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The hunting strategy for the bearded seal is explained by Stefansson, which was four times as valuable as other common seals in blubber or meat and would be cut up depending on the most influential people.

May 3, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 17

Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

When we started we followed the trail by which this party had arrived , and found eventually a village of five houses some six or eight miles east of Liston Island. Here we engaged to go with us to Banks Island a man whom we knew well and liked in a social way, but in whom we had no great confidence. He had, how ever, an excellent wife, which was the main consideration, for Natkusiak and I were well able to provide food and raw material for clothing, but we needed an able woman to do sewing for us and especially for making waterproof sealskin boots, without which a summer on the swampy tundra and more especially a spring on the water- covered spring ice were very disagreeable things to face. I was a little surprised to find Kirkpuk and his wife willing to go with us, for they had a baby not more than six or eight weeks old, but they told me that they would leave the child with its grandmother, and that the arrangement was one that they had contemplated anyway ; for had Kirkpuk not gone with us, he would, he said, have gone on a long hunt to Bear Lake, upon which journey the child would have been a burden, especially as he had another one, a boy of five or six. It was necessary, Kirkpuk told us, that we wait a day or two while his wife finished cutting up blubber and putting it in bags for the summer. Most of these he would give to his wife's father to cache on the mainland, but one bag we were to take along with us to cache on Victoria Island, with the idea of his using it next fall when he was returning from Banks Island to his own country.


In order to put the people in as good humor as possible, I told Natkusiak to go out and try to get one or more bearded seals, of which there were great numbers in this neighborhood. Dolphin and Union Straits, wherever they are narrow enough so that the current keeps the ice thin , are stocked with seals beyond any part of the Arctic Ocean known to me or to our Eskimo. And not only are there plenty of seals, but most of these are of the valuable bearded variety ( Phoca barbata ), one of which is easily equal to four common seals ( fætida) either in blubber or in meat. Curiously enough the eastern Eskimo do not use the bearded seal skins for boot soles, as do those farther west, but employ them entirely as material for ropes.


On the morning when we crossed from the mainland to Lambert Island I had, standing at sea level, counted with the naked eye over forty seals within a radius of two miles, basking in the sun, and more than three fourths of these were bearded seals. In this locality the bearded seal cannot be taken by the ordinary Eskimo method of hunting, which is to approach him by crawling up and playing seal and finally harpooning him. To try this would here be equivalent to an attempt at suicide by the hunter, for the ice is so thin that in order to pass over it safely at all the Eskimo in many places have to crawl on all fours or wiggle along on their stomachs, so as to distrib ute the weight of the body over a large area of ice ; if they stood up, they would break through. If on such ice a man were to harpoon a big seal or even a small one and try to hold him, there could be but one result. The ice would be broken by the struggle into small cakes, and the man would be pulled into the water. With a rifle this is all different, inasmuch as you can shoot your seal dead, then attach a line to him and carefully crawl away to a distance before you commence pulling, because the ice is always even thinner than elsewhere in the immediate vicinity of the seal's hole.


Although bearded seals are common enough in many districts inhabited by the eastern Eskimo, their taking is a rare thing. It is seldom or never attempted in the spring when they are basking on the ice, and only rarely in winter, when it is done by the ordinary waiting method described elsewhere, and with two men working together. Occasionally a man will spear a bearded seal thinking it is an ordinary one, in which case, if he be a stout hunter, he sometimes gets the beast and is considered a hero for it by all his country men. But sometimes the harpoon line proves too weak and the valuable harpoon head is carried off by the animal. Occasionally, when the line does not break, the man is not strong enough to hold the seal and the line and all are carried off.


Among a tribe whom we visited at another time a boy of fourteen unknowingly harpooned a bearded seal through a breathing-hole, and in order to hold him he wrapped the line around his waist. Only one thing could happen, for the seal was as strong as several boys of that age, and he drew the young fellow crosswise of the hole, which at that season was only four inches or so in diameter, and held him there a prisoner for several hours, until a man finally went out to look for him, and found him lying there across the hole. The boy and man together were able to enlarge the hole, haul the animal up through, and kill him. An adventure of this kind does not happen often, and no doubt will be told by that boy and his relatives as long as he lives.


There was great rejoicing in the village when it was learned that Natkusiak was going seal-hunting, and all the men were anxious to go with him, partly to secure their legal share of the booty and partly to see hunting with a rifle. Only three of those in the village had been with us the previous summer, and they were the only ones who had ever seen an animal killed with a bullet.


As a matter of local law there were two or three hunters who would not have needed to go along in order to get a share of the game, for in the division of the spoils only one piece of the seal goes to each household, irrespective of how many hunters representing it are present. The rule is that when a bearded seal is killed, the man who does the killing takes his stand in a conspicuous place near the dead animal and makes signals, usually by swinging out his arms at right angles. All those hunters near enough so they can see the sign come running up. Then the animal is divided into as many segments as there are families represented by the hunters present ; and when the cutting up has been done, the most influential person present has the first choice, which means that he takes the biggest and best piece, while the hunter himself, irrespective of his standing in the community, takes the last and therefore the poorest piece ; but he has the honor, which is no small thing among them, for not only is the deed considered one of prowess but the man who provides so much food for the community thereby becomes a public benefactor, and gets a valued reward in the consciousness of increased public esteem .


While the other hunters were away I passed the time in writing up my diary and in the occasional pursuit of bands of caribou that were passing. They were however more than usually wary that day for some reason, and I secured only two. Late in the evening the sealers came home successful. Natkusiak had shot two bearded seals, although one of them had been on such thin ice that they had been compelled to approach it slowly and carefully after it was shot, with the result that the warm blood from the wound made the place in which the body lay so slippery that the carcass slid of its own weight into the water and was lost.


When one shoots seal on solid ice, the ordinary procedure is to drop one's gun immediately after it is fired and to run at top speed to the seal. It has happened to me many a time that after a fifty yard sprint I have barely caught the animal by his hind flipper as he was beginning to slide, and it has happened oftener yet that I have been too late and have merely seen the splash as the animal disappeared in the water. Running of course was not to be thought of on the thin ice upon which Natkusiak hunted that day. The other seal had not slid from where he lay when shot, and had accord ingly been saved and cut in six segments for the six native families represented , for Natkusiak had told them that as we were the guests of the village at the time and were not doing our own housekeeping, he did not consider we were entitled to a share.