Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fun Fact: How to Qapsraq Seals

Qapsraq (pronounced kup-shuck, sr makes the 'sh' sound in Inupiaq) means to remove blubber from seal skins. It was the second part of my seal butchering adventure. Much to the delight of my extremities, it took place inside.


First you have to gather all the supplies. You will recognize the blade in the above picture as an ulu. (This is one of the tasks for which ulus were intended. They were not intended as pizza cutters, as frequently used in the VFN household.) The other items are qapsraq boards. They are curved cutting boards made from driftwood. These qapsraq boards are very old and were used by the grandmothers of the ladies were were working on the skins. Very few people make new qapsraq boards, and they're prized possessions.


This is a small stool. You sit on it while you qapsraq.


You also need rubber boots because the blubber makes an oily mess. Some boots are pink and girly...


And some look like they've been ordered from Cabela's. I didn't have boots, so I was in my bare feet.


You start by using your ulu to cut in between the blubber and the skin at a corner.


Then you stretch the skin over the qapsraq board. You use the ulu to slice the blubber away from the skin. Sometimes you have to scrape a couple of times in order to get all of the blubber off of the skin (it's actually not really scraping, it's more of a quick slicing motion).


You continue pulling the skin over the board as you cut off the blubber. This is a really good workout.


When the blubber is removed, the skin is a lot smaller (duh).


We took the de-blubbered skins outside to soak for a while.


Then we dumped the water and brought clean water inside for another round of washing.


People use lots of different solutions to clean their seal skins. The ladies I was with prefer Dawn or Joy dish soap.


I actually got to help wash the skins. It was fun.


You have to pay extra attention to the edges of the seal skin, because you want to make sure you remove all traces of oil and blubber. If you don't, the skin will turn yellow when it's tanned. Yellow seal fur is ugly, although you can sometimes still use it to make things to sell to ignorant tourists. I personally know better than to buy a handicraft made with yellow seal fur.

(By the way, you can tell that those are my arms washing the furs because they are so white. Not even six weeks in Southeast Asia could remedy that.)


After scrubbing you squeeze out excess water.


Then you spread the skins out to dry. You try to make sure the fur doesn't curl under at the edges because that can cause discoloration. Astute readers will notice that the above picture is of me in my barefooted glory. Don't you recognize my pootoogooks? (Pootoogooks means toes in Inupiaq).


Unfortunately, some of our skins needed to be rewashed. The above picture is one of our skins the day after we washed it. Can you see it? Around the arm hole? The discoloration? It looks kind of matted? And greasy? That would make for some ugly slippers or mittens, so it was rewashed.


My fabulous Eskimo lady friends agreed to let me try my hand at qupsruq-ing (please forgive me, I don't know how to conjugate for present participles in Inupiaq yet).

You can tell a couple of important things from the picture: 1. They lent me rubber boots. 2. They had to really help me to get started.


I actually managed to qupsruq by myself for a while. It's a lot harder than it looks. You have to really use your muscles. All of them. Ask me if I have a sore back. Or a sore neck. Or hamstrings. Or shoulders. Or gluteal muscles. Go on, ask me.


I started to feel like this because I was bad at the following things:

-holding the ulu appropriately
-completely removing the blubber from the skin
-not hacking up the skin

(Note to my mother-in-law: please don't be offended that I wore the shirt that you gave me for Christmas while I was qupsruq-ing. It isn't a statement about my feelings toward you or our relationship. Thank you.)

(Note to the surprised student who dropped by, took this picture, and said I looked scary: Ha ha, I learned to qupsruq before you!)


I perservered, and after an hour and forty-five minutes (and some help with the hard parts), I completed my first skin. That's an extremely long time for one skin. Some of my friends had finished three seals in the time I did my one.

Note to readers: You may notice two arm holes in the skin. Those are supposed to be there. You will also notice a large hole in the middle. That's not supposed to be there. That's the result of an idiotic white lady who had an unfortunate incident while she was trying to cut off excess blubber. Sigh...


Luckily, the seal was only a common seal. Common seal fur is less valuable than spotted seal fur. I still felt stupid, incompetent, and lame for my oops, but at least it won't be financially devastating to somebody.

VFN would like to, again, give a shout out to her super tough incredible Eskimo friends for showing her what it means to be a true Alaskan woman. I hope one day I will measure up...


Ben and Missy said...

pootoogooks is the greatest word EVER. It is so interesting to watch this whole process. What do they do with the blubber?

Super Angie said...

This blubber will be used as dog food. Blubber from oogruks (bearded seals) is made into seal oil. Seal oil is used to make Eskimo food.

JEM said...

That is awesome. Angie, I love that you just dive right into this stuff. Excellent work.

mackey family said...

Angie, your blog is one of my favorites to read, but I have to admit I haven't had the stomach for the past few posts....I'm not surprised you dived right in and enjoyed it, you're a stronger person than me!

Breezi said...

I am very proud of you Angie! You shucked that skin right off of that seal.
I hope never to become an Eskimo woman if skinning things is one of the requirements :o)(it just gives me the willies!)

Keith and Meghan said...

One of my favorite parts is your green Santa shirt---it seems fitting for the task at hand :)

Anonymous said...

Wow! Pretty gnarly! Getting in touch with nature . . . something most of us will never do.

Mike Nevin
Sacramento, CA

Anonymous said...

what kind of water did you use to wash it? Tap water or??