There's Always a First Time for Eating a Caribou Head


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There's Always a First Time for Eating a Caribou Head

I joined Angela Hovak Johnston, an Inuk woman living in Canada's Northwest Territories, and her 13-year-old son for his first taste of caribou and polar bear meat—traditional foods in an area where few other options are available.

In Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories (NWT), Angela Hovak Johnston is kneeling on the kitchen floor cracking open the bloody jaw of a caribou, using all of her strength—and some help from a hatchet. The head is part of tonight's menu, which also includes the caribou's heart and polar bear steaks.

"We eat it all," she says, snapping the cartilage. "The eyes, the brains, and my favourite, the tongue. All of it goes on the dinner table."


In the NWT and Nunavut, two of Canada's three Arctic territories, hunting large game like caribou and polar bear is managed by the territorial governments under a quota system, meaning that licensed hunters from each community must enter a lottery draw to see if they can win a hunting tag. The number of tags awarded depends on the number of polar bears in a particular region each year, which ensures the hunts are sustainable and populations remain healthy. The caribou and polar bear that is being prepared today was given to us by a hunter in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

READ: Eating Seal Meat Is a Vital Part of Life in My Community

Hovak Johnston is an Inuk woman from Umingmaktok, Nunavut, a remote village high in the Arctic on the shore of the Northwest Passage. Her traditional facial tattoos pay homage to her home, her family, and her Inuit upbringing.


"The men hunted and the women cooked when I was growing up," she says. "It's still mostly that way but nowadays some women are hunting, too. We ate a lot of meat from all kinds of animals—it's how our people survived for so long [in the North]," she says. "It's not like there's a grocery store on every corner like in the South. If you're a picky eater, you won't last very long," she says.

There's an old joke among Northern Canada's indigenous people that the term "vegetarian" means "bad hunter". Up above the 60th Parallel—especially the Northwest Territories and Nunavut—eating meat and country food is simply a part of everyday life. Yes, there are grocery stores that stock produce, which is mostly rotten by the time they actually reach the shelves. Bottled water can cost up to $100 for a case of 24 500-ml bottles. In most Northern communities, with incredibly high food costs and large families, hunting is crucial—not just for sustenance, but for community morale and cultural preservation.


"I try to teach my children the traditional Inuit ways of life. It's important that they know where they come from," she says.

Hovak Johnston sits with her son, Brian, a sweet 13-year-old kid who loves the things that most 13 year-old kids love: video games and chocolate milk. Hovak Johnston shows him how to gently cut the fur around the caribou's eyeball using an ulu—a traditional Inuit knife shaped like a half-moon.


"Do a few quick, little cuts here," she says softly, pointing to the eyelid. "Pull hard with your other hand but don't rip it."

Although many people might consider this scene to be graphic, the interplay between a mother and her son is actually quite tender. I ask Brian if he's ever done anything like this before, to which he replies no. He's never tried polar bear meat either.

"Sometimes mom will give me moose and fish to bring to school and my friends just love it," he says. "I'm not sure what the polar bear will taste like—maybe deer?"

Hovak Johnston quarters the caribou head and puts it into a pot of boiling water. She chops the heart into tiny chunks for a stew later. Then she moves on to the polar bear meat.


"People are shocked to hear that we eat polar bear meat because they think they're endangered," she says. "The hunters say there are more polar bears than ever before."

Hovak Johnston cuts the meat into smaller steaks. The texture is slimy but rough. The room smells like fish.


"I think people in the South don't understand what life is like in the Arctic. It's easy for them to judge us when they have access to so much food," she says. "I bet if they visited the Arctic and saw how expensive and sparse healthy food is to get, they would change their mind about things."


Like the caribou, the polar bear is also put into a pot and boiled. There isn't much finesse to Inuit cooking: cut meat into chunks, boil, and eat. If you're lucky, you'll add some Mr. Noodle mix for some seasoning but it's generally served bare bones, no pun intended.

"I've never tried polar bear before, but I hear it tastes like a cross between beef and seal meat, which makes sense because polar bears eat mostly seal," she says. "I'm excited to try it."