Making Bone Grease or Puiñiq

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".