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SEEVOOKUK: Stories the Old People Told on St. Lawrence Island
By Roger Silook

Time of Starvation

Many days the men never hunt because of storm and wrong wind direction. When that happens their food gets low; even some people run out of food and begin starving. They have no stores then to get food so they just live day after day without food and finally they start to eat some of their skin ropes or pieces out of their skin houses. They boiled these and ate them or sometimes ate them raw, shaving off small pieces enough for a mouth full. They must not be very appetizing for these are just dried skin, but anyway that relieves the hunger temporarily.

When this food shortage lasted for months, the people became thin and pretty soon they starved. At first the dead bodies were taken to the graveyard but most of the people get weaker every day and were not strong enough to take them to the graveyard anymore.

Roger Silook with a seal hiked 15 miles home. His wife Norma is in the background with Susie beside her and the late Daniel Silook on her shoulders. Photo by Ed Shepard
When the men were no longer strong enough, the bodies were dropped into the old meat cache, one after another. According to the stories the old people told, this was a sight nobody wanted to see, especially the women and children.

Before food was available again, many people died of hunger, mostly the older people. They were the ones who never ate much. They let the younger ones eat in order to keep them strong for hunting food. The old people said "hungry dogs could be chased away but hungry people couldn't be." The children cried for food but there were no stores and no boats or airplanes to bring food in those days. The people just wait for their slow death from hunger. Starvation must be the worst disaster those days.

Many, many of them would have survived if there was some weapon better than bows and arrows and spears. There must have been some open water to hunt seals then; if only there were rifles in that time. The only places they could use their spears were at the seal holes. But when the ice gets thick and when the snow covered the ice, they couldn't find the holes anymore and that is when the food shortage begins. Only the luckiest people get seals in the open water once in awhile then. You can get walrus in the open water all right, but the walrus is not around when this starvation happens.

Still, worst part of the shortage is that they have no more heat or light in their homes either. They used all their oil already. These houses do not have windows. Only one half of the house have light from daylight and from the moon at night. But the inside part where the family lives and sleeps, it was very dark because this inner room is built separately with a walking space around it. This makes it real warm, needing only two seal oil lamps to heat it, together with the body heat of the family. But the oil is gone.

When these people have a chance to get seaweeds to eat, they must be able to tell where it is by the small glow in the salt water. There is a very little chance of getting seaweed but they have a pole about 12 feet long and they have another short stick on one end about a foot long. They tie a four-foot piece of rope on the end with a sinker on the rope. They make a hole when they find the seaweeds, they drop the stick and try to wind the short piece of rope around it. When they wind the rope, they start to twist the pole, too, and kept twisting until they get the seaweed free. This way, after going from one place to another, they fill their pack sacks.

They don't do this all the time, because they pick all the seaweed that grows close to shore and besides, other places were too thick with ice. After all the seaweed is gone they have nothing more to eat. Sometimes when the sea gets rough in winter they have some luck because of the seaweed drifted in then. The people there always said that the seaweeds were the life savers in time of starvation.

©1976, all rights reserved

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About the Author: Roger Silook, Susie Silook's father, now an elder, has worked in many different trades. The late Helen White of the Alaska Magazine encouraged him to write stories about life on the island, and two volumes of his work were published through Ms. White. He was the first chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and traveled extensively during his term. He has also served as the mayor of Gambell, and held numerous board positions.

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