Mammals, Sea

views updated


MAMMALS, SEA. Sea mammals provide meat and fat in the diet of cold-climatedwelling hunters living primarily in the Northern, but also the Southern, Hemisphere. The skins and fur from sea mammals provide clothing and shelter, while the bones and ivory tusks are carved for tools, talismans, and objects to be sold as art. The fat may be processed for oil to eat or to be used for heat and light. Offal, fat, and less desirable meat products are often fed to dogs.

The most common sea mammals in the human diet are the many species of Phocidae, seals. Other sea mammals commonly eaten include walrus, Odobenus rosmarus; whales, Cetacea; polar bears, Ursus maritimus; the bearded seal, Ergnathus barbatus; porpoises, Phocena; narwhals, Monodon nanuk; sea lions, Eumentiapias jubata and Otaria jubata; and fur seals, Callorhinus ursinus alsacensis and Arctocephalus australis. Seals, walrus, polar bears, bearded seals, sea lions, fur seals, and porpoise feed on fish, but seals also eat krill. The most commonly hunted and consumed whale is the baleen whale, which filter-feeds on plankton. Polar bears, considered by Arctic native people to be a sea mammal, eat seal, fish, and other land mammals, but are known to be omnivorous. The livers of the meat-eating sea mammals are never eaten.

Arctic coastal-dwelling Canadian Inuit, Alaskan Aleut and Yu'pik, and Siberian Eskimos are best known for hunting seals. Northern Alaskan Inuit, for example, who live on the North Slope and Point Hope, are famous for hunting whales. All Sikumiut (sea-icedwelling) peoples share histories of hunting all sea mammals. North Baffin Inuit, for example, begin the spring with hunting seals through breathing holes; infant seals are stomped in their mother's dens in late spring; juvenile ring seals, prized for their silver coats and tender meat, are hunted in late spring, while the adults are hunted as they bask near open water leads. Dangerous trips are taken to the pack ice to hunt migrating narwhals, and summer brings open-water seal hunting from cargo canoes. Freeze-up in the fall brings the return of breathing-hole seal hunting, which extends through the winter months. Polar bear season begins in the late fall and continues through the winter months. Summer bear hunting is not possible due to Canadian conservation laws. The large baleen whale species in the eastern Arctic were overhunted by European whalers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since then, eastern Arctic Inuit rarely have hunted whales.

A complex set of skills is required to hunt sea mammals. Cooperative hunting requires an adaptive social organization specific to each sea mammal species. Cultural rules and rituals ensure that the values of sharing, patience, cooperation, stoicism, and emotional containment prevail among Arctic social groups. The social organization used by peoples in northern Alaska for hunting large whales surpasses the complexity of all Arctic groups, but does not need to be maintained intensely for subsistence hunting of other sea mammals. Lone hunters can hunt polar bears and seals, but it is difficult. Breathing-hole hunting is better done with at least two hunters and/or families, and polar bears are less dangerous to hunt with a group. Bear are pursued with a .306 rifle, but have been harpooned or shot with bow and arrow. Walrus, because they are dangerous, are hunted by groups armed with harpoons or large-caliber rifles. In general, the larger or more dangerous the sea mammal, the greater the need for a complex social organization when hunting.

In the Subarctic, seacoast-dwelling native people depend on sea mammals, with those closest to the Arctic being most dependent on them for food, clothing, and shelter. The Tlingit, who live in southeastern Alaska and northwestern coastal Canada, follow an annual cycle of hunting that includes summer sealing camps when harbor seals, fur seals, and sea lions are hunted. There are two sea otter hunts in the fall, another sea otter hunt in the early spring, and late spring concludes with both seal and sea otter hunting. The Tlingit use bows and arrows to hunt small sea mammals and harpoons for open sea hunting, while the Quinault, who live in the state of Washington, use bows and arrows to hunt sea lions and hair seals, which they dry and boil, during the summer. Both of these societies have developed social structures that make cooperative hunting and food sharing possible.

The Eastern Woodland seacoast-dwelling Micmac occasionally hunt seals, but focus primarily on land mammals. At the other end of the earth, the Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego feast on the flesh of beached whales and seals, but do not actively hunt them because they lack the kind of social organization necessary for actively hunting sea mammals.

The meat, skin, fat, bones, and specific organs of sea mammals are consumed both cooked and raw. Uncooked seal, bearded seal, walrus, whale, and polar bear are relished by Inuit from Siberia across the circumpolar region to Greenland. Inuit also prepare the flesh of sea mammals by boiling, frying fresh meat slices, freezing, aging it in caches, freeze-drying, and cooking it over a heather fire. Although the Inuit once ate polar bear and walrus meat raw, they no longer do because of the risk of Arctic trichinosis, which can survive freezing conditions and infect human hosts. Other meats are safe to eat raw due to the low temperatures and the lack of food-borne pathogens when meat is traditionally processed. The introduction and use of airtight plastic bags for meat storage in the second half of the twentieth century caused deaths from botulism. For this reason, traditional food storage and handling methods are recommended for people who live on the ice.

Subarctic populations cook meat in stews and soups or bake, roast, or fry it. Mixed meat and vegetable dishes are also prepared. Meat strips are dried or smoked and stored. Sea mammal meat was not as important among the Subarctic populations as in the Arctic because of the abundance of other food resources.

Seal and whale oil are significant in the diet of both Arctic and Subarctic hunters. The oil, which provides an excellent source of energy during periods of hunger, such as at break-up and freeze-up, is rendered by pounding fat on a hard surface. Plants and raw or dried fish, meat, or skin are dipped in either fresh or aged oil. Both Arctic and Subarctic peoples will whip seal or whale blubber and add bits of meat and/or plants for flavor.

Seal blood is consumed by Inuit and considered a powerful tonic that improves their mental and physical health. Strong beliefs are held among Inuit concerning the need to eat traditional foods, especially seal, to maintain the health of individuals as well as that of their communities.

The meat of whales, seals, bearded seals, walrus, narwhals, and polar bears is divided and shared according to cultural rules at the end of the hunt among both Arctic and Subarctic groups. Meat and all the edible parts of killed animals is distributed at feasts after large organized hunts. Furs are usually retained as the property of the hunter but can be shared as needed in the community. Families meet at the feast to collect their share but return home to further distribute and consume the food.

Cooperative hunting and food sharing define Arctic and Subarctic hunting populations socially. Sea mammals have an essential role in the diet of all circumpolar and some Subarctic groups. Human exploitation of sea mammals has allowed hunters to flourish in regions under frigid environmental conditions.

See also Arctic; Canada: Native Peoples; Fish; Fishing; Hunting and Gathering; Inuit; Lapps; Mammals; Siberia .


Borré, Kristen. A Biocultural Model of Dietary Decision Making among the North Baffin Island Inuit: Explaining the Economy of Food Consumption by Native Canadians. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1990.

Borré, Kristen. "The Healing Power of the Seal: The Meaning of Inuit Health Practice and Belief." Arctic Anthropology 31 (1994): 115.

Chapman, Anne M. Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: The Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Damas, David, ed. Arctic. Vol. 5 Handbook of the North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.

De Laguna, Frederica. Under Mt. Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1972.

Helm, June, ed. Subarctic. Vol. 6. Handbook of the North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

Nowak, Michael. "Sea Mammals in a Mixed Economy: A Southwestern Alaskan Case." Arctic Anthropology 25 (1988): 4451.

Schaefer, Otto, and Jean Steckle. Dietary Habits and Nutritional Base of Native Populations of the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: Science Advisory Board of the Northwest Territories, 1980.

Smith, Eric Alden. Inujjuamuit Foraging Strategies: Evolutionary Ecology of an Arctic Hunting Economy. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1991.

Spencer, Robert F., and Jesse D. Jennings, et. al. The Native Americans: Ethnology and Background of the North American Indians. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1977.

Wenzel, George W. Clyde River Adaptation and Ecology: The Organization of Subsistence. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 77. Ottawa, Ont.: National Museums of Canada, 1981.

Wenzel, George W. "Resource Harvesting and the Social Structure of Native Communities." In Native People and Renewable Resource Management, edited by J. Green and J. Dahl, pp. 1022. Edmonton: Alberta Society of Professional Biologists, 1986.

Wolfe, Robert J. Food Production in a Western Eskimo Population. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1979.

Kristen Borré