Making Bone Grease or Puiñiq

Introduction

Introduction

This Learning Center was researched and written by Grant Spearman, formerly Curator of the Simon Paneak Museum, North Slope Borough.

Fat is an essential food, especially in the Arctic, where it provides ready calories needed to keep the human body warm. The Nunamiut, inland People of the Land who have settled in Anaktuvuk Pass since 1949, perfected the art of rendering fat from the marrow of caribou bones. This Learning Center details the methods used in the preparation of bone grease, or puiñiq.

Oil, fat, and grease have long been a vital part of the Nunamiut diet.  In addition to providing important vitamins and nutrients, they were the primary source of calories that keep people warm and healthy in an Arctic climate.  Oil from the rendered blubber of whales, seals, walrus and other sea mammals  -- uqsruq -- was so important that it was eaten at with every meal.  Women pickled and stored meat, berries, roots, and leaves in oil.  Healers used oil to treat minor burns, infections, frostbite and stomach upsets.  It was even used as a mosquito repellent and regularly burned as a fuel in the traditional stone lamps.  This is why seal skin pokes filled with sea mammal oils were so eagerly sought by the Nunamiut when they met and bartered with Coastal Iñupiat at the annual summer trade fairs, held yearly at the site of Niġliq, located on the Colville River delta.

Land mammals such as the caribou (tuttu, Rangifer tarandus)  sheep (imnaiq, Ovis dalli dalli), grizzly bear (akłaq, Ursus arctos horribilis), and marmot (siksrikpak, Marmota caligata) and in lesser quantities ground squirrels (siksrik, Citellus parryii) and waterfowl (tiŋmiat) also contained fat and grease that the Nunamiut prepared and ate.  The primary source of grease was from crushed and boiled bones of caribou.  Processed bone grease, kaukkam puiñġa, was stored in caribou stomach containers to be used as a trail snack and everyday food.

When was puiñiq made?

The Nunamiut made most of the puiñiq in the spring and fall just after the seasonal caribou migration hunts.  Still, they saved the bones of the large game animals throughout the winter. They divided the bones into two groups, each one stored and processed separately from the other: isugluich and sauniġluichIsugluich were the joint ends of the leg bones, which yielded the best quality grease; sauniġluich were body bones such as the neck, back bone, ribs and pelvis, and these produced a lower quality of grease.

As a precaution to protect the choicest bones while they were in outside storage, they were often kept in dog packs and under tarps so that the quality of their grease was not affected by exposure to wind and weather.  Every family had a cache of these bones that, in normal circumstances, yielded a pleasant treat, but in times of famine became an emergency food resource.  As one elder is recorded as having said "Old timers had a hard life and you really never knew if something might happen to your caches, or if the caribou would be late.  If the woman was a good one, we might have to boil marrowbone splinters for the little bit of grease and fat…" (Binford, 1978, 146)

A Note About Iñupiaq Orthography

The Iñupiaq language has several sounds and six letters that are not found in English. Because of limitations in the fonts available on this web site, some of the words are misspelled, while others will seem strange to English speakers. Iñupiaq letters include:

  • ġ, a "g" with a dot over it, which is a soft G.
  • ļ, the "L" with a dot under it, which sounds something like "Lya".
  • ł, the "L" with a slash through it, which is a voiceless L.
  • A dotted slashed L, which is a voiceless L followed by a "ya" sound. This symbol is not available on this web site, so it appears in this Learning Center as a slashed L.
  • ŋ, the "ng" letter.
  • ñ, which sounds something like "nya".

Processing and Storage

Processing and Storage

Processing marrow bones for their grease was a long and tedious job that took many hours.  This was true even after the introduction of copper and brass kettles, which allowed the cooks to boil water directly over an open fire, as is shown in this photograph on the right.

Before then, the work was done with wooden buckets that were filled with water and brought to a boil by adding hot fist-sized rocks.  In preparation for boiling with hot rocks, the cook had to gather and stockpile armloads of firewood and dozens of pounds of rocks, in addition to crushing the bones, tending the fire, controlling the boiling of the water, and skimming off the grease that was rose to the top of the bucket.

The amount of effort involved can perhaps best be appreciated by the following example.  In 1971, a visiting anthropologist arranged for Nunamiut villagers to make a quantity of puiñiq using the old fire heated rock method.

The anthropologist observed a single five-gallon kettle full of crushed marrow bones processed. This required more than 60 pounds of stones (see the figure to the right) and three backloads of firewood. It took two hours to boil the bones, and the final yield, was a lone seven ounce cake of grease (Binford, 1978:157).

The process began by cleaning the bones of all traces of meat, tendons, and tissue.  After cracking them open to remove the edible bone marrow (patiq) the preparer stockpiled them to await crushing.

The actual crushing was done by placing the bone on a flat anvil stone (like the one in the photograph on the left) and hitting it repeatedly with a stone hammer until the bones were pulverized into small chunks called kaukkat.

While the bones were being crushed, lots of fist-sized rocks were heating in the flames of a nearby fire.  When they glowed red hot, they were raked from the fire and transferred to a water-filled bucket or pot using a small shovel fashioned from the palm of a caribou antler.

Once the water was carefully brought to a boil, the cook added the kaukkat. She closely watched and controlled the fire to avoid accidentally boiling the grease away.  As the boiling began and the water was at its hottest, a bubbly brown froth formed on the surface of the water.  This froth, called qapukłuk, was a favorite of both children and elders.  It was only they who were given the privilege of snacking on this treat by licking from the sheep horn ladle that was used to skim it off.  Apart from this, no other snacking was allowed by anyone while the bones were being processed.

The cook kept the water at a slow boil while occasionally stirring the mixture with a stick. She periodically added handfuls of snow to control the water temperature, which allowed the surface grease to congeal. This made it easier to collect and ladle off the fat. After the fat was skimmed off, the remaining mixture of watery grease and small floating bits of marrow, called uniŋu, was skimmed off and eaten by anyone who wanted some, as was the imiġaq or broth that resulted from this process.  Finally, the exhausted bone fragments and water were dumped out, and the entire process was repeated again and again, after which the kaugaq (bone fragments) were fed to the sled dogs to keep them free from worms.

Storage

The most common traditional method of storing freshly made puiñiq was to ladle it into a skin bag, puuq, created from the stomach or qisaguaq of a freshly killed caribou.  Once the stomach was removed from the dead animal, it was turned inside out, emptied, and cleaned by hand.  Elders stressed that no water was used in the cleaning because they wanted some of the flavor of the nigukkaq, the digested rumen or stomach contents, to remain.  They like the taste it would give to the puiñiq.  After it was cleaned, the stomach was turned right side out again, inflated with air and hung inside the tent to partially dry.  Care was taken to prevent the stomach from completely drying out, since if that happened it would harden, crack and become totally useless.  Once it was half dry, the air was let out, it was collapsed flat, and the stomach was ready for use.  As the puiñiq was ladled carefully into the puuq, the preparers pushed out all trapped air bubbles so the flavor of the bone grease would not be affected.  Once filled, the puuq was stored in a cool place until needed.

Traditional Tools

Traditional Tools

As we have seen, rendering puiñiq grease from pulverized bones was a long, time consuming process. It required a great deal of preparation and effort and a specialized set of tools, including:

  • a bone crushing hammer
  • an anvil stone and its associated caribou skin workpad
  • a protective mitten worn while crushing the bones
  • a sprucewood bucket or, in later years, a metal cauldron
  • a shovel to transfer the fire-heated rocks
  • a sheep horn ladle to skim the grease
  • a caribou stomach container to collect and store the puiñiq.

 

The kautaq or hammer used to crush the bones was made of an oblong stone mounted on a short slightly curved handle.  Some families prided themselves on having a jadestone hammerhead, but any rock plucked from a stream bed that was of the right size, shape and weight could serve just as well.  Elders cautioned that the hammer’s striking face should have a flat, rough textured surface.  This helped prevent the hammer from slipping off the bone as the crushing blows were struck.  The handle of the hammer could be made from a number of materials.  Some people used dall sheep horn, others a curved section of caribou antler, while others still preferred spruce or alderwood.  The handle was usually less than six inches long and slightly curved to fit comfortably in a person’s hand.  The head and handle were joined by a caribou or sealskin thong that was passed through a hole drilled near the top end of the handle, and wrapped around the stone head several times.  A tight secure fit was assured by doing the lashing with a wet, water soaked thong, which shrank and tightened as it dried.  Later, small wooden wedges could be added to shim up the fit, if they were needed.

The flat anvil stone on which the bones were pounded and crushed was known by either of two names, arvik or kaugvik.  It too had a flat, coarse textured surface that helped keep the bones from slipping about as they were struck.

As a woman prepared to crush a bone, she began by first hitting it with a few soft taps before striking any hard crushing blows.  This served to flatten and seat the bone on the anvil’s surface, minimizing any chance of it jumping or slipping about.  The anvil itself rested on a caribou skin pad or aġiparaq, which was spread out, hair side down, to cushion and steady the anvil and to collect the bone fragments as they flew off the bone.

The ayapkaun, also known as the kaugun aatqan, was the mitten the woman wore as she held the bones in place on the anvil during the crushing process.  This type of mitten was sewn from a fresh, wet, unscraped caribou skin, and was worn with the hair side turned in.  The wetness made the mitten pliable and helped the woman keep a firm grip on the bones while protecting her hand against injury from sharp bone fragments.  This style of double-thumbed mitten was made by using skin taken from the rear leg hock joint of a caribou. It could be worn on either hand or turned so that both sides of the mitten could be used, and once the bone crushing operation was complete, the mitten was usually discarded.

During the early years of this century, a brass, copper or cast iron kettle, called an utkusik by the Nunamiut, came into widespread use for any task that involved boiling water over an open fire, including the making of puiñiq.  The kettle was suspended over the fire using a three legged tripod called a napautat.

However, long before these implements ever became available, the traditional bent-wood sprucewood bucket or piqtalik was used.  The larger models of these buckets, such as those used to process puiñiq and to cook, were also known to the Nunamiut as an igavaun.

The piqtalik was made from of a thin slab of sprucewood bent around a circular bottom panel.  The side was soaked or steamed until it was pliable enough to bend completely around the bottom panel without cracking or splintering.  The bottom panel was carefully fitted into a shallow groove carved along the base of the side panel.  Each end of the panel was tapered and thinned so that a smooth overlapping joint was formed between them.  Once fitted, holes were drilled and the two ends were joined together with wooden pegs and baleen stitches.  Before water was boiled in the piqtalik, the cook placed a layer of small willow twigs on the bottom to protect the wood from being damaged by the hot rocks.

The qayuuttaq or sheep horn ladle was used to skim the bone grease from the surface of the water and transfer it to the caribou stomach bag, puuq, for storage.

These large graceful ladles were crafted from the horns of the Dall mountain sheep, imnaiq.  Making such a ladle involves a long careful process of cutting, thinning, and trimming away part of the horn’s hollow base, boiling it in water for several hours to soften it, then working it over a wooden mold to turn the horn inside out and reverse its curve.  Several hours of additional carving, thinning and smoothing are required to bring it to its final form as a gracefully shaped, amber-colored ladle.

The akigaun was used to transfer heated rocks from the fire to the water-filled piqtalik in order to bring the water to a boil. Some shovels, such as those only intended for a single use, were quickly and easily improvised from a caribou scapula (shoulder blade).  A pair of temporary wooden tongs called uyaqqiqun might serve the purpose, but a more durable tool intended to last for years was made from caribou antler.  The tuttum nakkutiŋik or broad front palm of the antler, with its natural shovel-shaped form, was perfectly suited for this tool.  Often, all the maker needed to do was to slightly hollow out an area in the broad portion of the palm so that the rocks would nest securely. He then joined it to a wooden handle.

Puiñiq Today

Puiñiq Today

The production of puiñiq has a long history among the Nunamiut people of Anaktuvuk Pass, and a continuing one as well.  Many of the older women in the community continue the springtime ritual of pounding up bones that were saved over the course of the winter and rendering them into puiñiq.  Nowadays, some women prefer to do this work away from the hustle and bustle of the village, traveling instead to the outlying camp of Kaŋuumavik, some five miles to the north.  Here, they find themselves in a familiar and comforting setting, in the relative quiet of a camp among the willows with a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, in much the same circumstances as when they first learned about the production of puiñiq from their grandmothers, mothers and aunts.  Now, on a warm sunny day, in the company of old friends and younger women eager to learn about making puiñiq, they can comfortably work outside, putting the youngsters to work pounding the bones as the elders carefully supervise the boiling and rendering process.  And now, in their senior years, they too can enjoy the privilege of snacking on the frothy qapukluk as they did as children and as had the elders of their day, while passing along this ancient practice and tradition to today’s youth.

Glossary of Inupiaq terms

Glossary of Inupiaq terms

Akigaun
The caribou antler shovel, used to transfer the fire-heated rocks from the fire to the piqtalik.

Arvik
The flat stone anvil upon which the bones were crushed.

Ayapkaun
The double thumbed, caribou skin mitten worn by the person who was holding and crushing the bones.

Igavaun
A large size piqtalik used for boiling water and cooking

Imiġaq
The broth that resulted from boiling the bones.  Like the uningu, it was consumed at the end of the boiling process.

Imnaim Nagrua
The horn of the Dall mountain sheep

Imnaiq
The Dall mountain sheep (Ovis dalli dalli)

Isugluk

The leg bone joint of the caribou, which is said to yield the best quality grease.

Kaugun Aatqan

Another name by which this mitten was called.

Kaugvik
Another name for the anvil stone.

Kaukkat
The small pieces of bone that result from the crushing process, and which are then boiled to obtain their grease content, also the exhausted bone fragments from which the grease had been boiled out.

Kautaq
The traditional stone hammer used to crush the bones into small pieces.

Napautat/Napauttat
The three-legged tripod used to suspend the utkusik over the open fire.

Nigukkaq
The rumen, or, digested stomach contents, which helped flavor the puiñiq.

Patiq
The rich nutritious bone marrow that was removed from the bones prior to their being crushed.

Piqtalik
The traditional spruce wood bucket in which the bone fragments were boiled by adding fire heated rocks to the water filled container.

Puiñiq
Grease produced by boiling the crushed bones of caribou, sheep, or other large animals.

Puuq
The storage poke, made from a caribou stomach, in which puiñiq was stored for later use.

Qapukłuk
A brown bubbly froth produced during the boiling process.  It was considered a special treat for children and elders to snack on.

Qayuuttaq
The large sheephorn ladle used to skim the floating bone grease from the surface of the boiling water.

Qisaġuaq
The stomach of the caribou, used to make the puuq.

Saunigluk
The main body bones of the caribou, which are said to yield a lesser quality of grease.

Tuttum Nakkutiŋik
The broad front palm of an antler.  The name stems from the fact that the shovel projects out over the nose and between the eyes making the caribou cross-eyed looking at it

Classroom Activities

Classroom Activities

  1. If you live in Anaktuvuk Pass, have your class visit the museum with a woman elder who is familiar with making puiñiq, and have her talk about how it is made today, how it was made in the past, and the tools that are on display.
  2. This fall, following the caribou migration hunt, have the students collect marrow bones, both isugluk and saunigluk, and have a woman elder or two process the bones into puiñiq.  Students can help with the work by breaking bones and boiling water.  When the process is complete, have the students sample both kinds of grease.
  3. As these activities are underway, have some of the students record the process with tape recorders, cameras, and if possible with the school video-tape camera.
  4. Following these activities, have the students give written reports on what they have learned.  These reports can be used to help assemble a traveling exhibit of photos, video tapes, and audio tapes about making puiñiq that can be sent to other schools in the district, all prepared by the students, with guidance from the museum.
  5. Students who do not live in Alaska can try the stone boiling method. Be sure to choose igneous rocks with a smooth even texture with no fault or crack lines so they won't explode while heated.
  6. Visit the local butcher shop and ask for leg bones of beef or sheep. Following the procedures in this Learning Center, extract the marrow and boil it to render grease.

National and Alaska Standards

National and Alaska Standards

National Geography Standards

NSS-G.K-12.4: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.
  • Understand the patterns and networks of economic interdendence on Earth's surface.

NSS-G.K-12.5: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how physical systems affect human systems.
  • Understand the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

Alaska Geography Standards

D: A student should understand the dynamic and be able to interpret spatial (geographic) characteristcs of human systems, including migration, movement, interactions of cultures, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units in the state, nation, and world. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Analyze how changes in technology, transportation, and communication impact social, cultural, economic, and political activity.

E. A student should understand and be able to evaluate how humans and phyusical environments interact. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Understand how resources have been developed and used;
  • Determine the influence of human perceptions on resource utilization and the environment.

Alaska Cultural Standards

B. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to build on the knowledge and skills of the local cultural community as a foundation from which to achieve personal and academic success throughout life. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire insights from other cultures without diminishing the integrity of their own.

C. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to actively paerticipate in various cultural environments.  Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions.
  • Enter into and function effectively in a variety of cultural settings.

D. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to engage effectively in learning activities that are based on traditional ways of knowing and learning. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire in-depth cultural knowledge through active participation and meaningful interaction with Elders.
  • Identify and utilize appropriate sources of cultural knowledge to find solutions to everyday problems.

E. Culturally-knowledgeable students demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of the relationships and processes of interaction of all elements in the world around them. Students who meet his cultural standard are able to:

  • Understand the ecology and geography of the bioregion they inhabit.
  • Recognize how and why cultures change over time.

References

References

Books and Publications

    Binford, Lewis, R., Nunamiut Ethno-Archaeology, Academic Press New York, San Francisco and London. 1978
    Murdoch, John, Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition, Ninth Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, pp.19 – 441.

Audio Tapes

    Nunamiut Survival Tape No. 17:  Aug. 20, 1983, Arctic John Etalook; North Slope Borough Iñupiat History, Language & Culture Commission.
    Nunamiut Survival Tape No. 48:  Mar. 10, 1985, Dora Tugli Hugo; North Slope Borough Iñupiat History, Language & Culture Commission.

Photographs and Drawings

Most of the photographs and drawings used in this unit were taken or done by museum staff, with the following exceptions:

    Figure 1, Courtesy of S. Craig. Gerlach.
    Figures 2, 6, and the cover illustration are from the Helge Ingstad Collection in the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum photo archives.
    Figures 14, and, 15 are courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.