For Natives, Thanksgiving a celebration of bounty

From turkey legs to bowhead whale meat, traditional fare will fill Alaska's tribal tables

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

ANCHORAGE - David Smith was newly arrived to the North Slope village of Nuiqsut when the former upstate New Yorker cooked up a couple of turkeys and vat of chili for the Eskimo community's annual Thanksgiving dinner.

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He was completely unprepared for another dish on the menu last year: Hundreds of pounds of gleaming red whale meat.

"I thought we were going to have a feast. I never assumed it would be a feast of whale meat," said Smith, 76, the village's city administrator who is originally from Fillmore, N.Y. With four bowhead whales landed this year, he can only imagine what Thursday has in store for people gathering at the village school.

"It's going to be a huge celebration," he said.

The same could be said for other Thanksgiving festivities planned in Alaska Native villages around the state.

For many, the holiday is a welcome boost in the dark, frozen season, which has plunged Nuiqsut to lows of 25 degrees below zero.

Tables at public and private dinners alike will be set with store-bought turkey and all the trimmings alongside delicacies made from subsistence foods like caribou stew, moose roast and seal oil. For dessert, there might be frybread or akutaq, whipped fat mixed with sugar and berries and sometimes greens or fish. Even in urban areas, natives might gather in groups to observe the holiday with Western and native fare.

Nuiqsut's gathering always includes a sprinkling of non-natives like Smith; teachers, government workers, North Slope oil crews. Former mayor Leonard Lampe enjoys the wide-eyed reaction from first-timers witnessing the whale feast.

"They're usually very curious," he said. "They're always asking questions, like, 'What part is this that you are eating? Is that normal to dip it in steak sauce like that?"'

In Nuiqsut each bowhead caught is divided into thirds, to be distributed at Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, as well as a traditional blanket toss in June. Each event gives residents and visitors a chance to sample the bowhead, a species that can measure 50 feet or more and weigh up to 100 tons. Edible parts include the meat, tongue and muktuk, the blubber and skin.

Whaling crews and other residents of the Inupiat Eskimo community have spent weeks cutting up portions for the Thanksgiving feast, the first round in the whale-sharing cycle. As with the other events, it is a time to reflect on the bounty brought by the bowhead to the community of 400, said Lampe, 39, who has lived in the village most of his life.

"It's about respecting nature," he said. "It's reminding people and crews that we live in a unique land and for a creature this size to give itself to the community is a real honor."

Whale can be cooked but it is eaten frozen and raw - never thawed - at the Nuiqsut feast. With literally tons of meat available, people will get at least 100 pounds of it to take home. Other Thanksgiving dishes will include the familiar turkey and mashed potatoes as well as local favorites like muktuk salad and teriyaki caribou.

No Nuiqsut Thanksgiving is complete without stories by elders of their past Thanksgivings, capped by Eskimo dances honoring the whaling crews.

"They're the stars of the dance, you might say," Lampe said. "People thank them right there on the dance floor for putting their lives in jeopardy to harvest the whales."

A community feast also takes place each Thanksgiving at Savoonga, a Siberian Yupik village on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Residents are roasting 90 turkeys at individual homes for the big day at the village school. Other sure things are pugneq, a mixture of reindeer meat and fat, and spinach-like sourdock greens mixed with shortening, oil and sugar.

As always, traditional Eskimo dancing will be part of the celebration, said singer-dancer Gregory Toolie, 61.

"It's been going on ever since I was a child," he said. "My favorite part is making our people very happy. That's a big day."

The number of community gatherings has dwindled now that the full range of packaged foods can found in single-family portions at even the most remote villages.

But elders remember a different time, before turkey became the table centerpiece. Growing up decades ago on the Bering Sea Island of Saint Paul, Mary Bourdukofsky's Aleut family celebrated the holiday with cormorants - the Aleut turkey - fish pie and wild blackberry pie. Evelyn Hotch's family dined on stuffed duck at community dinners in the Tlingit village of Klukwan.

Both Bourdukofsky, 83, and Hotch, 71, switched to turkey long ago, but still look back fondly on the old days.

"I didn't know any different, that somewhere else they were having turkey," Hotch said. "This was our way of life and that's all I knew."

In the Arctic Circle village of Fort Yukon, Athabascan families also gather privately for Thanksgiving. Kelly Carroll's family, for one, is looking forward to baked king salmon caught by her husband, Anthony Carroll, in the nearby Yukon River and stuffed heart of a moose shot just downriver.

"Thanksgiving is actually our first dinner," said Carroll, 37, a lifelong resident. "If not for us, there wouldn't be a Thanksgiving. Pilgrims sat down with the natives who taught them how to survive off the land."

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