakutia): Reindeer blood soup and the First Four Ribs. These dishes are also prepared in other Chukchi areas.


Importance of Animal Products

Authentic Chukchi Recipes:

Reindeer blood soup by Irina Krivoshapkina and Maria Yaglovskaya

Reindeer blood soup is the favorite national dish of the Chukchi. Traditionally, people used to cook it for children, as it contains the whole complex of vitamins, gives strength, improves blood circulation and provides a long-lasting ‘warm-up’ effect. Reindeer blood soup is used in traditional ceremonies and is also offered to guests. We have included the traditional and modern methods.

Traditional method Ingredients:

Reindeer intestines with inner organs (pitiyki)

Reindeer large intestine (nanuvge)

Reindeer blood (mulymul)

Visceral fat (the inner fat around the entrails) (eimyk)

Thoroughly wash and clean the intestines with inner organs, large guts, visceral fat and clean, chop finely, cover with cold water, and boil until thoroughly cooked. Pour the settled reindeer blood very slowly into the boiling broth, stirring steadily. The dish is ready when the broth thickens.

Modern method Ingredients:

Reindeer head

Reindeer blood



Make a broth by boiling the reindeer head (antlers removed) in water. Remove the froth and impurities from the surface periodically and add salt while cooking. When the head is ready, remove it from the pot and strain. Mix flour with cold water in a separate bowl, add with the settled reindeer blood slowly into the boiling broth, stirring well. Cook until the broth comes to the boil and becomes a chocolate color.

THE FIRST FOUR RIBS by Zhanna Kaurgina and Vlada Kaurgina The Chukchi menu is not that known for its variety. Boiled reindeer meat is a constant daily dish, the favored parts of the animal being the breast parts including brisket, ribs, and the breast section of the backbone. Once the reindeer is slaughtered and processed into smaller parts, the first four ribs are boiled as a delicacy and is the first dish offered to guests. In winter, these ribs are frozen, stored and eaten at a later date. Why are the first four ribs from a reindeer considered to be such a delicacy among Chukchi? Depending on the age and condition of the reindeer, the first four ribs have the following qualities: • Bulk and mass with streaks of fat deposits; • Juiciness which is related to their high oxygen saturation due to formation of the first four ribs in the chest cavity, and as the chest part of the body is stiff, there is an intense accumulation of bone oil in the cartilage and bone tissues, which provide taste and flavor. • The broth produced from its cooking is rich in all healthy substances, is very nourishing and provides long-lasting sensation of satiety. Ingredients: First four ribs of a reindeer Salt Cooking method: Wash the ribs thoroughly and place into a large pot and cover with water. Set over a fire and bring to the boil, removing the froth that rises to the surface. Add salt, and maintain the fire so that the ribs simmer gently for 10-15 minutes.

Importance of Plants


The east coast of Chukotka and on Wrangel Island is part of the traditional territory of the coastal Chukchi and Yup’ik. Their traditional activities include sealing, reindeer herding and hunting. They call themselves «yuk» – a man, «yuit», «yugyt» or «Yup’ik» – «real man». Their preferred food mainly consisted of the raw, sun-dried, frozen or sour meat of marine mammals. One such delicacy was a ma’ntak. Man’tak consists of two inseparable parts: whale skin and a top layer of fat and it needs long chewing. Other staples included cereals and roots, laminaria (a type kelp) and raw shellfish. Yup’ik and coastal Chukchi use around 60 species of terrestrial and marine plants for food. By way of illustration, there are no names for the whole plant in their various languages, but there are names for its edible parts – e.g. stem with leaves or the root. That which is not eaten is called «grass» or «flower». The gathering and preparation of plants for winter consumption is an important women’s activity, and is actually called «women’s hunting». Laminaria is considered obligatory part of the menu; even hunters pick it on their way home after sealing. Wild plants are necessary and important additives to meat and fish, which form the basis of the diet of Indigenous Peoples of Chukotka. Upa and other invertebrates – that is crabs, shrimps, sea urchins, starfishes, small octopuses, shellfishes (mussels, whelks), as well as seaweed (laminaria) – are all important components of the Chukchi and Yup’ik cuisine. Not only do wild plants add flavor, they also possess multiple health and medicinal benefits.

Sea squirt, or upa, is a saccate stationary animal: it remains firmly fixed to the substrate, such as stones and shells. Sea squirts are saccate round-shaped or cylindrical animals sized 0.5 to 10 cm. Their bodies are covered with smooth thick and often rather firm tunica. People eat sea squirt raw, boiled and frozen and they have long been used for medicinal purposes. Their tissues are rich in bioactive substances with unique pharmacologic properties. Moreover, sea squirts provide antineoplastic action. They have a detox effect, boost the immune system and activate blood formation processes. Also, sea squirts possess the unique ability to extract vanadium from the water and accumulate this rare element. Human organisms require vanadium to fight efficiently against infections. Moreover, in combination with other microelements, vanadium slows down the aging process and prevents atherosclerosis.

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples in Chukotka have eaten laminaria washed in by the tide on the coasts of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. People gathered and ate laminaria during the whole year. Even in winter, when the coastal area is covered with thick ice, laminaria was extracted using special spiral devices. Laminaria is seaweed, which absorbs elements from its surrounding aquatic environment. Its length may reach up to 13 m. Laminaria contains a unique microelement iodine, which is very important for human health. Moreover, it contains a full set of other useful elements: magnesium, ferrum, bromine and potassium. Chukchi and Yup’ik also eat willow leaves, meadow onion, sweet edible root and leaves of nunivak, cyuk’-lyak (edible roots), k’ugyln’ik (sorrel), and berries such as ak’avzik (cloudberry), syugak (blueberry) and pagung’ak (crowberry).

1. An’ukak’ (chapl.) – fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium).   The leaves and stems of fireweed are used as seasoning for sour caviar, fresh whale or walrus fat and boiled meat, as well as being added to meat broth.   In the past fireweed was also used as a tea brew, instead of tealeaves.

2. Kuvykhsi (chapl.), k’ykh’jug’akh’k’at (nauk.) – knotweed (Polygonum tripterocarpum). Knotweed is one of the most well-known edible plants of Chukotka. This plant is widely used and the buds of young knotweed is the first spring delicacy for children. In summer people eat them with seal blood and fat. Knotweed roots (siren – kusymu) are dried and stored for winter. They are then soaked in water and used as seasoning for meat and fish.

3. Roseroot (Rhodiola atropurpurea (Turczaninov) Trautvetter Nunivak) Roseroot – «nunivak» is probably the most popular edible plant for Chukchi and Yup’ik, which is indicated by numerous words related to and built with «Nunivak» stem. Also, only this plant’s name is used to denote one of summer months – August – Nunivik – «month of roseroot gathering». This word is likely to originate from «nuna» stem, which means «earth». There is an interesting relation between words «nuna» (earth) – «nunivak» (tundra) – «nunivak» (roseroot).   Thanks to their excellent flavor, the sappy stems, leaves and roots of roseroot are all eaten to this day. People try to gather the leaves and stems of roseroot before seed maturity, while they are most sappy. The most traditional dish of roseroot is sour roseroot – nunivak.

4. Willow (various species) Salix sp. K,uk,un,at (leaves) There are three known species of this plant (Yup’ik have one name for all three species): Salix phlebophylla – Skeletonleaf willow, Salix arctica – Arctic willow, Salix pulchra – Diamondleaf willow. The young leaves of Arctic willow are stored for winter use. Then the leaves are soaked in cold water under a weight before use. In winter they are used frozen as seasoning for meat or fresh whale fat.

In summer the fat roots of Arctic willow are buried and in winter they are unearthed the bark is peeled off, which is then eaten as a seasoning with whale fat. «Summer gruel». Fresh leaves of knotweed are steamed, mashed, and added to the rendered fat and blood of walrus. Children eat this gruel with seal or walrus meat. «Spring gruel». Mash the young boiled leaves of knotweed and add rendered fat. When eating raw walrus meat dip the pieces in the gruel. «Winter gruel». Boil knotweed leaves until the broth becomes dark-green, then drain and put into various dishes for freezing or in a sealskin bag and store for the winter. In winter unfreeze the frozen mass and prepare the gruel. Add rendered fat and seal blood into the mash(the dish can also be eaten frozen). When boiling walrus, Ringed or Bearded seal meat, add fresh and boiled leaves of knotweed for taste and to add thickness to the broth. Grated knotweed leaves are eaten with fresh gray whale fat or white whale mantak (beluga whale skin). This broth is used as a preserving agent when preparing walrus meat for winter.

5. An’jina (chapl.), majug’lak’ (nauk.), lilugaja (siren.) – wild onion (Allium fistulosum). This wild perennial has an antiscorbutic effect, and grows in many places on the Chukchi coast and is widely used fresh as a seasoning for meat and fish dishes.

6. Pagung’ak’ (chapl.), akuvilk’ak’ (nauk.), pagnyk’ykh’ (siren.) – crowberry (Empertum nigrum s.l.). Crowberry is a watery berry with slightly sweet taste. It grows throughout Chukotka. It is normally consumed fresh and more recently as a jam. It is also used in several dishes.

7. Kitmik (chapl.), mysutak’ (nauk.) – lingonberry (Vaccinium vitisidaea var.minus). Lingonberries grow in small amounts and are eaten fresh and as a seasoning for various meat dishes. People also prepare lingonberry jam. Lingonberries have diuretic, binding, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects. The Yup’ik and coastal Chukchi have very rich knowledge about the value of plants in their food culture. To maintain both their health and their wellbeing, the food culture in the region necessitates a high biodiversity of edible plants.

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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Jan 1, 1697

Arctic Passage


The Kamchatka Peninsula is invaded by Russian Cossacks in 1697 and the natives are forced to turn to trapping for furs instead of living off of their highly carnivorous diets of fish and sea mammals such as seals, whales, or walrus.


The Russian subjection of Siberian natives did not begin with the work of the two Kamchatka expeditions headed by Vitus Bearing, though these expeditions accelerated the process. In 1581 the Cossack Ermak led his followers across the Urals for their first plunders in the vast easten territories. Gradually, over the next 100 years, the Cossacks pushed on to exploit the fur riches and pacify territory for the Moscovite Empire. Southeastern advances along the Amur River were checked by the powerful Manchu forces of China, but there was no concerted resistance north of the Amur. Following the great rivers, the Ob, Irtysh, Yenisei, and Lena, the Cossacks subdued the primitive natives who stood in their way. Tribute in furs was exacted mercilessly. To resist was to be decimated. 

Advances to the far northeast were slowed by the lack of easy river access and the forbidding climate. The Kamchatka Peninsula was not explored until 1696. A year later, Cossack Vladimir Atlasov led a party of 100 soldiers, conveyed by reindeer, to Kamchatka's east coast, where the Russians encountered Kamchadals for the first time. Soon after this, fur traders established themselves in Kamchatka to plunder and oppress the natives until they were driven to a desperate resistance. In 1731 the natives rose against their oppressors, but their rebellion was savagely crushed within a year. It was part of the assignment of the second Kamchatka expedition, officially called the Great Northern Expedition, to compile information on the people and resources of northeastern Asia. Much of this work was done by Georg Steller prior to his 1741 voyage with Bering to America, and by a young Russian scientist, Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov. Krasheninnikov, only twenty-five years old in 1737 when he arrived in Kamchatka, did the major portion of the investigation and, with the help of Steller's notes, produced his study, Explorations of Kamchatka, which was published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1755. This book has long been the classic source on the Kamchadals of southern Kamchatka and, to a lesser extent, on the Koriak and Chukchi peoples inhabiting the regions farther north. In the Explorations of Kamchatka we Bet an invaluable picture of the recently subjugated peoples of the Bering Sea frontier and, indirectly, an insight into the attitudes of their Russian overlords toward the region and its inhabitants. Krasheninnikor was not involved in the most exciting assignment of the expedition, the attempt to discover America from the west. His task was to provide a careful assessment of Kamchatka upon which the government could base its developmental policies. His temperament was well suited to the task. He was disposed to report the sober truth as he saw it, without exaggeration or inclinations to optimistic promotion. In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of Kamchatka, his report was balanced and careful. "The country has neither grain nor livestock. It is subject to frequent earthquakes, floods and storms. The only diversions are to gaze on towering mountains whose summits are eternally covered with snow, or, if one lives along the sea, to listen to the crashing of the waves and observe the different species of sea animals." 3 Considering this, Krasheninnikov commented, "it would seem more appropriate for this country to be inhabited by wild animals than by human beings."4 On the other hand, pure air, healthy water, the absence of diseases, a climate neither excessively hot or cold, make the country "no less fit to be lived in than other countries which may have an abundance of other things, but are exposed to all these ills and dangers." 5 

Although Kamchatka might be "fit to be lived in," it did not attract large numbers of European Russians. A small number of colonists from other parts of Siberia were settled there among the natives, soldiers, and government officials, and plans were laid for a self-supporting agricultural economy. But attempts to achieve such an economy were sporadic and largely unsuccessful. Economic development remained a vision of government planners. Yet the region did provide riches for a few Russians who reaped profits from its most obvious resources, its people and its fur-bearing animals. Both were exploited shamelessly by mercenary interests. In time, the Kamchadals lost their identity as a distinct people, while the relentless hunting of sables, foxes, and other fur-bearing animals drastically reduced their numbers. Only the discovery of new fur resources to the west saved the land animals of Kamchatka from a total extermination. 

The Kamchadals were a free, independent people before the Russians conquered them. Like that of their Eskimo neighbors in Alaska their social organization was loose and unstratified. No rulers or chiefs were recognized, though men esteemed for their wisdom and experience were highly regarded. Russians could appreciate some of the skills exhibited by natives- hunting and dog-sled driving in particular--but generally considered them barbaric and contemptible. "They are filthy and disgusting," wrote Krasheninnikov, "they never wash their hands or faces, nor do they cut their fingernails, they eat from the same bowls as their dogs and never wash them. They all reek of fish and smell like eider ducks." 6 Different standards of personal hygiene have always formed a barrier between peoples, though many Siberian travelers observed little distinction between Cossack and native habits of cleanliness. 

Kamchatka's great wealth was in the numbers of fur-bearing animals to be found there. The dense, glossy pelts of foxes were esteemed in the fur trade and the sables, because of their size and beauty, were considered superior to those hunted elsewhere in Siberia. These animals as well as hares, marmots, ermines, bears, wolverines, and weasels were caught in traps, poisoned, or shot with a bow and arrow. Kamchadals were delighted when Cossacks offered a single knife in exchange for eight sable pelts and a hatchet for eighteen skins. "It is quite true," Krasheninnikov reported, "that when Kamchatka was first conquered, there were some agents who made as much as thirty-thousand roubles in one year." 7 

All the natives of Kamchatka and northeastern Siberia, except for the Koriak reindeer herdsmen of the interior, used dogs for transport during the winter. Besides hauling sleds, dogs assisted in the hunt of mountain sheep and other land animals, and their skins provided a wide variety of clothing. Food for the dogs was easily obtained, consisting, primarily, of the salmon which abounded in Kamchatka's rivers. Great quantities of fish were taken in the summer and dried for winter use as dog food. Marine mammals were also hunted. Seals were taken off the coast in winter and from the rivers and estuaries in summer. Natives clubbed sleeping seals on land and harpooned them in the water. Seal skins yielded material for boots and clothing, their oil provided lighting and heat for native dwellings; their flesh and blubber were important sources of food and were sometimes preserved for later use by smoking. Other mammals could only be taken at sea. These included the sea lion, fur seal, sea otter, whale, and, in northern waters, the walrus. All these mammals contributed to the native economy to varying degrees. The Chukchis primary food source was the whale, which they hunted in the European manner, harpooning the beasts at sea from large boats and towing the whales ashore for butchering. Kamchadals, on the other hand, did not usually venture out to sea to hunt whales, but made good use of any that washed ashore.

Oct 9, 1870

Arctic Passage, Whaleman's Shipping List and Merchants Transcript Letter


Captain Frederick A Barker of the Japan shipwrecks in the Arctic Ocean in 1870 and is rescued by Eskimo natives who restore the frostbitten and dying men and then feed them a diet of raw walrus meat through the winter, despite suffering from famine themselves. Captain Barker realizes that his whaling and walrus slaugtering had reduced the natives only remaining food resources and wrote to authorites for help.


From Artic Passage Book - Page 135 Physical Hardcover:

Captain Frederick A. Barker of the Japan was one of the few whaling men to cry out against the wholesale destruction of the walrus herds of the Bering Sea. In a letter to the Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants Transcript he warned New England whaling men that the practice "will surely end in the extermination of this race of natives who rely upon these animals alone for their winter's supply of food." 28 If the butchering of the walrus did not cease, the fate of the Eskimo was inevitable: "Already this cruel persecution has been felt along the entire coast, while a wail like that of the Egyptians goes through the length and breadth of the land. There is a famine and relief comes not." 29 Eskimos had often asked Barker why the white men took away their food and left them to starve, and he had no answer to give them. They told him of their joy when the whalemen first began to come among them, and of their growing despair as the hunters began to decimate the walrus. "I have conversed with many intelligent shipmasters upon this subject," wrote Barker, "since I have seen it in its true light and all have expressed their honest conviction that it was wrong, cruel and heartless and the sure death of this inoffensive race." 30 Captains had told Barker that they would be glad to abandon walrus hunting if the ship owners would approve it, "but until the subject was introduced to public notice, they were powerless to act." 31 It would be hard to give up an enterprise that provided 10,000 barrels of oil each season. My advocacy "may seem preposterous and meet with derision and contempt, but let those who deride it see the misery entailed throughout the country by this unjust wrong." 32 

Captain Barker was not the only shipmaster to appeal for an end to the walrus slaughter, but he knew better than to most what was happening to northern natives. Barker had taken his Japan into the Arctic Ocean in 1870 and had made a good catch. Whales were plentiful and the weather was good, so Barker was reluctant to return south through the Bering Strait. As the days grew colder and the shore ice thickened, Barker was forced to give up the chase and work the Japan toward the strait. Unfortunately, he encountered heavy fog which slowed his progress, then a storm which buffeted the Japan for four days. On October 9, 1870, the Japan was off East Cape, Siberia, and in serious trouble. "The gale blew harder, attended by such blinding snow that we could not see half a ship's length." 33 Although Barker had taken in most of his sails, the Japan was racing at breakneck speed before the gale. "Just then, to add to our horror, a huge wave swept over the ship, taking off all our boats and sweeping the decks clean." 34 

The situation was critical. Barker steered for the beach and hoped for the best. An enormous wave hit the Japan and drove it upon the rocky shore. Miraculously, all the men got ashore safely, but their travails were just beginning. The weather was bitterly cold, and clothing and provisions had to be recovered from the disabled ship. Barker and his men struggled through the surf to the ship and back to the shore again and suffered fearful consequences. All were severely frostbitten, and eight of the thirty-man crew died in the effort. Natives came to the mariners' assistance. Barker was dragged out of the breakers, breathless and nearly frozen, loaded onto a sled, and taken to village. "I thought my teeth would freeze off." 35 Barker scrambled out of the sled and tried to run, hoping the exertion would warm him. Instead he fell down as one paralyzed. The natives picked him up and put him on the sled once more. 

In the village the survivors received tender care. "The chief's wife, in whose hut I was," wrote Barker, "pulled off my boots and stockings and placed my frozen feet against her naked borom to restore warmth and animation," 36. With such care the seamen who had not died on the beach recovered. But for the natives "every soul would have perished on the beach... as there was no means at hand of kindling a fire or of helping ourselves one way or the other." 37 

Barker and his men wintered with the Eskimos, They had no choice in the matter as the entire whaling fleet had returned south before the Japan started for Bering Strait, It was during these months that Barker leaned someching of the Eskimos' way of life and became their advocate. Except for a few casks of bread and flour that had washed ashore, the seamen were entirely dependent upon their hosts. The men ate raw walrus meat and blubber that was generally on the ripe side. The whalemen did not relish their diet, but it sustained them. Prejudices against a novel food inhibited Barker for a time. He fasted for three days. "Hunger at last compelled me and, strange as it may appear, it tasted good to me and before I had been there many weeks, I could eat as much raw meat as anyone, the natives excepted." 38 Barker soon understood that the natives were short of food. "I felt like a guilty culprit while eating their food with them, that I have been taking the bread out of their mouths."39 Barker knew and the Eskimos knew that the whalemen's hunting of walrus had reduced the natives to the point of famine, "still they were ready to share all they had with us." 40 Barker resolved to call for a prohibition of walrus hunting when he returned to New Bedford and further resolved that he would never kill another walrus "for those poor people along the coast have nothing else to live upon." 41 

In the summer of 1871 Barker and his men were rescued when the whaling fleet returned. Some recompense was made to the Eskimos for their charity; they were given provisions and equipment from the ships. The natives plight was observed by other captains too. One wrote a letter to the New Bedford Republican Standard to describe the "cruel occupation" of walrus killing. Most of those killed were females which were lanced as they held their nursing offspring in their flippers "uttering the most heartrending and piteous cries."' 42 Many whalemen felt guilty about this butchery, and they had to have very strong stomachs to carry out the bloody job under such circumstances. "But the worst feature of the business is that the natives of the entire Arctic shores, from Cape Thaddeus and the Anadyr Sea to the farthest point north, a shoreline of more than one thousand miles on the west coast, with the large island of St. Lawrence, the smaller ones of Diomede and King's Island, all thickly inhabited are now almost entirely dependent on the walrus for their food, clothings, boots and dwellings." 43 Earlier there were plenty of whales for them, but the whales had been destroyed and driven north. "This is a sad state of things for them." 

Other captains reported that they had seen natives thiry to forty miles from land on the ice, trying desperately to catch a walrus or find a carcass that had been abandoned by the whalemen. "What must the poor creatures do this cold winter, with no whale or walrus?" 45 Such appeals might have been effective eventually, though whether they would have led to a prohibition of walrus killing in time to spare the northern natives from famine is unlikely. But events took an unexpected turn in 1871: The ships which passed through the Bering Strait that season did so for the last time. The entire fleet was caught in the ice near Point Barrow, as the men including the Japan survivors-hunted walrus and whale. Thanks to the Revenue Marine, the seamen were saved, but the ships were lost. This disaster, coming six years after the Shenandoah's destructive cruise, dealt the whaling industry a blow from which it never recovered. But it may have saved the walrus and the northern natives from extinction. It was clear enough to the Bering Sea natives that they had benefited by the loss of the fleet. As an Eskimo or Chukchi of Plover Bay put it to a whaling captain when word of the loss reached Siberia: "Bad. Very bad for you. Good for us. More walrus now." 46

Jun 3, 1888

Fred Bruemmer

Arctic Memories


These Mackenzie Delta Inuit took all that a bounteous nature offered, but the beluga large, easily killed, and abundant - was their favorite prey. "Eskimo whale camps will soon be no more," and Nuligak wrote in the 1950s that "the Inuit eat white man's food nowadays."

THE BELUGA HUNTERS IN PREHISTORIC TIMES - A MERE 200 YEARS AGO - THE MACKENZIE River delta and adjacent coasts were the richest, most populous region in what is now the Canadian Arctic. About 30,000 bowhead whales summered in the shallow Beaufort Sea, 50-ton (45-tonne) feasts for hunters skillful and daring enough to kill them. There were Dall's sheep in the mountains, moose in the valleys, musk-oxen on the tundra, and in summer vast herds of caribou on the wind-swept coastal plains. 

Seals were common. Great polar bears patrolled the ice, and fat Barren Ground grizzlies patrolled the land. Here were the breeding grounds of much of North America's waterfowl: the myriad tundra lakes were speckled with ducks and geese, loons and swans. Rivers and lakes were rich in fish: char and inconnu, and immense shoals of herring and fat whitefish. 

Most important to the Inuit of this region were the milky-white beluga whales that arrived each year in large pods in late June at the edge of the Mackenzie estuary and remained for six to seven weeks in its shallow, sun-warmed bays and inlets, where they were relatively easy to hunt. The people were the Mackenzie Inuit, the "Beluga Hunters," as archaeologist Robert McGhee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization has called them. When he dug trenches through the thick refuse layers at Kittigazuit, the main village of the Mackenzie Inuit, "87 percent [of all bones] were of beluga." These Inuit took all that a bounteous nature offered, but the beluga large, easily killed, and abundant - was their favorite prey. 

While in other parts of the Canadian North the average population density was one person to every 250 square miles (648 km2), 2,500 to 4,000 Mackenzie Inuit lived in settlements near the river mouth. Inuit camps, specks of humanity scattered across the vastness of the Arctic, were usually home to a few families, perhaps 50 people. Kittigazuit, the main village of the Beluga Hunters, had a summer population of 800 to 1,000 people. 

Among the Inuit at Kittigazuit at the turn of this century was an orphan boy named Nuligak who lived with his crippled grandmother. "Because I was an orphan and a poor one at that, my mind was always alert to the happenings around me. Once my eyes had seen something, it was never forgotten." He became a famous hunter and, in old age, wrote I, Nuligak, the story of his life, wonderfully vivid glimpses of a long-vanished world. 

"The Inuit of those days [about 1900, when Nuligak was five years old lived on game and fish only, and fished and hunted on a grand scale." The 200-yard (823-m)-long Kittigazuit beach was hardly large enough for all the kayaks drawn up there," and the moment belugas were spotted "a swarm of kayaks was launched. At the great whale hunts I remember there was such a large number of kayaks that when the first had long disappeared from view, more and more were just setting out... Clever hunters killed five, seven belugas, and after the hunt the shore was covered with whale carcasses... Once I heard elders say that three hundred whales had been taken. 

The great driftwood racks and stages were packed with drying meat, sealskin pokes were filled with fat, ample food for "kaivitivik, the time of dancing and rejoicing which began with the departure of the sun and ended with its return," Nuligak recalled. "In those days the Inuit could make marvelous things": puppets and toy animals, activated by baleen strings and springs, that hopped and danced across the floor of their great winter meeting hall, while Nuligak and the other children watched in wonder. "There was such an abundance of meals, games, and things to admire that these sunless weeks sped by as if they had been only a few days. 

Until 1888, the Mackenzie Inuit had little contact with the outside world. That year the southern whalers came and the ancient, unchanging world of the Beluga Hunters collapsed in agony, despair, disease, and death. "Aboriginal Mackenzie Eskimo culture could probably be considered to have become extinct between 1900 and 1910," Robert McGhee noted with scientific detachment. 

In 1888, whalers reached the Beaufort Sea, last sanctuary of the rapidly declining bowhead whales. Six years later, 2,000 people wintered at Herschel Island, west of the Delta, soon known as the "Sodom of the North." It was the largest "town' in northwestern Canada, inhabited, according to a Nome, Alaska, newspaper report, "by demons of debauchery and cruelty," the scene, according to horrified missionaries, of "bacchanalian orgies."

Nuligak's memories are less lurid. He remembered the whalers more as friends than as fiends. "White men and Inuit played games together, as well as hunting side by side. We played baseball and wrestled. We danced in the Eskimo fashion to the sound of many drums. 

Unintentionally, though, the whalers brought death to the long-isolated Inuit. They needed great amounts of fresh meat. Musk-oxen vanished from the land. Few bowhead whales remained. In 1914, the Royal North-West Mounted Police reported that caribou were virtually extinct in the Mackenzie region. By then, the Beluga Hunters, too, were nearing extinction. 

As the plague had ravaged medieval Europe, measles and smallpox epidemics wiped out the Beluga Hunters, who lacked immunity to southern diseases. Of 3,000 people, fewer than 100 survived. In 1900, nearly 1,000 Inuit camped at Kittigazuit. In 1906, a single family remained in this village of death and decay. 

Into the vacuum created by the demise of the Mackenzie people flowed Inuit from as far west as Alaska's Seward Peninsula, and even Yuit and Chukchi from Siberia. Traders and trappers came from the south. And whalers from all over the world and from every social stratum - the dregs of San Francisco's slums and a Count Bülow, a remote cousin of the chancellor of the German Reich; Spanish- speaking Africans; Chinese coolies; and people from the Polynesian Islands - - settled in the region and "went native." One day in the town of Inuvik an Inuk girl, a sociology student, asked me: "Where are you from originally?" I told her I was Baltic German, born in Riga, Latvia. "Well, for heaven's sake!" she exclaimed. "My grandfather came from Riga. 

These people, then, part Inuit, part everyone, became the new Beluga Hunters, following, to some extent, the millennial customs and traditions of the nearly extinct Mackenzie Inuit. The changes wrought through the coming of the whalers were enormous, but some things had not changed: the coming of the belugas, the need for food, the ancient rhythm of camp life through the seasons. 

Even the remnants of this ancient whaling culture seemed fated to fade away. Professor Vagn Flyger of the University of Maryland, who studied the Beluga Hunters in 1961 and 1962, predicted confidently that "Eskimo whale camps will soon be no more," and Nuligak wrote in the 1950s that "the Inuit eat white man's food nowadays." In the late 1970s, the oil companies came, their made- in-Japan module headquarters, with gleaming offices and dining rooms, with swimming pools and cinemas, squatting on the tundra, with their spacecraft-like drilling rigs far out in the Beaufort Sea, all backed by multibillion-dollar exploration budgets. Yet, "the old way of life" persisted. When I went to join the Beluga Hunters in the summer of 1985, twenty-five families from the towns of Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, and Aklavik had "returned to the land," to ancient camps along the coast where Inuit had lived and hunted belugas for thousands of years. "From time immemorial this has been our life," said Nuligak. 

Jun 2, 1975

Fred Bruemmer

Arctic Memories - Island Between Two Worlds


Ten walruses were dead. The men pulled the umiak onto the floe, patched the hole, and with amazing speed and precision cut up the 2-ton carcasses. Blood flowed everywhere; piles of steaming guts lay on the ice; men with axes cut heavy-boned skulls to remove the precious ivory tusks. Ivory and a sea of blood; it seemed the essence of the hunt. We loaded the boat to the gunwales with meat, fat, and ivory, and headed for Diomede.

The Diomeders are known for belligerence and reckless daring and have been called "the Vikings of the Arctic Sea," " a reputation they rather cherish. One day, two boat crews were in the Alaskan mainland village of Wales and saw a film about Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde, with violence and pillage aplenty. Back on Little Diomede, they were asked by a visiting biologist how they had liked the film. One man grinned and said: "Nothing special. Just a bunch of Diomeders on horseback!" 

The walrus hunters in my boat slept soundly, oblivious to the storm. Slowly the wind abated, the sky cleared, the pack spread out, the morning was pure magic. We launched the boat and purred smoothly along dark lanes among the floes, through a fantasy-land of shimmering, wind-and-wave sculptured ice. The ice glowed in the soft opalescence of morning, in delicate lilac, rose, and cool green, and bone-white icicles hung in grottoes of the deepest blue. Thousands of murres and auklets, like dark toy birds, lay scattered upon the satin sea. 

Far in the pack we heard the walruses, drifting north upon the Aloes from the Bering to the Chukchi Sea, all 200,000 funneling through Bering Strait on their annual spring migration. We approached them slowly, cautiously. Masses of madder-brown walruses lay sound asleep in chummy heaps upon brown, dung- smeared floes. 

Tom throttled the motor back, the men readied rifles and harpoons. They spoke in whispers; excitement and tension filled the boat. We drifted close to a pan loaded with sleeping animals, and suddenly, upon a low command from Tom, the eleven hunters fired, and fired again and again, a rapid, deadly fusillade. One moment it had been very quiet and then came carnage and chaos. 

Dead walruses lay on the floe, fountains of blood spurting and bubbling from the wounds. Others, in fear and fury, poured off the floe like a brown avalanche, rallied and attacked the boat, bellowing with rage, their eyes bloodshot. The men shot onto the water, into the walruses at top speed; most walruses turned and fled. A huge bull, bleeding from many wounds, dived, then shot up and hacked into the boat, and water rushed in through the gash. The hunters were prepared. They stuffed a large piece of blubber into the hole to staunch the leak. Ice and water were red with blood. They shot and killed the wounded walruses and tried to harpoon them before they sank. 

Ten walruses were dead. The men pulled the umiak onto the floe, patched the hole, and with amazing speed and precision cut up the 2-ton (1.8-tonne) carcasses. Blood flowed everywhere; piles of steaming guts lay on the ice; men with axes cut heavy-boned skulls to remove the precious ivory tusks. Ivory and a sea of blood; it seemed the essence of the hunt. We loaded the boat to the gunwales with meat, fat, and ivory, and headed for Diomede. The weather was changing fast. Ragged storm clouds raced across the sky. Gray fog oozed over sea and ice and enwrapped us like a clammy shroud. The wind increased; the heavily laden boat pitched and lurched in the rising waves. They raised the yard-broad waistcloth, furled against the gunwales in calm seas, on paddles and poles around the boat and lashed it securely as a guard against the wind-whipped spray. 

The day dragged on toward a dark and evil night. One man stood in the bow to watch for the ice floes that surged suddenly out of the murk and spume and vanished again into the dark-gray void that surrounded us. Tommy and I sat on the food box, lolling against each other with the wildly yawing motion of the boat, shivering and chilled to the core. Toward midnight, when the storm was at its peak, flinging sheets of spray across the waistcloth, and icy water soaked us to the skin, one of the men crept toward us, from thwart to thwart like a huge dark crab, took off his great parka, wrapped it tightly around the boy, gave us an encouraging grin, and crawled back to his seat, now dressed only in shirt and pullover. 

We reached Diomede in the morning and unloaded the boat. I walked slowly up to my shack, made tea and drank it very hot, and fell exhausted on my cot, blood-spattered and reeking of blood and blubber. Two hours later, Tom banged on my shack, I put on my sea-soaked parka, and we were off again. 

Days and nights merged. We hunted in fair weather and in foul (mostly foul, Bering Strait is notorious for its storms and fogs). The great racks on Diomede were loaded with drying meat; the ancient meat holes, the deep freezers of Diomede, were crammed with walrus meat and fat. The women worked nearly as hard as the men. Mary, Tom's wife, split walrus skins to be used as umiak covers with her razor-sharp ulu. Their daughter, Eva, eighteen years old and just back from a mainland high school, cut blubber off the walrus skins, and sliced meat and hauled it to the meat holes. Her sister, Etta, a charming, round-faced three-year-old, sat on a rock and copied her mother, Mary, pretending to split a piece of walrus skin with a can lid in lieu of an ulu. 

Suddenly, near the end of June, the hunt was over. The last walruses had passed to the north. The four Diomede umiaks had brought back much of the meat and all the ivory of 700 walruses ample food and relative prosperity, though much of that would be spent on liquor. The men caught auklets with long-handled nets, just as the Polar Inuit catch dovekies. I went with Albert Iyahuk to collect greens on the mountainside; he showed me the many roots, corms, and leaves Diomeders preserve in seal oil and eat with meat. 

Tom left to work on the pipeline in northern Alaska. Other men followed, some to the pipeline, some to Anchorage or to "the lower forty-eight." Most went to jobs, some went to jails, usually for brawling in bars. "I spend so much time in the Nome jail, I use it as my home address," one man joked. The Diomeders love to travel, but in fall all flock back to their lonely rock set in an icy sea. 

John lyapana was going with his umiak to the mainland and offered to take me along. Once, in a drunken rage at "whites," he had threatened to kill me. Two days later, sober, he asked me over for supper and was a delightful host, generous, amiable, with an enormous fund of stories about olden times on Diomede. Many villagers were on the beach when we pushed off. "Come back," they called, "come back and bring your family."

Jun 2, 1975

Fred Bruemmer

Arctic Memories - Fishing, Clamming, and Crabbing


Bruemmer discusses other important sources of animal foods for the Inuit, including clams, some even pulled from the stomachs of walruses, fish caught through holes or in nets made of whale baleen, crabs, and even a raw seal feast.


It is almost as though the Inuit in former days were following God's injunction to Noah that "every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you," and caught, killed, and ate anything, from 2-ounce (56-g) lemmings to 60-ton (54-tonne) bowhead whales. 

By far the most important animals to them, however, were seals and caribou, the sine qua non of their life in the Arctic. Had God created the world with only these two animals, the Inuit would have been content, for seals and caribou supplied them with most of their food and clothing

Some groups specialized: the people of Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait are primarily walrus hunters. The Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta region hunted white whales, and still do. The inland Inuit had no seals; they lived mainly on caribou and fish, and obtained durable sealskins (for boot soles) and seal oil (for their stone lamps) in trade from coastal people. 

There were no caribou in a few Arctic regions. They died out on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay in the 1880s when an abnormal winter rain was followed by heavy frost and the islands were covered with a hard, glittering carapace of ice. The caribou could not dig through it for food, and all starved to death. Deprived of caribou pelts for winter clothing, the ingenious Inuit made them from cider-duck skins. A mirvin, an eider-duck parka, was as warm as a caribou parka, but not as lasting. 

In addition to vital seal and caribou, nearly all Inuit caught fish, from small, bony sculpins to huge Greenland sharks, whose toxic meat could be eaten only by people who knew how to prepare it. The Inuit had nets: in the Bering Sea region they used large nets of seal or walrus thong to capture seals, and even whales. In Greenland, the English explorer John Davis saw in 1586 nets made of baleen: "They (the Inuit] make nets to take their fish of the finne of the whale." (Siberia's Chukchi, close neighbors of the Inuit, wove their nets of nettle fibers.) The most common way, though, to capture fish was with hook and line, or with leisters. 

The most important, most delicious fish was char, once infinitely numerous in lakes and rivers and the sea. Unlike its close cousin, the salmon, the char does not jump. Taking advantage of this, Inuit built sapotit across rivers, often in rocky rapids, with an entrance sluice leading to a central, rock-surrounded basin. Once the basin was swarming with ascending fish, the Inuit closed the low stone weir, jumped into the icy water, and speared the char with three- pronged leisters. It was numbingly cold, but wildly exciting: the women screaming on shore, the children jumping on the rocks, and then great feasts of fish, and rocks covered with blood-red split char, drying for the coming winter. 

Octave Sivanertok of Repulse Bay, on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay, took me along in spring to fish for char and lake trout. He drove his powerful snowmobile with speed and consummate skill. The long sled, pulled by ropes, rattled and hammered over rock-hard snow and ice ridges, and often slewed wildly. I got a merciless pounding and had to hang on like a limpet to avoid being tossed off when the sled caromed off ice blocks. With the snowmobile, Arctic travel gained in speed but lost most of its romance and comfort. Traveling by dog team, leisurely and silent, was usually a pleasure. One was aware of land and frozen sea, and felt as one with it. But it was slow. Octave covered in hours what would have taken days with a dog team. 

We stopped for the night near a frozen lake. Octave built an igloo, wind-proof and much warmer than a tent. He chiseled a hole through the 6-foot (2-m)-thick ice of the lake, built a windbreak of snow blocks, and jigged for lake trout. I went for a long walk to relax my battered bottom. When I returned, the last rays of the setting sun slanted across land and lake and flecked the snow with nacre and gold. Octave, endlessly patient, still jigged for trout. A row of speckled, bronze-glistening fish lay near him. 

Next day we crossed Tesserssuaq, the big lake, and finally came to Sapotit Lake, really a series of lakes connected by shallow, fast- flowing rivers. Dark water welled up and poured in milky-turquoise streamers across the ice. Here, in summers long ago, men caught char at sapotit. Many of the ancient stone weirs still existed, but were breached to let the migrating fish pass. Now many Inuit had come, like us, from Repulse Bay to spear fish with leisters. They kneeled at the edge of the ice, jigged metal lures with metronome regularity (in former days the lures were of carved ivory or polished bone), held leisters poised, and peered intently into the crystal-clear water for the golden flash of trout or the silver and rose of char. A lightning thrust, and the fish, held firmly by the leister prongs, was pulled onto the ice. Some leisters were still made of musk-ox horn, the best traditional material, strong and flexible. New leister tines were carved from the strong, thick plastic used for the counters of butcher shops. Sapotit and leisters are among mankind's oldest inventions. Magdalenian hunters used them 30,000 years ago during the final Paleolithic culture in western Europe. 

Clams, where available, are a favorite food for Inuit. Some come already collected and even a bit predigested. At Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait, walrus hunters took 50 pounds (22.5 kg) and more of recently shucked clams from the stomach of each walrus they killed. Masses of these clams were eaten fresh, raw or cooked, and more were slipped onto strings and air-dried for future use. In 1975, when I first lived on Little Diomede, I tried to improve on this by making clam chowder and invited Inuit friends to my shack for supper. But the clams, soaked in walrus gastric juices, curdled the milk, and the chowder, like nearly all my cooking, was a disaster. When I returned fifteen years later to live again on Little Diomede, it was still remembered. "Have you come back to make more chowder?" someone asked. 

At Aberdeen Bay on the north shore of Hudson Strait, which the Inuit call Taksertoot, the place of fogs, we had to dig our own clams. Inuit from the settlements of Lake Harbour and Cape Dorset also gather at this remote bay to quarry with pickaxes, chisels, sledgehammers, and crowbars the distinctive jade-green soapstone for which their superb carvings are famous. 

Hunting in Inuit society is man's work. Both men and women fish. But clam digging, berry picking, and egg collecting are usually family affairs, and Inuit often make it into a joyous outing. Matthew Kellypallik of Cape Dorset saw me on the beach and called: "You want to come along?" (I had dropped broad hints in camp that I wanted to go on a clamming trip), and we were off, a large canoe full of happy people, two pet dogs, and lots of zinc and plastic pails. We drove to a far bay and, as the tide (here more than 30 feet [9 m] high) receded, walked out onto the great mud flats and dug for clams with spoons, forks, knives, or sticks, most soon bent or broken. Some clams were huge - hand-long and perhaps forty or fifty years old. There are few walruses on this coast, and humans rarely visit; most clams can grow and age in peace. An earnest little boy, shy but keen to teach, took me in tow and showed me the telltale bubbles of retracting siphons and how to dig out the clams. Before the tide returned our pails were full, and a huge pot of clams was boiling on the pressure stove. We returned late in the evening, mud-smeared, full of clams and pleasantly tired. On the broad camping beach, a dozen tents, lit by pressure lamps, glowed yellow in the deep-blue dusk. 

We passed an elegant cabin cruiser. Its owner, a world-famous Inuk carver, leaned over the railing and recognized me. ' "Killiktee [an old Inuk at whose camp I had lived for several months] says Hallo!' " he called. "He says you eat our food just like an Inuk. Come eat with us tomorrow. We shot some seals. We ate in the main cabin of the cruiser, paneled in warm mahogany, the brass fittings shining, the deep-pile carpet burgundy red. The Inuit spread cut cardboard boxes on the carpet and upon them laid the seal, our supper. The host slit it open from throat to hind flippers, and we ate it, kneeling around the carcass and observing the ancient, traditional meat division of this region: the women ate the heart, the men the liver, the women took ribs and meat from the ventral region, men vertebrae and the dorsal meat, eating the lean, dark, blood-rich meat together with snippets of blubber. We washed our hands, drank lots of very sweet tea, and talked of hunting and carving. Big chunks of soapstone, my host explained, are called "bank stones.' "Why?" I asked. He laughed: "Because only banks can afford to pay for the large carvings made from them."

 In a few places in Alaska, Inuit not only catch a lot of fish, but also capture crabs by a simple yet ingenious method. At Little Diomede Island in late winter and spring, women, children, and some men spend patient hours "crabbing" at holes chiseled through the ice, catching crabs that measure, including spindly legs, about 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter (northern cousins of the famous king crabs). A stone sinker and two chunks of fish as bait are lowered on a thin line to the sea bottom. A feeding crab, loath to lose food, hangs on as it is pulled gently upward. Only when it is nearly at the surface does the crab seem nervous and loosen its grip, but that hesitation is fatal: the fisherman gaffs it or grabs it and throws it on the ice. The most patient crabbers caught twenty or thirty crabs in a day, enough for several delicious meals, and carried them home in burlap bags. 

Sculpins, say the Little Diomeders, are attracted by anything red. In former days, the bait was the bright orange-red skin flap near the base of the bill of crested auklets, small seabirds which the islanders scooped out of the air with long-handled nets. Now they use bits of red plastic as sculpin bait, or chips of ivory tinted red with Mercurochrome. 

Some fish catches are wholly fortuitous. Masautsiaq Eipe, Sofie Arnapalãq, their grandson, and I were on our way from Qaanaaq, main village of Greenland's Polar Inuit, to the floe edge 60 miles (96 km) away to hunt seals and whales. A lead, sealed by new- formed ice and covered with snow, stopped us. Masautsiaq tested the ice with a steel-tipped pole; when the ice broke, he called out in happy surprise. The lead was filled with dead Greenland halibut, flat, flounder-like, clay-colored fish, 2 feet (60 cm) long and delicious when fresh. The Inuit used to catch them with long lines made of bowhead-whale baleen and catch them now with nylon lines armed with many hooks. Most fish in the lead had been swept there by currents and were far from fresh. The best ones were for us, the rest were excellent dog food. Huskies are not fussy. Masautsiaq, prepared for most eventualities, carried several large sealskins and a huge sheet of plastic on his sled. With these he now fashioned a boat-shaped container on the sled, we filled it with fish, covered the slippery load - perhaps 600 pounds (270 kg) - with more sealskins, piled our bed robes and possessions on top, lashed all securely with thong, and, perched high on the sled and now amply provided with food for us and the dogs, traveled on to the floe edge.

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