My first job was washing humpies, or pink salmon, fished by my dad, brother, and uncles. I’d wade knee-deep into the river to clean them, then deliver them to the plywood cutting tables covered with gunny sacks, stained dark with years of fish blood, guts, and slime, where my mom and aunties wearing rubber aprons or black garbage bags cut them for dry fish by the hundreds. After they were cut, I’d wash them again and hang the fish on cottonwood poles tied together with string.
In Unalakleet, a coastal community in western Alaska, our relationship with salmon remains an integral part of who we are. All summer, from June to September, we’ll eat fresh fish while putting away a bulk of the meat for year-round enjoyment. It starts with king salmon from the ocean, which we strip to smoke — for a treat when ice fishing or ugruk hunting later in the year — and barbecue the bellies, heads, and collars after a satisfying day of cutting. The season continues with humpies and then silvers, or coho, which we filet for freezing or strip for smoking.
The summer I was 13, I quietly said to my mom, “I want to learn now.” She handed me her ulu and grabbed a small female humpie. The knife, with its long curved edge, felt too big in my hand, but I knew the cuts from watching her complete the task hundreds at a time. Holding the back of the fish with my left hand, I pressed the curved blade against the soft white belly with my right. I cut down, leaving the filets attached by the tail, and removing the head, guts, and bones. My mom watched and guided me all the way. Finally, I made tirraqs, cuts angling toward the tail, to ensure the meat dried well and to make the perfect-sized pieces for eating months later. “Papa, look,” she said to my grandpa. I held up the fish by the tail, proudly smiling. “Wow,” Papa Ralph said. “You even left the heart on. That’s the best way!” I waded into the water and emerged with my first cut fish all clean. A week later, my parents took me to see John Auliye, the oldest man in town, who handed me my very own ulu, complete with an ivory handle that would impress Coco Chanel.
Through every season, the ulu is critical, whether cutting fish or dicing up greens to ferment. It is an elbow-saver, an ergonomic all-star when there’s lots of cutting to be done. Today, my daughter Sidney and I share my ulu, and I hope when she utilizes it, she feels the connection with those who love her. But anyone who masters an ulu quickly learns to rely upon it.
Why you need one
Unlike a majority of Inuit tools that have been replaced with Western technology, like bolas, seal oil lamps, and bone needles, the ulu has remained the preferred cutting tool in Inuit homes, not just because it’s a culturally significant symbol but also because it’s incredibly ergonomic.
The half-moon curve of the blade puts the motion of slicing and cutting in the wrist, instead of the elbow like an everyday knife. If you’re planning to cut hundreds of fish for hours at a time or cube a seal’s worth of blubber to render for oil, that curve helps prevent a lot of fatigue. At the same time, the handle’s position in the middle of the top of the blade, not at the end like a traditional knife, allows you to exert much more force when cutting downward, handy if you’re trying to break through a fish head or a frozen chunk of meat.
Traditionally, ulu blades are sharpened with a single bevel. When skinning an animal, the long, shallow bevel aids in removing animal fat from skin without puncturing through the valuable hide used for winter clothing. It also allows the blade to glide over fish bones and slice at an angle through meat or blubber. The single-beveled ulus also seem to stay sharper for longer.
While the ulu continues to be utilized for ingredients harvested from the land and waters of northern Indigneous peoples, it can be used for basically any food. Along with cutting fish and processing a seal, we use our ulus for cutting vegetables, herbs, nuts, and pizza.
Most families have anywhere between five and 25 different ulus, most gifted and displayed as utilitarian art. Today the blade is typically from a saw blade unlike the slate blades our ancestors crafted, while the handles are carved from ivory, wood, or caribou or moose antler. I own one ulu with a handle fashioned from blue- and pink-colored resin, though my favorite was a gift from my dad: an ulu made from an old patinaed saw blade, with a handle carved from a rich wooden saw handle, made by a man who lives in a community 90 miles north.
How to use it
Indigenous groups throughout Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and eastern Russia make and utilize ulus. They vary in design, based on location, materials available, and the meat that’s on the cutting block. Some handles, like those made on eastern Inuit lands of Canada and Greenland, are connected to the blade with one or two stems, while others, like the ulus made in Unalakleet, feature a half-moon blade connected directly to the handle. But they all essentially function the same.
Whether you’re cutting meat for stir-fry or herbs for a salad, simply rock the blade back and forth with your wrist. For tougher cuts or even frozen meat, press straight down on the middle of the handle with good force. Turn the blade sideways to get at the belly of a fish or to cut the perfect slice of a New Year’s Eve prime rib.
Like all well-utilized cutting instruments, the ulu needs regular sharpening and maintenance. Growing up, the women in my family used sharpening stones picked from river beaches. Today we use commercial sharpening stones and files. After cleaning, be sure to immediately dry the blade to prevent rust.
Where to get one
Appropriated commercial ulus can be found at tourist shops throughout Alaska and knife manufacturers like Wusthof, but many Indigenous cooks suggest purchasing an ulu directly from an Indigenous artist like Classic Uluaq, Arctic Spirit Gallery, or Urban Inuk. At the absolute least, look for a company that acknowledges the knife’s cultural origins.