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Alaska natives add tribal foods to Thanksgiving feast
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- David Smith was a new arrival to the North Slope village of Nuiqsut last year when the former resident of upstate New York cooked up a few turkeys and vat of chili for the Eskimo community's Thanksgiving dinner.
He was completely unprepared for another dish on the menu: hundreds of pounds of gleaming red, raw whale meat, served frozen solid in bite-size pieces.
"I thought we were going to have a feast. I never assumed it would be a feast of whale meat," said Smith, 76, the village administrator.
In Alaska's native villages, many Thanksgiving tables this year will be set with store-bought turkey and all the trimmings. But alongside will be delicacies such as reindeer stew, moose roast, stuffed moose heart and whale-blubber salad. For dessert, there might be akutaq, which is whipped animal or vegetable fat that is mixed with sugar, berries and sometimes fish.
In some ways, the feasts are very much like the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving, the table spread with the fresh bounty of the land and the sea.
Nuiqsut's gathering always includes a sprinkling of non-natives like Smith, teachers, government workers and North Slope oil crews. Former Mayor Leonard Lampe enjoys the wide-eyed reaction from first-timers witnessing the bowhead whale feast.
"They're usually very curious," he said. "They're always asking questions, like, 'What part is this that you are eating? Is that normal to dip it in steak sauce like that?'"
A bowhead whale can measure 50 feet or more and weigh up to 100 tons. Edible parts include the meat, tongue and muktuk, which is the blubber and skin. In Nuiqsut, each bowhead caught is traditionally divided into thirds, to be distributed at Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations and at a blanket toss in June.
With four bowhead whales landed this year, whaling crews and other residents of the community of 400 have spent weeks cutting up portions for the Thanksgiving feast.
"It's about respecting nature," said Lampe, 39. "It's reminding people and crews that we live in a unique land and for a creature this size to give itself to the community is a real honor."
Whale can be cooked, but it is eaten raw and frozen -- never thawed -- at the Nuiqsut feast. With literally tons of meat available, people will get at least 100 pounds to take home. Other Thanksgiving dishes will include the familiar turkey and mashed potatoes as well as muktuk salad and teriyaki caribou.
No Nuiqsut Thanksgiving is complete without stories from the elders of past Thanksgivings, capped by Eskimo dances honoring the whaling crews.
The whale hunters are "the stars of the dance, you might say," Lampe said. "People thank them right there on the dance floor for putting their lives in jeopardy to harvest the whales."
A community feast also takes place each Thanksgiving at Savoonga, an Eskimo village on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Residents are roasting 90 turkeys at their homes for the big day. Other sure things are pugneq, a mixture of reindeer meat and fat, and spinachlike sourdock greens mixed with shortening, oil and sugar.
The number of traditional community gatherings in Alaska has dwindled now that the full range of packaged foods can be found in single-family portions at even the most remote villages.
But elders remember a different time.
Growing up decades ago on the Bering Sea Island of Saint Paul, Mary Bourdukofsky's Aleut family celebrated Thanksgiving with cormorants -- a sea bird considered the Aleut turkey -- fish pie and wild blackberry pie. Evelyn Hotch's family dined on stuffed duck at community feasts in the village of Klukwan.
Both Bourdukofsky, 83, and Hotch, 71, switched to turkey long ago but still look back fondly on the old days.
"I didn't know any different, that somewhere else they were having turkey," Hotch said. "This was our way of life."
In the Arctic Circle village of Fort Yukon, Kelly Carroll's Athabascan family is looking forward to baked king salmon -- the fish caught by her husband in the Yukon River -- and stuffed heart of a moose that was shot downriver.
"If not for us, there wouldn't be a Thanksgiving," Carroll said. "Pilgrims sat down with the natives who taught them how to survive off the land."