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The Last Spear Thrower
On the Yukon Delta, an ancient weapon is as vital to hunters today as it was 12,000 years ago.
Jimmy Okitkun is scanning the smooth water of the Yukon River delta with the intensity of a low-flying bird of prey. When something unusual catches his eye, he nudges the steering wheel of his aluminum skiff, shifting it onto its chine and elevating his view long enough to identify the object.[/size]
A bearded seal comes into view, not in the water as Okitkun expected, but hauled out on the riverbank. At first glance the animal looks uncannily like a parka-clad man and its large, dark eyes seem to register surprise before it dashes for the water. Okitkun throttles back and spins the wheel. The 22-foot skiff heels over sharply and comes to rest broadside to the bank 20 yards away. Despite the hunter’s fast reaction the seal’s reaction is faster and it has already disappeared beneath the of the silty water. Though the animal is out of sight, a nearly imperceptible wake on the river’s surface indicates that it is heading downstream so Okitkun nudges the throttle forward and follows.
When the seal’s head breaks the surface, Okitkun ignores the rifle lying beside him and instead raises an ancient weapon once used to hunt wooly mammoths, and sends a spear arcing through the air toward the swiftly swimming seal.
Okitkun casts a nunarpaq spear with a traditional nuqaq.
Okitkun’s nuqaq is a spear thrower more commonly known by its Aztec name, the atlatl. The origins of the tool are rooted in a time when the world was locked in ice and the primitive men of southern Europe stalked reindeer, horse, ibex and even mammoths according to Richard VanderHoek, an archaeologist with the Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology.
“Lithic (stone) points from the Russian Plain suggest atlatl darts may have been made there 26,000 years ago,” he said. “So the spear thrower dates from the middle or end of that narrow period called the last glacial maximum, but may be older.”
The first people to cross the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska brought the atlatl to the Western Hemisphere about 12,000 years ago. Until the arrival of the bow and arrow nearly 8,000 years later, it was the most widely used weapon in the Americas. The bow and arrow did not come into common use south of the Arctic until just 2,000 years ago. And even then, when Hernando Cortez began his conquest of Mexico in 1517, Aztec warriors put up a formidable defense against his gun-toting conquistadors by piercing their Spanish armor with spears cast from atlatls.
Though variations appeared in many cultures, the weapon’s basic design remained the same throughout the millennia: a narrow piece of wood or bone with a grip at one end, and a shallow groove running its length to a notch or raised button near the tip. The butt of a light spear is placed against the button, the shaft lying in the groove. Thrown with an overhand motion, the atlatl effectively extends the length of the forearm, allowing the hunter to throw the spear with more power.
With the exception of hobbyists and a nostalgic effort to allow atlatl hunting in a few Lower 48 states, it has all but disappeared from the world. But in the Yukon delta on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast, not far from where the first spear throwers arrived in the Americas, the Yupik Eskimo nuqaq survives.
One evening in Kotlik, Okitkun’s father, Jack, recalled his boyhood when hunters still ventured out into the delta in kayaks to hunt seals and birds with nuqaqs.
Jack Okitkun shows the proper method for using a nuqaq.
“The bird spear had three points,” he said. “The last time I saw one used was in 1956.” Asked why they aren’t still used, his son quipped, “shotguns.” Later, as Jack described the durable seal-gut rain parkas once worn by Eskimo hunters, Jimmy smiled and said. “Helly Hansen is better.”
At 44, Jimmy Okitkun seems at ease straddling the fuzzy line between contemporary and traditional lifestyles that winds through western Alaska. He was born up the coast in St. Michael and has spent most of his life in Kotlik. Though he has no training as an engineer, he helped build the system that brought indoor plumbing and sewage treatment to the village in 2000. He was the plant operator until he recently quit after growing tired of cutting off service to his neighbors when they fell behind in their utility payments. His home is plumbed with a full bath and shower but he prefers the maaqivik, or steam bath, that stands between his house and the river.
Okitkun is also an adept woodworker, carving a four-foot-long spear from a block of driftwood in a matter of hours. He and his wife, Maggie, have three children; two sons who attend high school in Kotlik and a daughter studying engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage. When Okitkun talks about her, he sounds equally proud of her academic achievements and of the first whale she took two years ago during a family hunt.
Although the people of the Yukon River delta have embraced western clothing, TV, food and most other aspects of contemporary society, seals remain an important resource. Hunters pursue three species of seal — bearded, ringed and spotted. Seal meat is a staple; oil rendered from the animal’s blubber is used as a preservative and condiment for dried fish and other traditional food. Skins are used for various articles of clothing including hats, mukluks and gloves.
In most villages along the Bering Sea coast, Yupik hunters have long since cast aside the nuqaq for more efficient and lethal firearms. Seals are difficult to hunt because they’re wary of people and rarely show more than their heads above water. A rifle shot to the head will kill a seal quickly and, in the clear, salty water of the Bering Sea, a blubbery seal carcass will remain afloat long enough to be retrieved.
But the Yupik villages of Kotlik, Nunam Iqua, Emmonak and Alakanuk, while close to the seals’ marine habitat, are within the delta and surrounded by the Yukon’s fresh water. Mike Rearden, manager of the 19-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge that encompasses all four villages, explained why the difference in salinity has kept alive an ancient tool and rendered the modern rifle impractical for delta seal hunters.
“It’s the unusual situation where they are killing seals in fresh water,” he said. “When you shoot them, they sink. If you shoot a seal in salt water during a lot of times of year, it will float, but in fresh water it will always sink.”
Carving an ivory spear tip.
The spear cast by the nuqaq — called a nunarpaq — is about four feet long and carries a detachable brass or ivory point that is tied to the spear shaft with 20 feet of strong, thin cord. When a seal is struck, the point embeds in its skin and the shaft detaches, trailing behind the animal and revealing its location beneath the silty water to the hunter.
“So it is really the only way you can tag the animal and then kill it,” Rearden explained. “And that way you’re not going to lose it.”
Okitkun made it clear that hunting with spears is not a re-enactment. “Our ancestors hunted this way and we still do,” he explained. “Everyone carries one in his boat, it’s still the best way to kill a seal around here. We’re not bringing them back — we never stopped using them.”
A walk along Kotlik’s cluttered waterfront revealed several utilitarian aluminum skiffs, some powered by the latest four-stroke outboards. Lying in nearly every boat was at least one weathered nuqaq and nunarpaq.
Okitkun explained that hunting seals is usually a group affair involving elders and young people alike. But he expected to hunt alone on our trip because moose season was occupying many of the village hunters.
Watching for the almost imperceptible sign of a submerged seal
When that first seal’s head broke the surface, Okitkun lifted nuqaq and nunarpaq over his right shoulder, cocked his wrist back until the spear tip pointed toward the sky, and lofted it into the air. Though the animal was nearly 200 feet away, the spear flew in a high arc — rather than the flat trajectory of an arrow — and entered the water nearly perpendicular just a few feet from the seal’s head. Okitkun made several throws at the animal, displaying remarkable range and accuracy, usually missing by just a few feet. But we had encountered the seal where the river opened to the sea, and without the confines of a channel to restrict the animal’s movement it escaped unscathed.
After missing the first seal, we skirted the coastline and re-entered the delta. We made our way toward good seal-hunting water by following a dizzying series of interconnecting channels and sloughs that appeared indistinguishable from one another but Okitkun identified each, rattling off names with encyclopedic accuracy. Some referred to people, like Kigirtarrlurraq or Big Mike Slough. Others bore more traditional names like the Yuuqkanarrliq River — “maybe it means ‘to look,’” he explained later. Another, Muniliaq Slough, is the place for ice fishing.
While keen to find another seal, Okitkun hadn’t forgotten moose season, so when two appeared along the riverbank he called the Yupik name, “Tuntuvak!” as he beached the boat, vaulted over the gunnel and chased them on foot until they disappeared in heavy brush.
On the Pastoolik River, Okitkun stopped at a derelict riverboat and salvaged brass fittings to grind into spear points. Farther on, a few weathered wooden buildings came into view on a high bank overlooking the flat delta. We disembarked here to rest, eat lunch and watch the river for passing seals. He touched one of the wooden walls, scanned tundra and then squatted to pick a long blade of grass and put it in his mouth. “This is where my grandfather camped, and his father and his father too,” he said.
A few hours and uncountable twists and turns later, Okitkun suddenly snatched up the nuqaqand set a nunarpaq in its notch. “Issuriaq,” he said, “spotted seal.” Holding thrower and spear in one hand and steering the boat with the other, he accelerated up river. When the small seal’s head popped up a hundred feet away, he launched his nunarpaq, missing the animal by only a couple of feet.
“It’s better to catch one in the river, it’s harder for them to get away,” he said as he snatched the spear from the water. When the animal surfaced again it had gone farther than expected. Rather than throw, Okitkun barked “hee, hee,” and it quickly dived. “It’s just like saying ‘boo.’ It’s our way of trying to scare the seal,” he explained. “If it doesn’t get a full breath, it won’t swim as far.”
Harrying the seal for nearly an hour, Okitkun’s speed and accuracy with the nuqaq was amazing. Well aware that it was being pursued, the seal would surface only momentarily to breathe before diving again. But in that brief moment, Okitkun managed to launch his nunarpaq and nearly hit his tiny target. As quick as Okitkun was, the seal was quicker. Again and again, the spear pierced empty water.
Each time the seal dived, Okitkun had to decide if it would swim upstream or down. “Watch the qavlunak,” he said, referring to the nearly invisible wake created by the submerged seal. “When they swim near the surface they make the qavlunak.”
Okitkun had several near misses, and sometimes the animal appeared to head in one direction only to pop up in the other.
Another near miss as the harried seal gasps for air and dives.
“This seal is getting too smart,” he finally said. “If you don’t get him quickly he begins to figure you out. Let’s find another one.”
So we moved on, stopping a couple of times to look for moose among the low, brushy trees along the riverbank.
The sky was beginning to darken and we had not seen a seal in more than an hour. Okitkun turned around, hoping to surprise the small issuriaq that had outsmarted him, but the seal was nowhere to be found. Rain was falling and we’d been in the boat for more than eight hours when we entered Oksuquiulliaq Slough and a large, bearded seal broke the surface ahead of the boat.
This time Okitkun moved even more quickly, and after two throws the nunarpaq dropped just behind the animal’s head and disappeared with the diving seal.
In the bow of the skiff, he raised his nuqaq and called out, “Hey, hey, hey, I got it!”
Moments later the red-and-black-striped nunarpaq bobbed to the surface and began trailing behind the stricken seal. Okitkun grabbed a heavy harpoon and followed. The murky obscured the stricken seal, but the red shaft gave away its location and, when the seal surfaced again, Okitkun was ready and soon had the creature in the boat.
This close to the ocean, the brush had given way to tundra, so finding an open spot to clean and butcher the seal was easy. Once on the bank, Okitkun made quick work of the 200-pound animal, peeling away its skin with a thick layer of fat still attached. Next he removed the entrails, setting aside the intestines and heart, and began butchering the meat, occasionally putting a slice into his mouth.
Jimmy snacks on seal intestine as he cleans his kill.
“We call this ‘Eskimo chewing gum,’” he said as he cut a piece of white muscle from the top of the heart. He popped a piece into his mouth and then offered one to me. It tasted like oily rubber with a dash of rotten fish. While I contemplated how soon I could spit it out without appearing impolite, Okitkun began kneading the intestine, emptying it of its contents and then peeling away the outer lining or qiluuq, which he also ate raw — and shared. Within 30 minutes, the meat and fat was cut up and packed into a plastic tote along with the gray sealskin.
By the time we set out for Kotlik it was getting dark, but not enough to discourage Okitkun from continuing to look for moose. As we headed down a gloomy stretch of river another skiff slid into view moving upriver in our direction. Alongside our skiff, the driver cut his engine and slowed to a stop. Francis Hunt was also looking for moose but had had no luck. He and Okitkun exchanged a few quiet words and then fell silent, both scanning the bank for moose. Accompanied only by the soft patter of rain on water, we drifted with the current; engines as quiet as the two Yupik hunters. After a few minutes, I broke the silence to ask where we were prompting Hunt to recount what may have been the last time a nuqaq was used to kill a man
“This is Shaman Slough,” he said, pronouncing “shaman” like “salmon.” “Qiakviak was this shaman from Hooper Bay who came over here with some men and tried to claim this area for their hunting. Well, some hunters from Kotlik saw him over there on the bank saying some magic, trying to put a curse on them I guess. So one of the Kotlik men threw a spear and hit him right in the mouth . . . I guess that put an end to his magic words.”
At that, the two men burst into laughter and started their engines, continuing on their way, each heading home in opposite directions.
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