How an Indigenous tradition that started with catching seals has evolved in Alaska Also known as “seal parties,” the tradition brings women together to mark first catches and — more recently — other achievements as well.

In some Alaska villages, hunting and fishing season starts with a 'throwing party'

How an Indigenous tradition that started with catching seals has evolved in Alaska

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For generations, Yup'ik women have gathered for

For generations, Yup'ik women have gathered for "throwing parties" in the coastal villages of Western Alaska to celebrate firsts (like the first seal caught by a young family member). In late April, a group of women gathered for a throwing party in the village of Mertarvik to help Mildred Tom celebrate her daughter's graduation and the recent accomplishments of her grandchildren.

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Emily Schwing for NPR

Traditionally, throughout many Indigenous coastal communities in Western Alaska, when a young family member hunts their first seal of the season, their family hosts a party to distribute that fresh catch to women and elders in their community. They’re known as “throwing parties," "seal parties,” or — in Yugtun, the predominant Indigenous language spoken in Western Alaska’s Yup’ik region — “uqiquq.” Over the years, the tradition has expanded to celebrate all kinds of firsts: graduations, the birth of a child or grandchild, a wedding — and the wide array of gifts has also expanded beyond subsistence food to include candy, kitchen and household utensils and little toys and trinkets.

The villages of Western Alaska are roadless, reachable only by airplane and people here rely heavily on birds, fish and marine mammals for food. The season for subsistence hunting and fishing kicks off in the springtime, with the arrival of migratory birds and returning fish runs, and that’s cause for celebration.

Mildred Tom recently hosted a throwing party in Mertarvik, 12 miles from the Bering Sea coast. After months of ordering and stockpiling gifts in her house, she puts the word out on a Sunday afternoon. Women in the community slowly gather in her front yard.

Tom wanted to celebrate her daughter’s graduation and a few of her grandchildren’s more recent achievements. “This is for all my kids and my grandkids,” says Tom. “For all their first catches… everything, mosquitoes, flies, you name it,” she laughs.

Once the elders find their place in the middle of the crowd, Tom, her daughter Teddy Ann Bell and her niece, Amy Kassaiuli dig their hands down into a blue plastic box on the front porch.

“One two, three,” they count in unison and then lean way out over the porch railing to fling fistfuls of goodies into the air. It all rains down on the crowd of women below. According to elders in Mertarvik, these women’s gatherings have been happening in Alaska’s Yup’ik region in the spring and fall for generations.

Women enjoy a seal party, 1981 YouTube

Before anyone in Western Alaska could order things online, women used to toss out pieces of the first spring catch: chunks of seal meat, some dried fish, strips of hand-smoked salmon. What Mildred Tom’s family gives away is more modern: a rainbow-colored array of candy, little toys, kazoos, socks, gloves and other treats and trinkets. But, she says, some things just aren’t fit to throw at the elders.

“Those wooden spoons, you know I asked my son ‘if I threw this wooden spoon would somebody get hurt?’ and he’s like 'yeah! ...You better not throw them mom.” So, she stuffs canvas tote bags with larger items to hand out: not just the wooden spoons, but also measuring cups and mixing bowls.

While Tom hosted this party to celebrate her family, she also says it was simply something her community needed.

Tom is one of about 200 people who live in Mertarvik. In the years since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom says there have been far fewer gatherings in her community. So, she found this one particularly energizing. “Since COVID, we haven’t gotten used to having visitors or visiting around,” she says.

After about an hour, all of the gifts are distributed and younger daughters and nieces comb through the slushy snow for any missed bounty. Then everyone heads home with something special, including renewed bonds that will last until the next throwing party, which will likely come in the fall.