Seal Science: An Evolution of Traditional Subsistence Hunting: From the Faroe Islands to Southeast Alaska
This article is one of eight in a series of outreach materials funded through a partnership between Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM) on harbor seal conservation and subsistence harvesting.
By Sara Little
To understand a science, especially one as old as Indigenous hunting and fishing, you must first understand the culture in which it exists.
Non-Indigenous folks and policy makers often make calls to outlaw Indigenous traditional subsistence hunting practices. Reducing or limiting subsistence harvests threatens the livelihood and cultural wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.
Faroe Islanders recently made global headlines after they embarked on a traditional whale hunt in July of 2023, just as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. This annual event is called Grindadráp. As the Faroe Islanders began their harvest of dozens of pilot whales, non-indigenous passengers on a cruise ship witnessed the hunt. Their reactions, and cultural misinterpretations, resulted in controversy that played out in the news.
The persistence of the Indigenous Faroe Islanders in carrying out Grindadráp reflects their economic and cultural health – but many international journalists don’t see it this way. American, British, and other non-Indigenous media coverage characterized the event with trigger terms such as a “bloody” or “brutal” slaughter lacking traditional integrity. This mischaracterization appears to stem from the complaints made by disturbed onlookers from the cruise ship, which prompted the captain to apologize. Echoing this recent challenge to Indigenous subsistence activities from halfway around the globe, Alaska Native seal and sea otter hunters in Southeast Alaska have faced bad press coverage and endure censure and restrictive policies surrounding the incorporation of Western technology into their traditional harvesting practices.
The general public characterizes Grindadráp and the Indigenous hunters as “untraditional” and “not Indigenous” for adopting modern weaponry or technology. Similarly, Alaska Natives face the same type of scrutiny in their traditional hunting practices that have been in place for centuries. Non-Native people criticize the use of motorboats, all-terrain vehicles, and aircraft. Claims that subsistence hunting becomes less “traditional” and “less Indigenous” through the adoption of modern technology is another effort to delegitimize Indigenous peoples and their rights to ancestral practices.
A logical response to this criticism – or the thinking that if Native people want to continue their traditional hunts, then they should only use traditional tools – is that Native people should have full access to all their traditional hunting grounds without competition from commercial or non-Native hunters. Indigenous people have had advanced societies and technology for hundreds of years. They traded goods, art, songs, and technology. Integration of new technology and progress is imbedded in Indigenous societies just as in any other.
Tlingit people developed advanced technology thousands of years ago that is still in use today. One example, the sea otter canoe, was specifically designed to navigate glacial icebergs to hunt seals on the ice (Gray, 2022). Many of these tools were already more advanced than newly introduced Western versions, and they demonstrate the merging of scientific principles – like engineering, observation, trial and error – with facets of Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous science, especially in subsistence hunting, produces technology that is place-specific, just like sea otter canoes.
In many cases, these technologies were almost wiped out during the 20th century. Western explorers and governments began assimilation of Indigenous tribes, outlawing or destroying traditional practices. People like George Dalton, Sr., of Hoonah, Alaska, worked to keep them alive (Gray, 2022). He re-created a sea otter canoe, as its design is specific to the Hoonah, or “Xunaa,” Tlingit people. They are engineered to be smaller and maneuver with ease between icebergs. Hunters can access fatter harbor seals in Glacier Bay with them. George created his design from memory, and it was commissioned by Glacier Bay National Park and Sealaska Heritage Institute (Gray, 2022).
Unfortunately, George’s traditional knowledge was diminished by outsiders who proclaimed his hunting techniques were not traditional because he incorporated Western technology by using a gun in subsistence hunting of harbor seals (Gray, 2022). This event upheld the inaccurate universal stereotype and narrative that Indigenous science and practices are inferior or “primitive”. Incorporation of new Western technologies justified the need for control or policy to regulate Native harvests.
George’s experiences hunting harbor seals parallel challenges the Faroe Islanders face. In one instance near Garforth Island, George and another Tlingit man shot over 200 seals (Gray, 2022). This was viewed negatively by tourists who had seen the corpses: “... of greatest concern was that the abundance of seals was a tourist attraction and that tourists were ‘upset’ by the idea of the Tlingit hunting them…” (Neufeld 1997). An outsider notion grew that subsistence hunting was no longer traditional because the Tlingit men used guns and intended to sell seal hides (Gray, 2022). In other words, the use of western technology and desire to profit sways an Indigenous practice away from being “traditional subsistence hunting.”
George was a renowned hunter. His Tlingit upbringing and lessons that have been handed down for generations granted him great success on the water. This included building the scientific skills needed to observe patterns in the environment and animal populations, design and craft canoes, and replicate processes for consistent hunting success. His skills also stemmed from the knowledge that Indigenous science is resilient, yet also adaptive and ever evolving. It cannot be separated from cultural underpinnings and must be understood through its cultural context – nuance not afforded by most news articles on Grindadráp written by non-Indigenous reporters. In George’s cultural context, although he was a master of traditional knowledge and science, he was also impacted by the powerful forces of western nations from around the globe. He decided when to use old technology that was already perfected for the environment, like sea otter canoes, and when to use new technology, such as guns, for a more successful hunt.
George was engaged in subsistence hunting and used his catch in a traditional manner, sharing with his clan and community. But he was also part of the 1960’s cash economy that required commercial endeavors for economic stability. As one of the two men in the earlier story from the 1960s, he was penalized for use of guns to increase his catch and profit. When he went to sell seal hides near Garforth Island, he received backlash that suggested he was “less Tlingit” for attempting to merge his traditional practices with capitalist markets (Gray, 2022). Similarly in the Faroe Islands, the cruise ships that come to see local cultures and wildlife bring their foreign passengers who have uninformed opinions and little knowledge of the local areas. These foreign voices, despite being incorrect, are powerful enough to impact the practices and traditions of Indigenous peoples.
It is ironic that Native people and cultures were mislabeled by Westerners as being “primitive” or “uncivilized” and were forced to give up their traditional ways and adopt new technologies, yet at the same time Indigenous hunters are criticized because they use Western technology. Native cultures and tradition have always been influenced by changing times. They are not frozen in time as many believe.
Another Tlingit hunter that faced similar scrutiny was Archie Cavanaugh. In 2012, he used raven and flicker feathers on a traditional carved headdress and ended up losing his hunting rifle and being fined by the federal government. This was the result of a violation of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This law prohibits the taking of protected birds and the sale of their feathers. This obscure law was unknown to Archie, especially since tribal members have been using feathers for artistry since time immemorial. It should be noted that while Archie’s artwork was available for anyone to purchase, most of his work ended up in the ownership of tribal members who continue to use them for ceremonial purposes.
Native entities such as the Sealaska Corporation and Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) are currently working to amend this Act. They hope to change federal law to allow the use of feathers in traditional arts and crafts. The evolution of traditional practices, like the use of guns in hunting or selling crafts with government restricted feathers, does not negate nor discredit cultural and traditional integrity.
Eleven years later, Rosita Worl, president of SHI, recounts how organizations are working to have Archie’s gun returned to his family, as it is akin to the return of at.óow or sacred clan objects: “It was devastating for Archie because they also confiscated a rifle that his family had had in their possession since the arrival of western rifles, and they had used it to go hunting throughout the decades. We’re hopeful that's one thing we'll also be able to achieve: the return of that rifle to the homeland. It’s become like at.óow to us… [the rifle] became a symbol…” (Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2023). Newer technology has merged with culturally important and preserved traditions. The adoption of western technology and laws do not negate the Indigeneity of people and traditions. In Archie’s case, his rifle became part of a tradition older than western society itself through its involvement in subsistence hunting. He lost a part of his tradition in the confiscation of his gun.
In the 1980s, Marina Katelnikoff Beck and Boyd Didrickson had their livelihoods stripped from them by the US Dept of the Interior over similar archaic regulations regarding products made from sea otters. Marina Katelnikoff, an Aleut in Kodiak Island, made teddy bears and inserted a growler. In Sitka, a Tlingit man named Boyd Didrickson sewed a coat and hat that had metal snaps and a zipper (“Boyd Didrickson…”). The judge deemed these products not “traditional” and therefore unlawful according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA). All their inventory, raw materials, and sewing machines were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) until settlement of the case – which took years to navigate through the 9th Circuit. Didrickson and Katelnikoff won their case, but not without years of suffering to do so: “‘Seven years, thinking I was going to go to prison, because you guys told me I broke the law, because I put a zipper in my coat, and I put two snaps in my hat. For seven years I was scared to death,’ Didrickson said” (Ronco, 2012).
In 2012, SHI began to address the disparities in the unclear definitions in the MMPA. Through meetings and workshops in collaboration with FWS and Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM), as well as hunters and artisans, SHI was successful in changing the definition to a broader interpretation. This allows for artistic progress and reduces limitation on technology and machinery, leading to a robust cottage industry where hunters and craftspeople feel safe entering into a traditional business model. However, scrutiny towards definitions of “traditional” and “Indigenous” remain strong.
Anthropologists argue that laws regarding Indigenous peoples frame Native cultures as static and primitive. In Elizabeth Povinelli’s words, “if they engage in modern society, they cease to be Indigenous” (2002). The views of outsiders on seal hunting are especially indicative of this. In Southeast Alaska, people are resilient. Tradition adapts to the time while maintaining inherent cultural values. Seal hunting in 2023 looks different than seal hunting did 300 years ago, as would any other long-standing tradition.
Indigenous people are still here, growing and changing. It is not their job to prove they are traditional through unnatural restriction on the evolution of tradition. The practices of seal hunting, harvesting, sharing, and artistry continue to adapt to the times, from engagement in commercial profit to rocking seal skin moccasins in the office.
Gray, Sonya. Mapping Our Return: Glacier Stories and Knowledge Production in Climate Change. 3 Apr. 2023, https://doi.org/10.22215/etd/2023-15392.
Neufeld, David. Land Reborn: A History of Administration and Visitor Use in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. 1997.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Duke University Press, 2002. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv116895z. Accessed 19 July 2023.
Sealaska Heritage Institute. “Cultural Orientation With Dr. Rosita Worl 2023 | Sealaska Heritage.” YouTube, 12 July 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUrf7DJ5d0c.
Sealaska Heritage Institute. “AFN Calls for Change in Law to Allow Use of Feathers in Native Art.” Alaska Native News, Oct. 2012, alaska-native-news.com/afn-calls-for-change-in-law-to-allow-use-of-feathers-in-native-art/6530.
Downing, Suzanne. “Native Artist, Musician Archie Cavanaugh Dead at 67.” Must Read Alaska, Aug. 2018, mustreadalaska.com/native-artist-musician-archie-cavanaugh-dead-at-67.
Ronco, Ed. “Fish and Wildlife Director Hears Sea Otter Concerns - KCAW.” KCAW, 28 Aug. 2012, www.kcaw.org/2012/08/27/fish-wildlife-director-hears-sea-otter-concerns.
“Boyd Didrickson and Marina Katelnikoff Beck, Plaintiff-Intervenors, v. United States Department of the Interior, et al., Defendants.Andfriends of the Sea Otter, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.Alaska Sea Otter Commission and Ilarion Pletnikoff, Plaintiffs, v. United States Department of the Interior, et al., Defendants.Andfriends of the Sea Otter, et al., Defendant-Intervenors, 982 f.2d 1332 (9th Cir. 1992).” Justia Law, law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/982/1332/137020/.