How a Native Tradition That Started With Seal Catching Has Evolved in Alaska: NPR

For generations, Yup'ik women have gathered for “parties” in the coastal villages of Western Alaska to celebrate firsts (such as the first seal caught by a young relative). In late April, a group of women gathered for a celebration in the village of Mertarvik to help Mildred Tom celebrate her daughter's graduation and her grandchildren's recent achievements.

Emily Schwing for NPR


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Emily Schwing for NPR

Traditionally, in many coastal native communities in Western Alaska, when a young relative hunts their first seal of the season, their family hosts a celebration to distribute that fresh catch to women and elders in their community. They are known as 'throwing parties', 'seal parties' or – in Yugtun, the predominant indigenous language spoken in the Yup'ik region of Western Alaska – 'uqiquq'. Over the years, the tradition has expanded to celebrate all kinds of firsts: graduations, the birth of a child or grandchild, a wedding – and the wide range of gifts has also expanded beyond subsistence food to include sweets, cuisine – and household utensils and small gifts. toys and trinkets.

The villages of Western Alaska are roadless, accessible only by plane, and the people here rely heavily on birds, fish and marine mammals for food. The subsistence hunting and fishing season begins in the spring, with the arrival of migratory birds and returning fish flows. and that's cause for celebration.

Mildred Tom recently hosted a whelping party in Mertarvik, 12 miles off the coast of the Bering Sea. After months of ordering presents and storing them in her house, she speaks on Sunday afternoon. Women from the community slowly gather in her front yard.

Tom wanted to celebrate her daughter's graduation and some of her grandchildren's more recent achievements. “This is for all my children and grandchildren,” says Tom. “For all their first catches… everything, mosquitoes, flies, you name it,” she laughs.

Once the elders find their place in the middle of the crowd, Tom, her daughter Teddy Ann Bell and her niece Amy Kassaiuli dig their hands into a blue plastic box on the porch.

“One two, three,” they count in unison and then lean far over the porch railing and throw handfuls of treats into the air. It all rains down on the crowd of women below. According to elders in Mertarvik, these women's gatherings have been taking place in the spring and fall in Alaska's Yup'ik region for generations.


Women enjoying a seal festival, 1981
YouTube

Before anyone in Western Alaska could order things online, women were throwing away bits of the first spring catch: chunks of seal meat, some dried fish, strips of hand-smoked salmon. What Mildred Tom's family is giving away is more modern: a rainbow-colored assortment of candy, small toys, kazoos, socks, gloves and other treats and trinkets. But, she says, some things are just not appropriate to throw at the elderly.

“Those wooden spoons, you know, I asked my son, 'If I threw this wooden spoon, would anyone get hurt?' and he says 'yes! …You better not throw them at mommy.” That's why she stuffs canvas bags with larger items to hand out: not just the wooden spoons, but also measuring cups and mixing bowls.

While Tom threw this party to celebrate her family, she also says it was just something her community needed.

Tom is one of about 200 people living in Mertarvik. In the years since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom says there have been far fewer gatherings in her community. So she found this particularly energetic. “Since COVID, we haven't gotten used to receiving visitors or visitors,” she says.

After about an hour, all the gifts are handed out and the younger daughters and nieces comb through the muddy snow looking for missed bounties. Then everyone goes home with something special, including new tires that will last until the next throwing party, which will likely take place in the fall.

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