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Call of the Seal: The sound of success at the Native Youth Games 

Samuel Mecham, an Anchorage student,
Samuel Mecham, an Anchorage student, using his seal call to encourage athletes in the Seal Hop competition.

Long after the excitement of the Statewide Native Youth Games has faded, students might still hear in their mind’s ear, the sound of the seal call.

As they competed for medals in traditional games like the Two-Foot High Kick and the Kneel Jump, intermingled in the cheers and applause were seal calls, that echoed across the stadium at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.

Samuel Mecham's Seal Call
Hunters used the seal call to arouse the curiosity of seals, a distraction that gave the hunter time to harpoon the seal. A seal call also signaled hunter success.

Samuel Mecham says he perfected the call during seal hunts in his hometown of Unalakleet, but now he’s happy to belt it out to a sea of people.

 “It’s fun. It gets everybody riled up. And it gets people’s attention,” said Mecham, a student from Anchorage “It’s like our way of shouting and cheering on your teammate.”

 Marjorie Tahbone, a longtime veteran of Native Youth Olympics, actively encourages the use of the seal call.

As Master of Ceremonies for this year’s games, she used it to get the crowd pumped up. She even took time to teach hundreds of athletes the art of the seal call between competitions, as judges made preparations to award the medals.

“You start off with a low sound, like Ooh-ooh. And then you learn how to make a high sound –Ooht. And then you crack your voice,” said Tahbone, who instructs you to put the sounds together. “So, Ooh-ooht. And then you figure out how to do it, and eventually you’re able to go Ooh-oot, real easy.

Tahbone says seals are naturally curious creatures, so hunters used the call to distract them.

“The hunters would have to mimic a seal and get as close as they could, close enough where they could harpoon it.”

The seal call was also used to signal hunter success, a joyful sound that Tahbone says helps to bring the sounds of land and sea into the city.

During this year’s games, which were held from April 25 to 27, seal calls weren’t the only Indigenous sounds in the crowd. Kids often walk the aisles making bird whistles.

Joey Cross’s specialty is the raven call.

“Organize your throat, your voice in a certain way,” said Cross, as he made almost a trilling sound, deep in his vocal chords and added caws to the mix.

 Also, from his seat in the stadium, you can hear his call of the loon.

 “I learned this from a friend,” said Cross as he made a loon call. “By doing that, I learned I could make it smaller. Also, a little whistle.”

Cross, who is from Chenega, says seal calls are not part of the hunting tradition in Prince William Sound, but bird calls are another way to Indigenize gatherings.

On average, the Native Youth Games, hosted by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, drew about 2,000 spectators a day.

The sounds from villages near and far added excitement to games like the seal hop, where athletes raced across the stadium in a push-up position, hopping continuously, as far as they could go.

The seal and bird calls managed to cut through the roar of the crowd.

Caelynn Carter (left) practices her seal call, which she just learned at the Native Youth Games.
Caelynn Carter (left) practices her seal call, which she just learned at the Native Youth Games.

In the back of the room, you could hear the Mat-Su School District’s Caelynn Carter and her friends doing the seal call, responding back and forth to each other.

Although Carter won a first-place medal in the girl’s Scissors Broad Jump, she’s proud to have finally mastered the seal call.

“I just figured it out today, and I haven’t stopped,” Carter said. “It’s a great way to cheer someone on. It’s a lot cooler than clapping.”  

Each of the games has a story behind it that explains how it helped to hone skills and build endurance for hunting and fishing in the extreme cold. The Seal Hop, for example, was a game of stamina, used to teach hunters to sneak up on seals on the sea ice.

Today, these traditions transfer to other areas of life and help students learn self-discipline and gain confidence.

Marjorie Tahbone says even the seal call has use in today’s modern world.

“When you’re walking down the aisle of Walmart -- and you hear a Ooht -- other people will start doing it, three aisles down,” Tahbone said. “If you can’t find me, seal call, and we’ll find each other.”

 While it signals a different kind of hunter success, Tahbone says it’s very effective.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.