It might be an unsettling sight for some but for Diane Dufour, skinning a seal is a celebration of culture and family.
“My mom taught me how to cut up seals,” Dufour reminisced. “I was the only one she taught.”
The Kaktovik native now lives in Fairbanks, where her only chance to practice her skills is at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
“Cut around the flippers,” she explained. “Some start at the head and cut down.”
Fur seal is a main staple for Alaska Natives in coastal communities.
“A lot of people love seal. It’s a different taste.” Dufour said. “It’s yummy!”
Every part of the animal will be used when the competition is over; the fat gets made into seal oil, the meat will go in the freezer and the skin will likely be used for clothing.
The goal of the contest is to remove the skin and blubber without too much of the meat on it.
The four seals used this year were donated by Barrow resident Charlie Brower. Because of the limited number of seals, last year’s winners are automatically entered if they chose to compete again. After that, the eldest entrants are selected to round out the competition.
They work quickly with as much precision as they can, slicing through the thick fur and fat.
Dufour’s ulus were handed down from her mother. She wished she touched them up before she started, though.
“I’m tired. It’s a lot of work cutting it up with an ulu that’s not sharp,” she said. “It makes it a lot harder.”
She came in second place for the second year in a row. She’s worn out from all the work, but didn’t lose her sense of humor.
“Want a hug?” she shouted to family members in the audience, holding out her hands, which were covered in blood.
For her, the time doesn’t matter; it’s really about getting back to her Inupiaq heritage.
“It reminds me of home. I enjoy going out and waiting for the guys to come home so I can start cutting up,” she said, laughing. “It’s fun.”
Then, for just a brief moment, her mood turned somber.
“It’s hard when you’re living here in town and it’s time for whaling season and hunting season, you wish you was at home,” she said.
It’s only five minutes, but for Dufour the competition brings back a lifetime of memories of the way things used to be.