Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge


Paapi Merlin Koonooka

What the local residents have always said is that Sivuqaq, the Yupik name of our island and also the village of Gambell, means “the one that was wrung and squeezed dry.” St. Lawrence Island has a strategic geographic location, out in the Bering Sea between the mainland of Alaska and the mainland of Russia. We are right in the middle of the marine ecosystem. That means that all around us, depending on the time of the year, we have walrus, whales and seals. All day long you watch the waterfowl flying by, from the point at Gambell.

We are related to the Yupik people of the Siberian mainland. We share a common language with Sireniki and Ungaziq (New Chaplino). They call our language Siberian Yupik, but after the Russian-U.S. border opened up we found out that there are more people who speak the language on the Island than over in Siberia. So I like to correct this and call our language St. Lawrence Island Yupik. Those people have a way of life that is similar to ours. This is due to our connections in the past, when we would travel back and fourth exchanging relations and trading goods.

Compared to other villages in Alaska, our people have preserved their traditions more. Like atuq—singing and dancing—and the language we speak. We still speak it today although I think that it is going away among the young kids. Among the older people in the village, though, our conversation continues to be in Yupik. You don’t find that often on the mainland. Another custom that has been preserved is nengaawiq, work that a husband does for his wife’s parents and her clan for about a year or so after the marriage. Mainlanders are also surprised to find out the way we eat. The lady of the house will use an ulu knife to cut all the food and throw it on a platter, and then everyone sitting around will start eating.

We start hunting the spotted seals (qaziyaq) and the bearded seals (teghiluk) in the late summer and fall. We have seal blinds all over, up and down the coast near Gambell. We sit in the blinds all day long and let the seals come. When they get close enough we shoot one and hope that it floats. You let the wind and the waves bring it in and then you pull out your seal hook and retrieve it. Later on as the fall progresses you start hunting walrus. And then the young birds that were born in the summer start flying around on their own, and this is the time that they are good and fat and tender. Even when you are seal hunting, you go after these birds, especially the sea gulls and the cormorants, as well as the ducks and other waterfowl.

A family returns home to Gambell from a successful walrus hunt.

Photo by Steve McCutcheon, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, SM01124.

In late fall and winter you hunt walrus and seal out on the sea ice. I think of earlier days when we would walk out on the ice with whale baleen toboggans. You’d drag that behind you with an ice tester held behind your back and your rifle over your shoulders. You would use your tester to make sure that the ice was safe to walk on, and you had to know about ice and the movements of the currents. As long as you knew what you were doing there were absolutely no problems. In the winter we also do a lot of fishing. You make a hole in the ice and fish for sculpin or tomcod, and we do a lot of crabbing with hand lines.

Then in April you start hunting the bowhead whale. That is the time of the year that boat captains and their crews really look forward to. The way some captains used to prepare for it, it was just like a religion. They had certain songs and practices they would do in preparation for a hunt.

It is still very important. The whale is such a big marine mammal that the hunters and their families pay a lot of respect to it in preparing for the hunt. They don’t refer to killing or harvesting the whale, but more often to the whale coming to them and presenting itself to the hunter. It is such an immense and awesome mammal and we hunt in such small boats out on the wide-open sea. You are at the mercy of the whale itself instead of being a hunter. People always say that the whale gives itself to the hunter. That is the only way you can describe it sometimes.

On the island we still use skin boats and sails. You don’t use motors and practice absolute silence, no noise. Every crew member has to sit quietly in the boat because the whales have a very sharp sense of hearing. Sometimes the smallest noise will drive them away.

In a lot of ways, the walrus has also been a mainstay on the island. The walrus provided meat for the dog teams that we used. We still make the meat into tuugtaq or “meatballs” and store it in underground cellars. In the early days walrus hides provided the roofs and floors of our houses, and was used for the aargha or living and sleeping area of the home that was lit and heated by seal oil lamps. Today, the skins of the female walrus are split and used to cover the hunting boats.

As a child, you want to go out hunting and food gathering with your parents and your Elders. That is a really fun time for a kid. As long as they let us, we used to go along and learn to catch our own seals. I think the seal is usually the first thing we learn to hunt, and when you catch your first seal, that is a very proud day. Your Elders will hold a special small celebration of your seal and they share it with relatives and make sure everyone gets a taste of it. The same thing goes for your first bird.

Nowadays we see a lot of things that threaten our culture. There is too much television and there are video games, snow machines and ATVs, drugs, and alcohol. However, we still have children who are willing to listen and who respect their parents and Elders. And I’m glad to see young people going out on the same hunting grounds as we did in the years past. It is still taking place. I’m glad to see the young people eating the same foods—the seal, walrus, whale, and foods that we gather from the land. We are still using the island, the ocean and the resources in pretty much the same ways that we have done for years and years past.

And as I see it now, it is important for our children to get a modern education. By doing that they will be in a stronger position to preserve our culture and tradition. If you are going to learn the computer, you might as well do it because it will help you know how to fight the threats to our livelihood in the villages as well as in the rest of the world.


Paapi Merlin Koonoka is from Gambell, St. Lawrence Island. He is a community leader and whaling captain. Mr. Koonooka is Chairman of Kawerak, Inc.‘s Elders Advisory Committee as well as Elder Representative on the Kawerak Board of Directors.

This essay was adapted from an interview conducted by Jonella Larson on December 15, 2005.

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