Plucking fun

After taking the five minute plane ride from Akiachak to Akiak we headed to the school to drop-off our gear and see if we could find the three Lutes – Megan Aarsvold’13 , Kelli Peterson ’13 and Suzy Olsen ’13 – who are teaching in the summer program here.

Even though class had been let out hours before the teachers were in their classrooms preparing for the next day. We should have guessed that. It was the same in Akiachak.

The three young women invited us to go to the house of one of the paraeducators – Faith Owen. The day before they had been to one her family’s fish camps to hang and dry smelt. (A fish camp is a base of operations to prepare and process fish during the fishing season)

This time, they’d try their hands – literally – at plucking birds. Walking to the house some of the differences between the villages become apparent. The dirt is made up of more silt and the river doesn’t run parallel to the town, but rather bends around one side of it. The banks and the dirt, in particularly, remind me of river banks in Washington.

We get to Owen’s home and sure enough there are five birds lined-up ready for plucking. The Lutes dive right-in. Listening how they need to put the feathers from between their thumb and forefinger to best pluck. Success happens in varying degrees, but they keep plucking until the birds are clean.

“It’s so real,” Suzy Olsen says, when she first puts fingers to feather.

“It is real,” Megan Aarsvold replies.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Olsen continues.

All three spend the next hour or so, plucking their birds.

The game collected here are duck and black bird (swan is also typically hunted, but there’s none to pluck on this day). Birds are the generally hunted in the Spring and then in the Fall, following migration, said Elena Owen — Faith’s mother and and expert guide on plucking for the Lutes.

The villages then go for fish, which has just started with a few days of smelt runs. Someone caught a King salmon in Akiachak though, Elena Owen tells us.

In the summer, salmonberries, blueberries, blackberries and cranberries are picked. One way to eat the berries is as akutaq (a-goo-duck), which is a mixture of berries, lard (or shorting), mashed potato and sugar. After plucking, the Lutes are offered blueberry akutaq and gobble it up.

After berries, comes moose season, said Elena Owen. The village, like Akiachak and Tuluksak, rely on subsistence living. They hunt and gather their food to survive. There’s much sharing that is involved among families in the village. Whatever is caught or gathered is shared among elders, widows, and families without hunters.

After leaving Faith Owen’s home the three Lutes show us where they strung smelt the day before. While walking to the fish camp, the group suddenly becomes larger, as students from the summer program tag along.

“They are so welcoming here and willing to show you,” Aasrvold says.

– By Chris Albert

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