Back to the Sea Otter

March 14, 2013 • Islands, Print, Theme • Views: 1066

BY DIANA SAVERIN

Peter Williams has long black hair, plastic orange overalls, and a gun. On a Sunday morning, he unloads a rubber tote and rifle bag into a small motorboat in a Sitka, Alaska harbor. Mist hovers above the water and hills. Peter drives the boat into the sound and searches for the day’s prey. He squints his eyes and scans the surface of the zigzagging ripples in the water. He looks for sea otters.

Though hunting northern sea otters, a threatened species, is generally illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Alaska Natives were exempted from this law and given exclusive rights to hunt marine mammals in 1972 because of what the state calls their “traditional uses” of such animals for subsistence and handicrafts. Peter is half Yup’ik, an Eskimo tribe in southwestern Alaskan, but he moved across the state to Sitka as a baby, where the local tribe is Tlingit. His white mother, who was a missionary teacher in his father’s village, raised him in this small southeast Alaskan fishing town on the outer coast of Baranof Island.

From the stern of the skiff, Peter navigates between kelp beds toward a small island covered with barnacles and orange coils of rockweed. He shuts off the engine and the boat rises and falls with the swells. He swings a chain with a grappling hook over the water and throws the hook toward the island where it catches a crack in the rock. He drops the anchor and pulls himself near the shore. When a wave lifts the boat near the shore, he jumps off the bow with his gear onto the sloped mass of rock. He crouches below the rocks, balances his rifle on a green lifejacket, and lies onto the rockweed. He watches a raft of otters.

He has sped by several rafts in the day, choosing to pass by most because they had too many females or pups. Otters similarly speckled the sound around Sitka in the 1740s, when the species was estimated to have numbered over 200,000 before what some call “The Great Hunt.” Like those responsible for the socalled “great” hunt, Peter is in it for the fur.

Coastal Alaskan tribes have hunted otter for meat and clothing for thousands of years. When Russians arrived, though, the spirit of the hunt shifted. Sea otter fur became a global commodity instead of a local resource. Anyone who has touched the smooth hairs of sea otter fur, said to be the softest in the world, would understand why desire for it grew so rampant.

Sea otters have no blubber. To keep warm in cold southeast Alaskan waters, with average winter temperatures in the 30 degree Fahrenheit range, otters have dense, velvety fur with more hairs per inch than that of any other mammal. As Russians settled in Alaska in the mid18th century, they began using this thick fur to keep warm, as well. The fur was so valuable that the hunt spread down the coast to Mexico. As populations dwindled, prices rose; by 1903, one pelt from one otter could sell for $1,125 in London (in today’s prices, over $27,000).

Around Sitka, trade began replacing the subsistence economy. Sea otter fur became a type of currency; one otter might be worth 160 rubles, or nine blankets, one box of gunpowder, one box of shot, five packages of Virginia tobacco, one cook’s knife, one horn comb, one file, two small tin bowls, five packages of dye, and ten pieces of flint and vodka (equal to a few bottles).

Both Russians, and then Americans after the 1867 U.S. acquisition of Alaska, hunted northern sea otters until the species nearly became extinct. By 1911, when formal conservation efforts began, the population had dwindled to roughly 1,500 otters. Scientists transplanted populations from Prince William Sound, a portion of the Gulf of Alaska about 500 miles northwest of Sitka Sound, to the waters around Sitka. Sea otters have since returned; a recent estimate of the sea otter population in Alaska is about 70,000.

Peter said he talks to the animal before he kills it. He said he explains to the otter that he is about to kill it, skin it, tan it, sew it into a hat or scarf, and eat it. He said he asks the animal to give him its life.

Peter’s face is lined up next to his rifle. Minutes pass. He does not move. Then, the shot booms. An expanding circle of electric red pools around one floating head. Peter takes six shots total, missing three times, and killing three otters. He scrambles down the rock to reel in his skiff, jumps in, and begins looking for the three otters he has killed; their fur is so full of air that they remain floating after death. He pulls their bodies into the seat of the boat. Their soft fur is dark, wet, and still warm. The dripping blood mixes with the sloshing water in the deck of the boat.

Peter tilts his Nalgene water bottle into the bloodied mouths of the otters, which is an Eskimo tradition for seal hunting based on the idea that the seal is thirsty after its life in salt water. Hunters believed that if they gave the seal a drink of fresh water, in return, the seal would give them its life.

In many coastal Alaskan tribes, the sea otter is considered one of the most spiritual and human-like animals. The Aleut, a tribe in the state’s western islands, have a legend that describes the origin of otters as a sister and brother falling in love, jumping into the sea, and morphing into otters. Another legend, this one from the Haida, a southeast Alaskan tribe, describes sea otters as realizing many years ago that life was too short to fill only with tasks, and so decided to spend much of life playing (the sea otter became a common symbol for laughter). Several Tlingit legends include a Kushtaka, or “land otter man,” that can take either human or otter form.

Though Peter grew up in a Tlingit community, he is not Tlingit. He has thick black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and high cheekbones. He looks more like his Yup’ik father than his white mother. When they would go out together for dinner growing up, waiters often assumed he was adopted.

“I struggle a bit about how I fit in,” he says, “Like how I fit into the white community because I don’t look white, how I fit into the Tlingit community because I’m not Tlingit, how I fit into the Yup’ik community because I wasn’t raised Yup’ik.”

This struggle to fit in dominated parts of his life, which were characterized by periods of alcoholism and depression. When Wade Martin, a Tlingit friend who has been hunting sea otters for over thirty years, began teaching Peter to hunt, he felt connected to his identity as an Alaska Native once more by becoming one part of this rich and complicated history of the otter. This history now gives Alaska Natives the chance to bring back a tradition that was nearly lost. “

You’re engaging in one of the oldest relationships that has ever existed on the planet: the predator, prey relationship,” he says. “When I continue practices of hunting from my ancestors of thousands of years ago, it has just lifted these veils, kind of completely changed my perception and understanding of the world.”

While it has helped him on a personal level—he started his own sea otter fur handicraft enterprise—he also sees sea otter hunting as having a circular history. Sea otter fur drove what Peter calls the “cultural trauma” Alaska Natives have experienced, but now, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, only Alaska Natives can hunt otters and sew their fur. He says they can return to a traditional hunting method, one that creates a more intimate relationship with each animal killed.

“It’s a great place to heal,” he says. Peter throws one otter at a time over his shoulder as he brings them to a rock on a nearby shore. He is careful to avoid letting any non-native assist; though native hunt of marine mammals is legal, the US Fish and Wildlife Service tightly monitors such hunting. His friend and teacher, Wade Martin, was arrested in 2003 for selling a pelt of fur to a non-Alaska Native, which is illegal if the fur has not been sewed into a handicraft.

Peter places the three otters onto a flat rock, where he cuts the dark fur of each from the red flesh with an angled knife. His hands are coated with their blood. He brings the pelts and carcasses to the water to cool, and carves meat from the spine. He builds a fire in the rocks, places a few cubes of purple backstrap onto a stick, and roasts it over the flames. He says that subsistence is returning to the rituals of everyone’s past, whether Alaska Native or German. Peter happens to be both.

Diana Saverin’14 is an English Major in Berkeley College. Contact her at diana.saverin@yale.edu.

 

 

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