Historical Events

Gontran de Poncins describes a seal hunt and the resulting feast.

Kabloona

"I went with the natives to hunt the seal.

We reached the hunting ground. The dogs were unharnessed and chained up to the anchor fixed in the ice, and tea was made. Then the Eskimos spread fanwise over the sea, each with two specially trained dogs on a thirty-foot lead, and, slung across his chest, a sack containing his tackle. I accompanied one of the hunters and saw the rest dwindle into black dots in the limitless distance. We walked the dogs up into the wind, and soon they began to pull and trot, for they knew that the chase had started. First they ran like pointers, then after a bit they stopped and started off again more slowly and cautiously, nose to the snow. Suddenly they stood quivering in their tracks and sniffing the ground. They had located the aglu, the seal's breathing-hole. We could not see it, for it did not pierce through the snow; but the dogs could smell it. When it was a bull-seal's hole, even the men could smell it, once the dogs had led them there. 


Every seal keeps a number of holes open in the ice through wihch to breathe. While the ice is forming over the sea, the seal bobs up and plunges down and bobs up for air again so frequently that the sea freezes very thinly between his visits to the hole, and his body can easily break through the thin sheet of ice. All round the hole, the ice is six or eight feet deep. Above it, over the sheet of ice, snow collects and hides the hole from the passing Eskimo. What is curious also is that the seal comes up to sit on the ice, beneath the surface of the snow, at either side the hole; and here in spring the cow-seal bears her young. A sort of arch of snow is thus formed, and at either end of the arch the seal takes his ease, like a tramp under a bridge. 


Our dogs went round and round, sniffing, and that they had truly found the seal-hole was confrimed by my Eskimo after a bit of gentle prodding with the handle fo his harpoon. As I stood by watching, I saw him go suddenly down on his knees. He brought out of his sack a feeler, curved in such a fashion that by making only one hole in the snow, and moving the feeler round in a circle, he could tell just how large the hole was and where its center was. What he found seemed to satifsy him, for he stood up with a grunt and led his dogs about a hundred yards down-wind, where if they chanced to bark they would not be heard by the seal-an animal practically blind but very acute of hearing. He was down-wind and the seal-hole had not yet been opened when he called out across the sea:

"Nik-pa-rar-tun-ga!"--I have found the hole."

His face, as he came back to the hole, was wonderful in the concentrated purpose it expressed, the sober concern with his craft that it revealed.

Now he produced from his sack a marker of the length and shape of a long knitting needle, and sent it straight through the snow into the water that filled the seal-hole. The seal would displace the water as he rose, and with the water the marker would rise. When the marker sank, the hunter would know that the water was back in place and the seal had risen. 

From his sack, again, he took a square of bearskin and stood on it about a foot away from the hole. He brought out a steel spear-head which he fastened to the point of his harpoon, and he rested the harpoon horizontally in front of him on a pair of forked sticks that stood upright in the snow. Round his hand he looped the cord tied to the detachable spear-head, and he stood now ready for the kill. When the marker rose he would take the harpoon in his hand. When it sank again, he would drive the spear straight down with one powerful stroke. The spear-head would be deeply imbedded in the seal. He would detach the handle and pull at the cord with all his strength, hauling up the hundred-pound beast. 


But the kill might be long delayed. The seal, having several breathing-holes, might be hours coming or might not come at all. I myself had met a hunter who had spent three days motionless....to no avail. 


I had been ordered by my Eskimo to move off, and it was from a distance of a hundred feet that I waited and watched, and photographed the sceen. I was in great luck. An hour had not gone by before we heard a shout. A seal! As soon as a seal has been speared, the hunter cries out', "I have killed the seal!" and instantly the others abandon their aglu and race to be in at the kill. 


We ran as fast as we could, for the winner of the race receives a choice quarter of the beast, the hunter himself taking the hindquarters, while the rest is distributed thoughout the camp. IT was Tutannuak who had killed the seal, and already he was hauling it out of the hole. Blood ran in streams as th ebeast was brought up, and the dogs bounded over the snow, licking up the blood. Th seal was dragged a few yards from the hole, and then all the hunters knelt round to perform their rite fo thanks to Nuliayuk.


I can describe the scene, but how can I convey its solemnity? There was a hush as Tutannuak picked up his snowknife, made a small incision in the abdomen of the seal, put in his hand, and drew out the liver, all red and smoking. The five hunters knelt in silence as he proceeded. He put the liver down on the seal and cut it into six pieces, one for each, and he set a slice on the snow at his place and before each of the men who knelt, still as in prayer, in that circle. Next he cut and laid beside the liver six chunks of blubber. Six men, members of the hungriest and most voracious race on earth, were motionless in the presence of the greatest delicacies known to the palate of their race. Blubber and liver lay uneaten on the ice while the hunters mutely rendered thanks to Nuliayuk for the gift of the seal. Behind the men sat the dogs, quirvering with greed, their eyes on the seal, but no less still and motionless than their masters. Here, before me, six men and their dogs sat worshipping the sea from which they drew their sustenance, like sun-worshippers adoring the source of light and life. The wide immensity, the hush that overspread this world, lent to this scenec a measureless grandeur. 


Suddenly the charm was broken. Each man picked up a pointed stick, stuck it into his bit of liver, and swallowed the liver at a gulp while the blood ran down his chin. Then he popped into his mouth the blubber held in his left hand, and joy spread over all their faces while I, outside the circle, photographed them.

.....

We shoved the seal through the porch, and inside the butchering began. The honor of cutting up and distributing the meat fell to Tutannuak's wife. She skinned the seal, and as she worked she went mentally through the list of households and decided who was to get which cut. The blubber was removed and set aside, the blood was scooped out with a great ladle and poured into a bowl, and the moment for distribution arrived. All the women in the camp were crowding into the porch. Children crawling between their legs and over their backs, the sight and smell of meat creating a prodigious agitiation. On her knees in the porch, her head framed in the opening, the wife of the man who had won the race to Tutannuak held out a basin. And as soon as it was filled she made her way out, and was replaced by the next wife in the same animal posture. 

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