Language: Qawiaraq Iñupiaq
sikunun kumiġaun “ice scratcher”
Language: Qawiaraq Iñupiaq
You scratch with it, once in awhile. The seal comes up close. You wait for the seal to come close before you shoot.
—Oscar Koutchak, 2001
Seals are comforted and attracted by the sound of another seal scratching the ice, which this tool imitates. Hunters used it when stalking seals on the frozen ocean, or to lure swimming animals within range.
Region: Norton Sound, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Object Type: Ice scratcher
Dimensions: Length 30cm
Accession Date: 1878
Source: E. W. Nelson (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E033143
Examining & explaining
Anna Etageak: For when they hunt seal.
Theresa Nanouk: Nassigniaqtuniguug atuguugait. Nassigniaqtuniguug, they scratch on the ice.
(They use an ice scratcher when they go hunt seal. When they go hunt seal, they scratch on the ice.)
Oscar Koutchak: Oh yes, scratch.
Anna Etageak: Kumiġaun.
Oscar Koutchak: You attract a seal with this.
Theresa Nanouk: When you’re out on the ice.
Oscar Koutchak: When you’re out on the ice, you just keep going like that [scratch surface of ice].
Anna Etageak: At the edge of the ice.
Oscar Koutchak: You cannot go too close to the open water, because they can see a long way.
Stephen Loring: What kind of claws are they?
Anna Etageak: Young ugruk [bearded seal].
Stephen Loring: Is it tied off with sinew?
Oscar Koutchak: Yes, this is sinew.
Suzi Jones: Have you seen people use that?
Theresa Nanouk: A long time ago people did. These younger generations, they just scratch with whatever they have. They use anything, a stick, whatever.
Oscar Koutchak: My dad used to use this kind, or you could use anything for that matter. But this is very unique for this kind.
This is handy. It’s small. You can put that in your pocket. Whereas ours, we can’t fit it in our pocket. The younger generation, they use anything, but this is very unique. This is for the sole purpose of luring a seal to come near.
Aron Crowell: So it’s still the same technique though, to draw the seal.
Theresa Nanouk: Mm-hmm.
Aron Crowell: Because the seal’s curious, the seal comes?
Oscar Koutchak: Yes.
Theresa Nanouk: They come up and look to see, “What’s so interesting up there?” [Laughter.]
Aron Crowell: Do you hide yourself?
Theresa Nanouk: No, you have to wear a white cloth parka, so you look like snow or whatever.
Oscar Koutchak: You scratch with it, once in awhile. The seal comes up close. But you’re sitting down on a cake of ice or on the main ice with a white parka or whatever, and you wait for it.
You wait for the seal to come close before you shoot.
Aron Crowell: So they hear you from underwater?
Oscar Koutchak: They can hear you.
Theresa Nanouk: Your scratching.
Oscar Koutchak: They think it’s another seal.
[From discussion with Frances Charles, Anna Etageak, Art Ivanoff (Native Village of Unalakleet), Oscar Koutchak, Theresa Nanouk and Branson Tungiyan (Kawerak, Inc.) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 5/07/2001-5/11/2001. Also participating: Aron Crowell, Bill Fitzhugh and Stephen Loring (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
This type of tool, called an ice scratcher or seal call, was used by Iñupiaq seal hunters from Point Barrow to Norton Sound. It consists of seal claws lashed to a short wooden handle.(1) This example, collected by Edward Nelson at Unalakleet in 1878, is made with bearded seal claws and has a sinew wrist strap.(2)
In late winter and early spring, hunters in the Norton Sound area stalked seals as the animals slept or sunned themselves on the sea ice. They wore parkas with gray or white fur trim on the hood, knee protectors, and a single large mitten made from polar bear or white dog skin. In the other hand, they carried a gun or harpoon. At first walking, then crawling, a hunter slowly approached the seal, using the mitten and hood to hide his body and to blend in with the background of ice and snow. If the seal sensed danger and raised its head, the hunter stopped and gently raked the ice with his scratcher, imitating a seal digging its breathing hole. This reassuring sound would lull the animal back to sleep.
(3) If a seal was spotted in the water, a hunter would use the tool as a call, to lure it up onto the ice and into range.(4)
Writing from Port Clarence in 1894, Miner Bruce gave an account of how Iñupiaq men of the area called seals: “When one is seen, the native cautiously crawls toward it, until he gets as near as he can on the ice. He then crouches down, and with a stick, on the end of which is fastened the claws of [a seal], he scratches the ice. A noise is made with this that resembles the cry of the seal, and seeing the native it thinks it is one of its own species, and quickly swims toward him, and when it comes within a few feet of the native he throws the harpoon at it. If the point strikes the seal, which it is pretty sure to do, as natives seldom make an attack until they are near enough to the seal to be sure of striking it, it quickly succumbs and is hauled out on the ice.”(5)
Men at Barrow and along the north coast of Alaska also used ice scratchers or other scratching tools—such as the ice pick on the end of a harpoon—when stalking seals or hunting them along open water leads.
They also used scratchers along with special seal rattles to lure the animals into underwater nets.(6)
1. Bockstoce 1977:101, Murdoch 1892:254, Nelson 1899:129-30, Ray 1966a:77, Ray 1885:40, Rainey 1947:264; Spencer 1957:33
2. Nelson 1899:130
3. Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982:78; Nelson 1899:128-29
4. Ray 1966a:77; Spencer 1957:33
5. Bruce 1894:101
6. Murdoch 1892:252-254, 270; Ray, P. H. 1888:40