Petersburg brothers demonstrate Tlingit way of processing a seal

Sep 4, 2019

Adam Ware cuts around the flippers and up to the sternum of a seal during a cultural camp in Petersburg. (Photo by Ari Snider/KFSK)

The Petersburg Indian Association held a four-day cultural camp in Petersburg. The event was open to all members of the community and offered a chance to learn about wild food harvesting, Native language, and traditional technology, among other things.

The camp kicked off with a unique demonstration that was not for the faint of stomach.

The Community Cultural Camp is just getting started at Sandy Beach Park. Most participants are children but a few adults have showed up as well. Organizer Guylynn Etcher gathers everyone around a picnic table. But they’re not going to eat — not yet anyway. Rather, everyone watches as brothers Adam and Evan Ware unload a dead seal from a fish tote and place it onto two large cutting boards.

The seal is about four feet long, plump, with a dappled grey coat. Adam, who is 18 years old, shot it the day before in Frederick Sound. The Wares are allowed to hunt seals because they are Alaska Native. Now, he and his 12-year-old brother Evan, are going to demonstrate the Tlingit way of processing the animal.

“I’m gonna cut it right up its belly then ring around the head, so it’s easier to pull off,” Adam explains.

Without gloves and using a small paring knife, Adam makes incisions around the bottom flippers, then a straight slice up to the sternum, revealing a thick layer of soft white blubber. With Evan’s help he works his way out from the initial lines with quick, precise cuts, gradually separating the blubber from the rib cage and peeling back the hide. But this is not just butchering — Adam and Etcher, the camp organizer, explain how the Native people of Southeast Alaska traditionally relate to the animals they hunt.

“In our culture we actually thank the animal for letting us harvest it,” Adam said.

Adam says this is only the second time he has processed a seal. And Evan says it’s his first. They say they learned from their father, and that seal oil is a culinary staple at home, going with everything from spaghetti to fish.

“We put that on anything we really cook,” Adam said. “My mom puts it in a lot of our food.”

He says it’s an acquired taste.

“It’s very very, very strong fish oil, but it’s kinda like fish oil but not really,” he said, adding that other parts of the seal are also edible. “You can eat the intestines, you just gotta clean them out and then you can fry them, I’m pretty sure.”

“You can eat most of the parts of the seal,” Evan explained.

That includes the liver, and even the flippers. By now Adam and Evan have removed the seal’s head and peeled the skin most of the way off. Next, they break open the rib cage and start gutting the animal by hand, carefully, piece by piece.

The Ware brothers finish separating the skin and blubber from the carcass, then walk down to the beach to wash their hands in a stream. Adam says it’s important to him to participate in events like this one.

“Every chance I get to promote like show my culture, I do it,” he said. “It’s really important to me to try to keep my culture alive. Cause when my great-grandparents were young, it was actually shunned upon to be, to show the culture. Cause most of the states did not like — they considered it savage. Now it’s starting to revive, which is really big for us. So we can say, Hey, this is who we are, this is a big part about who we are, and we’re not, we’re not ashamed of it.”

Evan says he likes carrying on Tlingit traditions.

“I’d say it’s enjoyable to show our culture and to hunt, get the animals how our ancestors did before us. It’s kinda fun doing it too,” he said.

“We get to do what we love,” Adam added. “We love to hunt, we love to fish. That’s what we do.”

The Wares donated the seal meat and blubber to the camp. Etcher says they’ll eat some of it at an upcoming youth cultural camp. The rest will be donated to PIA members, starting with the elders.