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Making Nalukataq: A Process of Tradition

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Story shared by Cordelia Kellie

The Qargizine, Summer 2016 #4

UTQIAGVIK—I kick off my shoes, walk inside, and find a place for my sweater atop the mound of other coats and sweaters on the couch nearest to the door. I’m enveloped with the warmth and humidity of bread baking in the oven, the busy stovetop, and of 16 working bodies, with all hands stirring, cutting, or moving something.

It’s Nalukataq time. Images soon spread statewide of community members jettisoned skyward on the iconic blanket toss. To those who have had a hand in making Nalukataq, watching the blanket toss is almost an expression of “tavra,” the end of something, of another successful Nalukataq that has come to pass.

The work that happens to get to that point is mirrored by the work in several other homes, all undergoing similar preparations, in the whaling communities who were successful this spring across the North Slope, after everyone has come in from the ice and have butchered the whale, after it’s been dispatched to the siġļuaq (ice cellar), where the men will pull it back up again, to be prepared by the women in the warmth of the home.

“Grab an ulu,” I’m told. I’m back again. My friend Tennessee has invited me to help with her family’s crew. My first visit, boxes and boxes of whale meat and muktuk filled the living room. Our job that day was to go through every box and cut the meat into thin strips to make mikigaq, a fermented whale dish to be served during the crew’s Nalukataq. The older women in the room showed us how to cut the whale, watching over our work, edifying us if the meat was cut too thickly. “It needs to be thin so it can ferment in time, or else it’s not going to be done when we serve it!” we’re told, and so, we cut and cut and drop our completed strips into the 55 gallon bucket we’re filling, layering with cut muktuk, and covered with large slabs of muktuk to help seal in the mikigaq and help with the fermentation.

Today, we’re cutting and cooking the tuttu (caribou) to make akutuq (Iñupiat “ice cream”). There are more boxes out, almost as many as when we made mikigaq, and it’s all frozen as well. I’m in charge of defrosting the tuttu so we can work with it. “Zap it for 8 minutes in the microwave,” the whaling captain’s wife tells me, precisely. She doesn’t tell me 7 minutes; she doesn’t tell me 9; I recognize that someone has done this before, has been doing this for years before me, and has learned that 8 minutes is the exact amount of time for the perfect level of thawing to slice tuttu for akutuq. I couldn’t help but think, this is how traditional knowledge is made and passed down. When it comes time to make akutuq again for Nalukataq, and the tuttu needs to be defrosted, “8 minutes in the microwave,” I’ll make sure to tell the younger girls.

The home is so warm, and spirits are high. To be around so many delicious things! And it’s so difficult not to just taste everything you cut! As someone learning Iñupiaq, there are so many words that just cannot be replaced by English, and your vocabulary increases talking about the specific parts of the whale. The more senior members of the crew speak to each other fluently, with Iñupiaq being their first language, and I don’t feel poorly about eavesdropping, if it means picking up a few new words or testing myself to see how much I can or can’t understand.

It’s an alternation of thawing tuttu and cutting the newly thawed pieces that will go into two pots: one pot for soup for the household to enjoy that evening, and another pot for the akutuq, which will be ground up when it’s done. There’s a table with the more senior women of the crew peeling and slicing qaunnaq (solid fat that can been peeled from an animal, like the fat on a tuttu) for the akutuq, and with the qaunnaq and tuttu in ground up and sliced pieces, it’s time to bring all the ingredients together. “Akut” actually means “to mix.”

There’s two large bowls going, with those mixing the ingredients together in shifts. After about an hour of working the akutuq, one person’s shift ends and my shift has begun. With washed hands, my apron on and sleeves rolled up, I begin working the qaunnaq and I learn how important it is to keep working it, always mixing, because it’s the warmth of your hand an the friction of the mixing that melts the solid slivers of qaunnaq into the whipped and fluffy consistency that we enjoy. “Make sure to mix it good, there should be no clumps!” we’re told, and my aana (great aunt in the North Slope style of speech) helps me by pouring in warm broth from boiling the tuttu for extra flavor, and one batch is done with berries for a sweeter treat. This broth can only be worked into the qaunnaq by consistent, ceaseless stirring and mixing, and after about an hour of working the akutuq, I’m asked if I’m ready for someone to take over. My arm tells me to say, “Yes, please!”

The next visit is last big day of preparation, before the day of the crew’s Nalukataq and all the women slowly trickle in after church. We erect tables outside as the weather is nice and today we’re cutting the uuruq, cooked whale meat, to be distriubuted, as well as the whale heart, kidneys, tongue, and intestines. My friend’s young niece asks how she can help, and we work through the organs together at the direction of the whaling captain’s wife, talking, and laughing our way through the afternoon. I had never cut the organ’s before but as I tell the captain’s wife, my hands seem to know what to do. About 30 minutes later, after she’s been observing my work, she tells me, “Maybe it’s because of who you were named after!” I laugh at this and tell her that one of my names is after my aaka (grandmother), “She, too, was a whaling captain’s wife! It’s her ivory ulu necklace I’m wearing now!”

The day of our Nalukataq, we are joined by a couple other crews, and there is so much to do! The crew’s flag gets raised at 6:00 am and the windbreaker and tables have already been set up by the men. Trucks are hauling boxes from houses to Simmonds Hill where the Nalukataq is about to take place, and I help make the coffee and tea that the young members of the crew will serve to the community all day, pausing as we come together to open the day in prayer. The sun is bright and the crews join hands, encircling the food and the whales that have given themselves to us, in thankfulness for this day, for the richness of our communities and the love we have for our families and one another, and crews share everything that we all have worked so hard to prepare on this day of unabashed celebrating being Iñupiat.

People come early to make sure they get good seats, and turn out with Ziploc bags, coolers, Tupperware containers, bowls, spoons, napkins, and sunglasses, enjoying the soup that’s passed out with bread, the uuruq (whale meat) that is shared with all, the mikigaq that gets passed out with the fruit, the akutuq that is given to elders, an the apples and oranges that are given to the children (different crews have their own variations of distribution). The whitefish is given to elders, quaq (raw, frozen meat and muktuk is given to all, before closing with cake. If there ever was a time to visit, Nalukataq is one of the most joyous times.

We break for dinner, don our parkas and mukluks and come together for the blanket toss. I pull the mapkuq for a while (the name for the blanket, bearded seal skins that had been on the umiaq, but resewed for the toss) before joining the rest of the women who are watching and resting together, after working non-stop for at least a month.

All the food had been distributed, coolers had been filled and taken home, and now we get to watch who can go the highest before dispatching for the final event of the evening, a community dance. So much “tavra” is exhaled as the whaling captain’s wife tells me, “All done for another year!”

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