WCA seal processing workshop teaches traditional knowledge

A seal-processing workshop hosted by the Wrangell Cooperative Association brought knowledge about traditional subsistence practices to the community. During a series of classes on Oct. 6, 7 and 8, students helped harvest the meat, fat, skin, oil and intestines from two seals and learned how each byproduct could be prepared or stored.

Instructor Paul Marks II learned how to harvest and process seals from his family in Kake, particularly his grandmother. "I would bring in fish, crab, halibut, whatever she wanted," he recalled, "and she told me what she wanted to do with it. She just talked me through it."

He uses a similar approach with his own students, guiding them through the processing steps and letting them get hands-on experience. He started teaching culture camps about 10 years ago with a previous seal processing workshop in Wrangell. Since then, he's taught classes in Kake and Yakutat and for Goldbelt Heritage Association and other organizations.

The two seals that were used for the workshop were harvested Oct. 6 in the Back Channel. That evening, workshop participants started cleaning and processing them. "You just take the blubber, or the fat, and the skin and cut that off," explained Marks. "After you're done with it, just take everything else and quarter it out. Take the shoulders, the ribs, the hind flippers and the flank steaks off. Take the backbone, take it out to the beach and put it back in the water."

He showed his students how to stretch the seal's skin on a frame so that it can be used to make drums and how to turn the seal's fat into oil, an "all-around condiment" that's as versatile as ketchup or soy sauce, though it doesn't taste similar.

Seal oil tastes "like seal oil," Marks said. "You can't compare it to anything."

Like many parts of the seal, the condiment is high in Vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids, which can fend off heart disease and promote brain function.

The workshop yielded 48 16-ounce jars, which will be distributed to participants, tribal members and elders. "There's probably a lot of people in town who really miss having seal grease," said participant Hannah Etengoff-Hoyt. "I have a list of people that we'll make deliveries to."

She likes to dip seal cracklings - a crispy treat made of fried blubber - in the oil.

Participant Brooke Leslie first processed a seal at a culture camp in Kake last July, and the Wrangell workshop gave her another opportunity to solidify her knowledge.

"This is part of our subsistence, food security, traditional way of life that nobody ... really practices anymore in this area," said Leslie. "Being able to bring that back here and do that here, it's important to cultural healing."

She was pleased to see large swaths of the community participate in the workshop, or just stop by to observe - including cruise ship passengers. Even her daughter, Lola, got involved.

One of Lola's favorite parts was braiding strands of seal intestine to prepare them for the smokehouse. "She really likes the intestines," Leslie laughed.

The Wrangell Cooperative Association used SEARHC "Healthy is Here" funds, which are intended to promote community well-being, to bring the workshop to town. Tribal Administrator Esther Aaltséen Reese hopes that the camp will be part of a series of similar cultural education events. "We want to continue doing culture camps to teach our traditional ways of life and promote food sovereignty," she said.

The workshop also held personal significance for her. "It was just really meaningful to be able to process the seal," she said. "I hadn't done that since I was young and growing up in Kake. For me, it was heartwarming to be able to do that again. It took me back across the years and I enjoyed it very much."

WCA doesn't have concrete plans for another workshop yet, but Marks would consider holding another spring event to reinforce the skills he shared with residents. In the spring, he explained, when the seals are eating hooligan, the flavor of the seal oil is particularly rich and each seal produces a high volume of it. Details about upcoming culture camps will be posted on WCA's Facebook and Instagram pages.


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