Dr. Rosita Worl, President of Sealaska Heritage Institute, holds up sea otter fur during a speech by Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Dr. Rosita Worl, President of Sealaska Heritage Institute, holds up sea otter fur during a speech by Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Fur or food? To answer modern-day sea otter question, Alaska Native org looks to the past

Simple question has complicated answer

cMadonna Moss set out to answer a simple question, and through in-depth research she came up with a complex answer.

The University of Oregon anthropology professor and curator of zooarchaeology for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History was asked by Sealaska Heritage Institute to determine whether Tlingit people historically harvested sea otters for food.

“I think they hunted sea otters primarily for pelts,” Moss said near the end of a lecture Friday at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building. “I do not think they were a dietary staple.”

However, she said it would be inaccurate to say sea otters were never a food source.

“I think people were occasionally — not always, not every sea otter — cutting out the back straps of sea otters and eating them,” Moss said.

One of the reasons SHI, a nonprofit that supports and promotes Alaska Native arts and culture, funded Moss’ project was to help determine how Native people had traditionally harvested sea otters, said Chuch Smythe, Director of history and culture for SHI.

[Otter hunting makes earrings for Aleut artist]

Alaska Natives are allowed to harvest sea otters, which would otherwise be federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but Smythe said some feel the practice of harvesting otters for their fur — something that is done to provide materials for SHI skin sewing workshops — is wasteful.

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

The act specifically states marine mammals may be taken “for purposes of creating and selling authentic Native articles of handicraft and clothing.”

However, Smythe said he’s also heard some say otters should be eaten in order for the Marine Mammal Protection Act exception to continue. Sometimes, Smythe said that opinion comes paired with the assumption that Natives traditionally ate sea otters.

However, Moss’ research arrived at the conclusion that sea otters were primarily harvested for their fur, not their meat.

That conclusion came after a lot of research.

One of the reasons extensive research was required is the 19th century Russian occupation of Alaska. A desire for otter fur led to over-hunting, and Moss said by 1830 sea otters in Southeast Alaska were largely extinct, Moss said.

Sea otters were reintroduced in the 1960s, and Moss said the population has now rebounded to an estimated 30,000 otters.

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

While otters are common enough now that some Alaskans, including fishermen and state legislators consider them a nuisance, they had been essentially absent for more than a century. So for answers, Moss had to turn to the past.

Moss compared seal bones and sea otter bones initially excavated in the 1950s from a pair of pre-contact sites in Angoon. Since seal was definitely known to be a food source, if the ancient bones showed signs of similar wear, tear and cutting, it could be a sign that sea otter was also eaten.

“I saw some differences between how people were using sea otters and seals, but I wasn’t sure how to interpret it,” Moss said.

[Formline meets the red line at Douglas ice rink]

Some clarity was added when Moss was provided the carcass of a recently skinned sea otter.

Since Moss knew the animal was not dismembered and that it was used solely for its pelt, she was able to examine its bones for cut marks after the otter’s flesh was eaten by beetles.

She found cut marks where she did not expect to find them, which she inferred were caused by a need to create leverage to pry the sea otters’ pelt from its body.

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Dr. Madonna Moss, professor of anthropological archaeology at the University of Oregon, speaks on Tlingit relationships with sea otters and whether Tlingit people consumed sea otters as food in the past during a lecture at the Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Those cuts were comparable to what she saw on the ancient bones, but did not match up exactly, Moss said.

After speaking with Tlingit people about whether otter was known to be good eating, Moss came to the idea that the “back straps” of otters were likely easier to eat and tastier than other muscular and tough portions of the animal.

However, whether that meat was eaten by people because other food was less available or whether it was fed to dogs is less clear.

“That’s unknown,” Moss said.


• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


More in News

In this July 13, 2007, file photo, workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, near the village of Iliamma. (AP Photo / Al Grillo)
Pebble developer files appeal with Army Corps

The Army Corps of Engineers rejected Pebble Limited Partnership’s application in November.

This August 2019 photos shows a redline at Treadwell Arena designed by Tsimshian artist Abel Ryan. The arena is adding new weekly events to its schedule, City and Borough of Juneau announced. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Treadwell Arena adds new weekly events

Hockey and open skate are on the schedule.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Jan. 22

The most recent state and local numbers.

A Coast Guard Station Juneau 45-foot Response Boat-Medium patrols Auke Bay during an exercise in 2018. A response boat similar to the one in the photo was struck by a laser near Ketchikan on Saturday, Jan. 17, prompting an investigation into the crime. (Lt. Brian Dykens / U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guard wants information after laser pointed at boat

“Laser strikes jeopardize the safety of our boat crews…”

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Thursday, Jan. 21

The most recent state and local numbers.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses the public during a virtual town hall on Sept. 15, 2020 in Alaska. ( Courtesy Photo / Austin McDaniel, Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy pitches dividend change amid legislative splits

No clear direction has emerged from lawmakers.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, right, wearing a bib with ExxonMobil lettering on it, congratulates Peter Kaiser on his win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska. The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor as the Iditarod prepares for a scaled-back version of this year’s race because of the pandemic, officials said Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. ExxonMobil confirmed to The Associated Press that the oil giant will drop its sponsorship of the race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
ExxonMobil becomes latest sponsor to sever Iditarod ties

The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 22, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read