Terry Wassillie is full blood Yup’ik from Newhalen, Alaska, which is one of the six villages that surround Lake Iliamna. His parents are the late Ira and Louise Wassillie of Newhalen, Alaska.
When Terry was five years old, his father Ira, would take him hunting and out on his trap line, it was then that he began absorbing all the knowledge of the land and animals that his father would share with him. “I had the best teacher in the world,” Terry said with pure respect for his father. As Terry was growing up, school wasn’t a huge priority, and he didn’t start preschool until he was seven years old. That didn’t bother him though, Terry said, “I had fun when I was growing up.” Once the first freeze over started, roughly beginning of November, his dad would take him to check their trap line and go hunting every day. This trap line extended from Lower and Upper Talarik Creek all the way to Brooks Range in the west.
It wasn’t until Terry was nine years old that he would catch his first Seal. His father took him out many times before but before he was nine he would only learn by watching. These seals can be found in brooks along the north shore of Lake Iliamna, across from Porcupine Island, near Pile Bay, Alaska. This is also the area where they breed. It’s been a long time tradition that when a seal is caught certain practices are done in order to pay our respects to the land and animals in order for hunters to be great providers. “My dad had me take water and put it in my mouth and spit it in the seals mouth three times. And that was to make sure the seal didn’t drown.” The next step was to skin the seal. “When you skin a seal, you skin it twice. First, you take off the fur and then you take off the fat,” Terry explained. Once it’s skinned, Ira had Terry dig a hole right where the high water mark was at the beach at the time and put the seals head in it facing away from the island. This tradition was done because it made sure that the seals spirit went back into the water and also to make sure that Terry had good luck. The final tradition in catching a seal for the first time is eating the seal liver raw. This is done so that the hunter isn’t and doesn’t become scared of the seal.
There are different traditions done after having caught your first seal ever. Terry states, “Second story I want to tell is when I watched my dad catch a seal with a spear in the winter time. He put a feather in the breathing hole of a seal entrance, where they come out of the water. He stood there for four hours. Just stood there, didn’t move, didn’t breathe, didn’t shift his weight around. He just stood there and watched it. You think that when you spear an animal, you’re supposed to spear it real hard. No, what he did was grab it real slow with a short sharp jab. And that was after four hours of waiting.” The spear tip was made of caribou bone and was dull to penetrate the blubber of the seal. Terry said, “What made me really admire your uppa (Ira) was how patient he was because that is a lot of waiting, just standing there. And he did the same thing; he put water in his mouth and spit it in the seals mouth. The only thing different this time, is instead of cutting the head off, he threw the whole seal into the water head first. It’s just like when you catch caribou you have to cut the tip of the heart off, and moose also. When you catch a wolverine you have to give him everything you own. You put all of your belongings on him. That is tradition.” This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation in the Wassillie family. Terry learned from his dad, who learned from his and Terry has also been trying to pass down this knowledge to his younger generation family members. It is a tough battle though, with technology and a growing modern society in rural Alaskan Natives, the challenge to keep younger generation natives engaged and wanting to learn of our traditions are few and far between. But, it’s safe to say that there is growing concern for loss of tradition and communities and schools are coming together to spread and pass down all the knowledge from our ancestors to generations of the future to keep our culture alive and in full force.