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Documenting traditional knowledge from Alaska Native hunters

Documenting traditional knowledge from Alaska Native hunters

Three southwestern communities are partnering with Alaska Sea Grant researchers to share their traditional hunting knowledge in an effort to conserve their marine environment.


Alaska Natives have been living with and harvesting marine mammals for millennia. Now as the climate changes rapidly around them, they are looking for more information about local resources and habitat quality to conserve their marine environment and work with government agencies toward mutual goals.

Recognizing the depth of local knowledge, University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Chanda Meek and cultural anthropology PhD student Ilona Kemp, with funding from Alaska Sea Grant and in partnership with the Bristol Bay Native Association, are documenting the historical experience of three communities in southwestern Alaska. Partner villages Chignik Lagoon and Port Heiden are looking at sea otter ecology and the Yup’ik village of Togiak is concerned about bearded seal (maklak) ecology.

The goal is to create regional-scale experience maps to illustrate how marine mammal ecology and harvesting patterns have changed in the communities over time. Port Heiden and Togiak are on Bristol Bay, while Chignik Lagoon faces the Gulf of Alaska.

"We hired local assistants to introduce us to the communities and in Togiak, to translate Yup'ik to English for us,” said Kemp. "Having that entrance into the community is really necessary because we are limited in the time we spend in each village.”

Kemp, with help from Meek, has been responsible for developing protocol for the traditional knowledge interviews. They asked about a topic and followed up with specific questions. “For example, we asked people what they could tell us about sea otter hunting in the past. The use of topics allowed the participant to talk about things important to them.” said Kemp.

The interviews revealed traditional knowledge. “In Togiak we were doing the interviews and I heard people saying the Yup'ik word maklak and maklasuk,” said Kemp. “I wondered, what are these different words? I learned that hunters have three different words for bearded seal. Maklar is a newborn to one year old, maklasuk is a 1-3 year old and the adult is maklak. Unlike the Western way of giving a species one name, the Yupik way is more specific. They look at the animal’s face. If the face is orange then it is an older seal, and the oil in that animal would have a much stronger taste. Three different life stages would also have three different locations where they hang out.”

Interviewees were asked to mark on a map their past and present hunting locations as well as feeding, haulout, and pupping sites. Participants were also asked about the role of maklak in their diet and how maklak has been preserved in the past and present.

The maps and interview information are being transferred into a GIS database. Traditional knowledge will be shown on regional maps that delineate areas important for marine conservation planning and regional subsistence priorities.

“This project taught me that there is so much to gain from talking with people who have lived in these places all of their lives,” said Kemp. “They have been part of the environment, hunted these animals, know where the animals are, and have an intimate relationship with them to validate that knowledge.”


For further information please see the Alaska Sea Grant website.

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