OTTAWA - The woman who handed Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean a slice of seal heart says she's been "sad and hurt" by international criticism of what she described as a deeply personal gesture.

The Nunavut government employee has sent Jean a letter explaining the religious significance of the seal ritual, and why she chose to share it during a community feast.

Cathy Towtongie says she learned about the custom - called Sikitiqtuq - from her uncle, who first participated in it as a child in 1917.

She says Sikitiqtuq has been practised for eons, and that its meaning has transformed over time. Inuit now use it to profess their abandonment of shamanistic religious traditions in favour of Judeo-Christian ones.

She was describing that custom to the Governor General at a community festival in Rankin Inlet two weeks ago, as they knelt together and sliced open a freshly killed seal.

Jean's decision to eat the mammal's organ touched off a torrent of reaction in which the vast majority of Canadian commentators defended her.

But it also prompted bitter criticism: animal-rights groups compared the act to Neanderthalism and wife-battery, and a spokesperson for the European Union derided the gesture as "too bizarre" to acknowledge.

In a letter to Rideau Hall, Towtongie explained why she shared the custom with her vice-regal guest.

"In offering the seal heart, I was offering Her Excellency the respect of my ancestors' culture," wrote Towtongie, a statistics officer for Nunavut's territorial government.

"It was not only a delicacy, but an offering in that respect. I also do not enjoy being called 'that Inuk woman.' I am a human being practising an ancient culture, thousands of years old, indicating respect for the land, the sea, and the animals on which we rely. We value what we have and that was what I could offer to Her Excellency.

"I feel sad and hurt that Her Excellency is being attacked over an act which is thousands of years old, and meant to welcome her to our beloved Nunavut."