Making Bone Grease or Puiñiq

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.