Traditional Knowledge: People of the Forest


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

People of the Forest

In many Alaskan villages and towns today, there could hardly be a more important subsistence food than moose. Native people have hunted moose for thousands of years. For Athabascan Indians in interior Alaska, moose—along with fish—are the most important staple foods.

Successful moose hunters must have detailed and sophisticated knowledge of the animal. In Athabascan cultures—like those of the Koyukon and Gwich'in people, mastering skills of the hunt is essential for success, but equally important is knowing how to show respect for the animal, its spirit, and its home.


The language of Moose


In any human culture, people need specialized language to describe every part of their environment that is important to them. This is especially true for people who live directly from the land and waters, because they need very specific words to talk about every facet of their world.

For Athabascan Indians, moose are very important economically and culturally, so they have an expanded vocabulary related to these animals.

Koyukon Indians—who live along the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers—have more than a dozen words to identify the age, gender, and circumstances of a particular moose. For example:

Dineega—general name for moose
K'iyeega—biggest bull moose
Deyozee—cow moose
Biditseega Hoolaanee—cow with calf
Ditseega—calf in its first year (still with its mother)
K'ik'onee Daadla—yearling calf that has left its mother

Not surprisingly, Koyukon people also have a large vocabulary for each part of a moose, such as antlers (bida'), eyes (binogha'), shoulder blade (baggokina'), sinew (tlaah), body fat (bakk'oh), and hide (bilit).

In the Gwich'in language, there are also many words for moose, including those which designate size among bulls, an important distinction for hunting :

Ch'izhir'—largest bull
Ditii'dho'neechee'chik—second largest bull
Dijii—third largest bull
Jyaagoo—fourth largest bull
Dachan-chik—fifth largest bull
Ja'atkhok—young bull


The Hunter's Eye

Athabascan Indians study their environment with intelligence and keen perception—they are life-long students of their world.

Moose can be challenging animals to hunt, especially in areas where they are scarce or highly mobile. For traditional people like the Koyukon and Gwich'in, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of moose movements—and this comes by studying the animal and its environment, by sharing information between hunters, and by telling stories passed down through countless generations.

For example, hunters know that during the protracted, harsh northern winter moose are often stressed and skinny, so their meat is not especially desirable. But spring and summer bring long days and lush growth, so, moose can pack in up to 50 pounds of food per day. By the time fall comes, the animals are in prime condition, especially the bulls and cows that have no calves to nurse and protect.

To find moose, first a person needs to know where the animals are most likely to be at any given time and when moose are in the best condition. For example, in the fall rutting (breeding) season, moose often congregate in the river valleys where willow thickets still provide fresh browse.

During the rut, bulls sometimes have spectacular battles—pushing and shoving, clashing their enormous antlers—to establish dominance. These contests take tremendous amounts of energy at a time when the bulls eat little or nothing because of their single-minded focus on mating. They become skinny and smelly and people say their meat is hardly edible.

Before the fall rut begins, Athabaskan hunters travel up the rivers by boat, looking for signs of moose—fresh tracks on the sandbars, broken branches in the willow thickets, scraped bark on shrubs and trees, or shadowy movements in the brush. Villagers also rely on their knowledge of places where they've seen moose before or on reports from others who have passed along the river.

When a hunter finds a set of tracks, he checks them closely to determine the sex and condition of the moose—and most importantly, the age of the track. It's important to know how long ago the moose walked here and whether the animal is staying put or traveling on.

Aging tracks on muddy riverbanks or sand bars can be very challenging. A fresh track has clean sharp edges, and within a day or so these edges may begin to dry out, or they might be softened by rain or wind. Depending on weather conditions the track could look quite fresh for several days or more.

A sharp eye might find a track where the moose entered the water, and if it's partially filled with water, this could help the hunter determine how long ago the moose made it. When the water is still muddy, the animal came by within perhaps half-a-day or less. But if the sediment has settled and the water is clear, it means the track is older.

Moose leave other signs too. Rutting bulls scrape off bark when they rub their antlers on trees or shrubs. They sometimes paw the ground, leaving an obvious patch of scattered vegetation and raw ground.

Besides looking for visible signs of moose, hunters keep very quiet, to avoid frightening the moose and to hear any sounds the animals make. Bull moose challenge other bulls by noisily thrashing their huge antlers against trees and brush. Cows and bulls make low grunting sounds during the mating season. People also listen for any movement in the thickets and for the surprisingly loud sounds of a moose chewing and snapping off leaves.

Listen to bull moose thrashing and calling:

A bull moose acquires a strong, musky scent from rolling in leaves soaked in his own urine. This smell can linger in calm air for up to half an hour, indicating that the bull has passed through recently—or that he is still close by.

If a hunter believes moose are nearby, he might try to draw one closer by imitating the sound of antlers scraping against the brush. For this, he can use the dried shoulder blade of a moose or sometimes even a large stick. If a bull is in the area, he may decide another bull is challenging him and come to investigate, or he might reveal himself by grunting or thrashing his antlers.

A hunter trying to lure a bull closer will sometimes make low grunting sounds, imitating either a cow moose looking for a mate, or a bull looking for a challenge. The hunter watches and listens closely, waiting for the moose to appear.

The most likely time to find a moose is during the dusk and dawn hours, when moose are most active. They will feed in the early morning and then might sleep for an hour or so. They lie down for much of the day to rest and ruminate, and they are very hard to approach. In the evening they will feed again.

In areas with high concentrations of moose, hunters avoid the bone scraping method because it might call too many bulls to them. Also, they are very careful when snapping twigs for campfires—this too could bring an aggressive bull into camp.


Tracks in the Snow

Traditionally, moose have also been taken outside the rutting season, especially in the winter. At this time, moose tend to be scattered. If the snow is fresh and powdery, a hunter can move silently through the forest and thickets. But if the snow is drifted or develops a crust, every footstep makes a noise that alerts the moose. Making matters worse, even slight sounds carry over surprisingly long distances on windless days with temperatures far below zero—as often happens during the northern winter.

Moose have excellent hearing, so the best chance of approaching one in the winter is during storms when gale winds and gusts cover the sound of crunching snow. Luckily, temperatures tend to be warmer during storms, so although hunting in these conditions can be very uncomfortable, it's not as life threatening as when the temperatures sink to minus thirty or colder.

When the snow is really deep—up to a moose's belly—these animals have a very hard time moving around. Also if the snow is deep and crusted, the heavy-bodied moose will punch through the icy crust, cutting its legs as the animal walks, making travel extremely difficult.

If the crust is hard and strong enough, wolves can walk on top, giving them a lethal advantage over moose. Mired in the snow, a moose cannot escape by running away and has difficulty defending itself. Human hunters on snowshoes can also stay near the top of deep or crusted snow while the moose are forced to wallow slowly along. Under these conditions, a moose is virtually trapped in a small area of its feeding trails, making it extremely vulnerable.

When the snow is not so deep, moose can move far more quickly and easily. The practiced hunter knows that if moose tracks consistently lead in a single direction, the animal may be heading somewhere else and will be very hard to catch.

If a moose is feeding in one area its tracks will wander in multiple directions. This is good news for the hunter, because he may have a chance to get close to the animal. Now the difficulty is to find which tracks are the freshest and which direction they lead.

A hunter always wants to know how old the tracks are—how long ago did the moose make them? Would it be possible to catch up or is the animal long gone?

A track made within the hour is soft—as soft as the surrounding snow. The hunter riding on a dog sled or snow machine might simply drag his boot through the track. If the track is fresh, he feels almost nothing. If it's older, he feels two distinct thumps as his boot hits both sides of the track.

In cold weather—especially if it's far below zero—the inner walls of an animal's track will recrystallize and develop a crust within a few hours. This starts first around the top and happens later at the bottom. If the track was made the night before it will be harder still. The colder the temperatures, the more quickly a crust forms on the inside of tracks.

A hunter on foot pushes his boot or a mittened hand down into the tracks, feeling the crust or testing how much pressure it takes to break through. The harder the crust, the older the track. In below zero weather, a track made two days ago or earlier will be very hard.

Another sign the hunter looks for is moose droppings. When they're fresh, the color is dark brown and they're soft. In freezing temperatures, the pellets quickly harden and turn lighter.

Other signs are willow branches that have been freshly broken by browsing moose, the white wood showing conspicuously against the darker background of the thicket. Often this is accompanied by a scramble of tracks and patches of gouged-out snow where the moose has pawed down looking for edible vegetation under the snow.

Moose rest or sleep in snow beds, often straight downwind from their tracks. They do this to catch a warning scent from any predator that is following their trail. At other times, a moose that hears a suspicious sound or spots something unusual will intentionally move downwind to test the scent. A moose can recognize the drifting smell of a wolf or human, even at a considerable distance.

Athabascan people are well aware of this behavior and use a special type of hunting known as semicircular tracking. When a hunter is following fresh moose tracks in the snow, he knows that the animal could have bedded downwind so it would pick up his scent. For this reason he leaves the trail at intervals, walks straight downwind, then makes a wide loop and heads back upwind—always watching the underbrush for the dark shape of his prey. Again and again, he makes these downwind loops and comes back upwind until he finds tracks leading to where the moose is bedded. If luck is with him and the moose never catches his scent, he may catch it unaware.


After the Hunt


Hunters who take a moose often have a feast—chunks of prime meat roasted on sticks over a campfire—a delicious and savory reward for their hard work.

Butchering one of these big, heavy animals takes a lot of time and effort. A prime bull can yield more than 500 pounds of meat and fat. Traditional foods include many other edible parts of the moose such as the head, liver, heart, some other internal organs, and the highly valued fat. So it takes not only a lot of work to butcher a moose, but also specialized skills and a detailed knowledge of the animal's anatomy.

Hunters often lay the meat on cut branches to keep everything clean. If this is early in the hunting trip and the party intends to continue hunting, the meat will be covered with branches to keep ravens and gray jays from fouling it. In winter, the pile is completely covered with snow. The hunters will come back for the moose meat on the return trip home either by boat during the early fall, or snow machine later in the season.

Koyukon Indian people believe successful hunting requires much more than practical knowledge and skill. The hunter must also follow many ancient rules for showing respect toward moose and all other animals, and toward the land itself.

For example, elders teach that a hunter should never talk about his plans, because the animals can hear…even from afar. It's especially important never to brag about hunting, because the offended animals make themselves hard to find. If he takes a moose, the hunter should treat the meat as sacred, keeping it clean, protecting it from dogs or other scavengers, and never letting any go to waste.

Back at home, the meat is sometimes hung for a few days to tenderize it. If it is close to freeze up, the meat will be hung in a cache and naturally frozen for the winter. Today most villagers have electricity, so they can also use freezers for storing meat. Even so, if there is too much meat for the freezer, a cache (which looks like a miniature log cabin on pilings 10 or 12 feet above the ground) will be used for the excess.

If there is time before freeze up people often dry some moose meat for storage. Meat is cut into strips, making an effort to include some fat with each, and then hung out to dry with a smudge burning to keep flies away. Fat can be dried in strips this way too.

In the warming temperatures of spring, meat that was frozen in caches will be dried.


A Delicious Feast

Moose meat and fat are staple foods in most interior Athabascan villages.

Fat is a very important part of a traditional diet because it stokes the metabolism and adds flavor to meat and organs. Unlike beef, moose meat is not marbled with fat, but rather the fat is separate. A favorite kind of fat is found in the sheath-like mesentery membranes that hold the organs together. Native people love to eat fat and consider it a precious part of the animal.

In times past, even the bones of moose were ground and boiled to make a fatty broth. If they didn't use the bones immediately, they could store them as a potential source of food during times of scarcity. Some elders who had been through starvation kept saving bones until fairly recent times.

Nearly all edible parts of moose are still eaten today. Some are particular favorites. For example, moose head soup is a special dish prepared for feasts called potlatches, and for other village celebrations. It consists of bits of meat and tissue from many parts of the head, cooked with vegetables and macaroni.

Other delectables include brisket, short ribs, heart, and tongue. Thin slices of meat may be fried. A delicious gravy is made from the fat.

A regular favorite is moose meet simmered in a big pot along with some combination of rice, noodles, or potatoes and sometimes vegetables. The result is a thick meaty, delicious stew. Bone marrow is also used in tasty, nutritious broths.

Another favorite dish is "Indian Ice Cream", a sweet dessert that often tops off a meal featuring moose meat. This treat is usually made from bear fat, Crisco, or fish oil that's whipped to a froth, then mixed with boiled fish, berries, sugar, and sometimes sweetened milk.


More than Food

Athabascan people have depended on moose for thousands of years, not just for food but also for materials that are essential to their traditional life on the land.

In former times, very strong thread was made with sinew, especially from the moose's back, and it was used for all kinds of sewing, as well as for making snares.

The dense, hard bone of antlers was carved into a variety of important items—including net sinkers, awls, spoons, knife handles and a variety of other tools.

Even the membrane that surrounds the moose's heart was ingeniously dried and used as a storage bag.

Still today, some Athabascan women are experts at preparing moose hides for a wide assortment of uses. First the hide is left out in warm temperatures until the fur loosens, so it can easily be pulled or scraped off—a process called "slipping. Then the fat and tissue from the underside of the skin is scraped off by using a tool made by sharpening the flat edge of a long bone from the moose's lower leg.

The entire wardrobe of traditional Athabascan clothing could be made from moose hide—including coats, pants, boots or moccasins, hats, and mittens.

Dried moose hides with the fur left on can be used as warm, comfortable mattresses, especially in camps. More recently, people learned to mix moose hair with soft feathers, stuffed inside a cloth cover to make another kind of mattresses.

Rawhide or babiche is still made by cutting moose skin into strips to make the very strong, durable lashing for sleds and snowshoes.

People like the Gwich'in Indians use dried moose hide with the fur slipped or shaved off to make panels for the sides of their toboggans, which are pulled by dog teams or snow machines. Toboggans can carry a big load of equipment for camping, hunting, and trapping, and they are also essential for bringing moose or other game back to the village.

In earlier times, moose hunters paddled up the river in their small, narrow canoes. When they shot a moose, they built a boat frame out of willows and covered it with the animal's hide lashed to the boat's gunwales. For larger skin boats, several moose hides were sewn together, and moose grease was used to fill in the needle holes and seams. Finally the hunter lined his boat with willow branches and placed his moose meat on top.

The more moose hunters were able to take, the bigger the boat needed to be. Some of these cleverly crafted boats were very large, wrapped in 6 or 7 hides, up to 25 feet long and 5 feet wide.


Spirit of the Moose


In traditional Athabascan culture, all animals including moose have a strong and sensitive spirit, and they must be treated with great respect. An intricate code of proper behavior has been passed down by the elders over countless generations. Following these ancient rules and showing respect is essential for any hunter's success. If the animals are not treated properly, they will not reveal themselves or "give" themselves to the offending hunter.

People like the Koyukon Indians even avoid talking directly about their hunting plans. A hunter might just say, "I'm going out to look around" or "I'll go and look for a moose track." In this way, he tells others his plans without revealing them to the moose.

In Koyukon tradition, moose are not as spiritually sensitive or powerful as some other animals—like bears and wolves. According to the elders' teaching, the moose's spirit is less potent and demanding, and it tends to be more benevolent toward people.

This respect for animals is important in many other ways. For example, one year, near the Koyukon village of Huslia, a starving moose was found, wallowing in deep snow and unable to find food. People fed the animal every day until it was strong enough to move once again.

Koyukon people say that someone who comes across a starving or diseased and doomed animal should put it out of its misery. Even though meat would not be taken from this animal, it must be cut into quarters and covered to show respect to the spirit, to show symbolically that the animal wasn't killed just to waste it.

Followers of Koyukon tradition believe meat from wild animals like the moose is a sacred substance. For example, someone who carries a platter of meat to a neighbor's house might show respect for the meat by covering it with a cloth. Doing this shows respect for the animal's spirit, so that moose will give themselves to hunters in the future.

Sharing meat is an extremely important custom in Athabascan communities, and it also has a spiritual side. People might say: "What you give away comes back to you", implying that the generous hunter or his family will be favored by the powers in nature.

For people like Koyukon and Gwich'in Indians, the moose is a majestic and fascinating animal, carefully studied by generations of hunters, a vital source of food and hides. The moose is at the core of village economies and ways of life, still today as it has been for millennia. But the moose is also something more. When a hunter and his family see an enormous bull or a cow with her calf standing beside the river, they know they have encountered a creature of spirit and power that demands respect and gives itself in turn to sustain human life.

Mark Bethka