Seals: from finding a lair to sharing the meat

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

"Sacred Hunt: A Portrait of the Relationship between Seals and Inuit" by David F. Pelly, 144 pp., 59 illustrations, 2 maps, bibliography, cloth, University of Washington Press, $27.50.

The intimacy of the relationship between hunter and hunted has been explored by writers ranging from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway and Richard Nelson. David Pelly, a specialist in northern regions, takes up the subject again, focusing on seals.

Although Pelly concentrates on the cultures of the Canadian Inuit, all the peoples who traditionally relied on the seal are considered in these pages, from the Sammi (Lapps) and the peoples of Greenland to the coastal Inuit and the Yupik of both Chukotka and Alaska.

Ringed seals and bearded seals were especially sought after by the Inuit, because it was their blubber that was burned in lamps, supplying heat, light and cooking capacity. Some of the informants Pelly quotes remember times when there were no seals, and thus no light in their homes. Their skins were important for waterproof clothing, covering kayays and lining houses, and their meat was an important part of the diet.

Because the seal was necessary for survival, it was surrounded by numerous taboos and traditions, many of which involved the respectful actions or inaction of women. One of the best known, which seems to be circumpolar, was offering the dead seal a drink of fresh water - an offering made by the wife of the hunter. The hunter himself carried the teeth of an Arctic fox or a walrus or narwhal ivory amulet shaped like a seal.

The book is visually stunning, with 25 of its 59 illustrations in color. The illustrations add up to a gallery of art and photographs about seals. Some photos come from the first decades of the 20th century. Stone and ivory carvings and etchings are chiefly from the last half of the century. Many depict men standing, bent forward, at seal breathing holes, because of the extraordinary patience and fortitude needed to stand in -30 or -34 temperatures, motionless, for long periods. They must stand downwind so the seal will not smell them, which means the wind blows in their faces.

The author, David Pelly, has been traveling, living, studying, learning and writing in the Arctic for more than 20 years. For the past six years, during the research and writing of "Sacred Hunt," he has lived in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Northwest Territories. He has carefully prefaced his Bibliography with the words: "The richest and most important sources used in the writing of this book were the oral testimonies of Inuit in Canada, Alaska and Greenland."

The text is interspersed with legends of creation and transformation.

"Sacred Hunt" was originally published by GreyStone Books of Vancouver. The U.S. edition is by the University of Washington Press.



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