It’s a home economics lesson you’ll only find in Alaska.
“It’s fun,” said Sadie Ellison, smiling. “I like the feeling and how it’s all oily.”
On a Friday in early October, Nome Elementary School fifth graders spent their afternoon wielding ulus and cutting up muktuk.
“Muktuk is kind of a fishy, acquired taste,” Tom Gray described.
“I’m not a big fan of it, but it’s okay,” said Sadie, turning up her nose.
Every year, Gray harvests about 10 beluga whales from the Bering Sea. Those that are still alive when he reels in his net will get a satellite collar to be tracked by scientists.
With his latest catch, he invited students out to get an up-close science lesson.
“I like to see kids hands-on,” he explained. “We dissected the whale and looked at the heart, the lungs, the whole system inside.”
While a couple students were a bit squeamish around the carcass, many — like Sadie — enjoyed the unique learning experience.
“I like how when he was cutting it open, he showed us the heart and the liver and we cut up the intestines,” she said.
Gray brought in several large portions of muktuk for the kids to cut up. They sliced through the soft grey flesh and blubber with ease thanks to their sharp ulus.
The students learned how to pickle it, though Gray said his family prepares it a number of different ways.
“Some of it is aged. My wife is aging it,” he said. “It will render and soak in its own oil and get real stink and some people really love it.”
While he helps the kids with their cutting skills, his wife BeeJay prepares the pickling ingredients: lemon, onion, sugar, pickling spice, vinegar and of course, muktuk.
“Oh, this is lots of fun,” she said. “If I could do this all my life with kids I’d be a happy camper.”
BeeJay grew up eating the Alaska Native staple, but whaling isn’t as prevalent as it once was in the small coastal town. Sharing the experience with the students is a way to get them interested in their culture and hopefully get them to carry on Native traditions.
“I won’t be here forever to put it away, so I want to teach as many people as I possibly can,” she lamented.
About 60 families will benefit from all the meat the Gray family harvests. Tom Gray hopes that, in addition to putting food on the table, he’s also inspired students to consider his profession for themselves.
“We’ve got about 30 kids here that we’re planting seeds, so to speak, so we can have whalers and I’ll get muktuk as an elder,” he said.
It’s a chance for the students to get back to their Native heritage, so they might one day give back to their community in the same way.