Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
An inflated seal stomach is attached to this dart for hunting seals. A kayak hunter would throw the weapon with his throwing board, and the balloon-like float made it very difficult for a seal to dive or swim away after it had been hit.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Object Type: Dart
Dimensions: Length 124cm
Source: F.W. Skiff Collection
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 138596.000
Vlass Shabolin: It’s a spear [dart] and that’s the gut we were talking about that you blow up and it’s your float. They separated the sharp of the spear [point] and took it out.
Daria Dirks: What is this called?(1)
Vlass Shabolin: That’s sanx^o [stomach] up here [float].(2)
Daria Dirks: Do you think it’s a stomach because it’s so short?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, they’re only about that long [approximately twelve inches] and so wide [approximately eight inches]. If you blew them up, they’d get bigger. It’s too big for a bladder.
Daria Dirks: And sinew?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Aron Crowell: Is the kind of dart that you would use with a throwing board for seals?
Vlass Shabolin: That’s what we saw earlier in the other building, that flat stick that had the opening on the far end.
Aron Crowell: Yes, that hooks on to this end here [back].
Vlass Shabolin: And then you flip that.
Aron Crowell: Then when that barbed point goes into the seal, the seal starts swimming away, and this cord unwraps and the seal starts pulling this whole dart behind him crossways through the water, which really slows him down. Plus it has this float.
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, the hunter will follow that float until he finds that the seal is dead.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. According to Vlass Shabolin, the general term kupyux^ [harpoon] can be used to refer to this type of harpoon with a bladder float attached to line that is used for seal hunting. Kupyux^ also means “lance.”
2. According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, an anekasix^ is a “float made from a seal stomach” or a “poke” used for storing food like seal meat or greens in oil.”
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) supplied many needs in traditional Unangax^ society. Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, who visited Unalaska Island in 1805, wrote that “their importance is beyond belief, since I may correctly maintain that the Aleuts could hardly live without them.”(1) The skins were used for clothing, blankets, boots, and boat coverings, the meat and oil for food, the oil for lamp fuel, the throats (esophagus) for boots and leggings, the intestines for waterproof parkas, and the stomachs for food containers and buoys.
This type of seal-hunting dart, which has an attached float (also called a “bladder”) made from a seal stomach, was carried on the deck of a kayak and thrown with the aid of a haasxux^ [throwing board] .(2) To prepare the weapon, the hunter would inflate the stomach-float and plug it with a wooden stopper. A wounded seal, with the barbed point buried beneath its skin, had to drag the shaft and float behind it, tied to the braided sinew line that is here seen wrapped around the dart shaft.
This effort would quickly exhaust it. Bladder darts were used to take both harbor and fur seals.(3)
Another method of seal hunting was to perch an inflated seal skin on a rock, using it as a decoy to lure a living seal within range of a dart or harpoon.(4) Heavy hand-thrown harpoons with barbed points were sometimes used against large animals at their rookeries.(5)
1. Langsdorff 1993:II14
2. Coxe 1966:73; Jochelson 1925:53-54; Liapunova 1996:97-99; Veniaminov 1984:284
3. Merck 1980:170-71; Veniaminov 1984:284
4. Bergsland and Dirks 1990:271; Laughlin 1980:40
5. Jochelson 1925:53-54