Scientists study Arctic seal poke storage system

An historical photo of a sealskin bag hanging from a wooden rack next to what appears to be two bones. Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Steve McCutcheon For at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years, Yup’ik families in western Alaska have carefully crafted sealskin pokes (bags) to store their seal blubber and oil. But today, most people are opting to keep their hunting hauls in easy-to-access, more convenient plastic buckets. But what impact does this shift have not only on the taste and nutritional value of the food, but on families and ancient cultural traditions?

University of Nevada associate professor and anthropologist Liam Frink and Celeste Giordano, a doctorate student and biological anthropologist, are leading a project to answer these questions.

“This is a really different kind of project.” Frink explained. “There are not many projects that mix the in-the-field, working with people and technology aspect with examining heath concerns. So this is a really different kind of model that we are experimenting with here.”

This project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Polar Programs, will improve understanding of subsistence foods, health and changes in technology as generations move away from more traditional subsistence food storage methods.

Frink and Giordano’s research takes place in Tununak, Alaska on Nelson Island. Photo: Celeste Giordano

Frink and Giordano are working closely with Yup’ik elders and their families in Tununak Alaska on Nelson Island to compare the traditional sealskin poke with plastic storage buckets. Their research is something the community is eager to be a part of and interested to see the outcomes.

The Traditional Sealskin Poke

An historical photo of a hunter putting away sealskin pokes after a hunt in Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (1969). Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ward W. Wells

The team traveled to Alaska last year to work with a family and witness how sealskin pokes are painstakingly hand-crafted. The tradition has been handed down through family members for ages.

Pokes are essentially storage bags made from one seal skin. In a three-day process following a seal hunt, a middle-aged woman created a traditional seal poke for Frink and Giordano’s research with the help of her elder mother.

The seal’s skin was first removed in one piece with care taken to avoid punctures. The skin is peeled off, much as one would remove a glove, resulting in an inside-out seal skin bag, or poke, with fur on the inside. The skin is then washed, and all the connective tissues are scrubbed away from the outside of the bag. The final steps include filling the poke with air and drying it.

Once the poke is finished, seal blubber--and sometimes wild greens and dried meat or fish—is added and the poke is stored outside (traditionally, in a pit or cache in the ground, but more recently on a porch) for one or more seasons. Over time, the blubber will render to oil, a vital ingredient of everyday life that has immense nutritional and cultural significance to Yup’ik families and communities.

Testing for Nutritional and Toxicological Differences

Giordano plans to study what happens to the food inside the poke as time passes. Over the life of the project she will travel to western Alaska every four months to collect samples of the seal meat and oil stored in the traditional poke, as well as meat and blubber stored by families who use plastic buckets. She will also collect samples of blubber before it is added to the seal poke or plastic bucket to control for any changes due to storage.

“I’m testing for nutritional composition and how it may change over different seasons and conditions in the seal poke versus the plastic buckets,” Giordano explained. “I’m also looking at heavy metal concentrations and some bacterial measures.”

Because this study will yield public health information that may impact how people store their food, members of the Yup’ik community are eager to see the results. “We have such strong support from the community. They are really interested in [knowing] if there are any health concerns, especially with the plastic buckets,” Frink added.

Cultural Significance of the Seal Poke

There’s also plenty of interest and curiosity around the creation of the seal poke. In many cases, as a family’s elders pass away so do the knowledge and skills used for creating these once essential tools for subsistence living.

“Only a few elder women still make seal pokes, and it is being passed on a little bit, but it will probably be a technology that will be gone at least in another generation,” Frink explained.

Frink also recalled that as the elder woman creating the seal poke for his research began the process, she drew a crowd of curious onlookers unfamiliar with the process.

Frink has worked with Native communities in western Alaska to gather ethnographic data since 1996.

Honoring Indigenous Women

As part of this project he will collect interviews recording peoples’ memories of their mothers and grandmothers creating seal pokes. He also hopes to highlight the skills and knowledge Yup’ik women possess. Frink believes his efforts to ethnographically document the creation of the seal poke process from beginning to end are unprecedented.

“Indigenous women’s activities are given the short end of the stick,” Frink said. “There is very little research about the expertise that the women have to process food correctly so it keeps. The seal bag is a really good example of the expert technology that women have. They really have it down to a science.”

Next Steps

Over the next year Frink will continue interviewing more elders, and Giordano will continue to collect seal-oil samples and analyze them.

“This project is a nice marriage of working closely with indigenous people—not just talking about them—and doing science.” Frink said. “We are trying to apply some answers to health questions, if there are any.”

Click here for more information about Frink and Giordano’s research. —Alicia Clarke