by Janet Hall, Communications Director
The World Health Organization defines food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” In general, the concept of food security includes both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.
The Alaska Native population that once so effectively fed itself finds itself caught up in a changing society. As Natives have adopted a processed food diet, many have had health troubles. External changes (rising fuel costs, changing weather, flooding, bad ice, changing migration patterns) are making it difficult for families to harvest traditional foods. Hunger has become a larger concern. Native youth are less likely to gain skills in subsistence harvesting. Subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry picking is central to spiritual life. Collaborating to feed themselves and their neighbors brings family members into common purpose. Harvests are typically shared with those who are unable to join in. This activity stands at the core of social connection and tribal heritage. (Meter, K., and Goldenberg-Phillips M., Building Food Security in Alaska, July 28, 2014, Crossroads Resource Center, Minneapolis; Commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in collaboration from the Alaska Food Policy Council, p. 10 & 35).
Subsistence Harvest of Wild Foods
A wide variety of foods are harvested in the wilds, including salmon (32% of all wild harvests), Pacific halibut, Pacific herring, and whitefish. Harvested marine mammals include seals, sea lions, walruses, and whales. Land mammals such as moose, caribou, deer, bears, Dall sheep, mountain goats, and beavers are commonly hunted. Birds, shellfish, and plants (including berries and greens) are also harvested when available (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2013-ADFG). Also, according to ADFG date, Alaskans (including sportsmen and those collecting for personal use) harvested 50 million pounds of wild foods in 2012. Most of this, 37 million pounds, was harvested by residents of rural areas, and the rest by urban dwellers.
Various foods gathered are important for nutrition. Families living in remote communities depend on wild harvests for as much as 80% of their diet (ADFG, 2013). Studies have shown that wild foods often fulfill dietary needs quite completely; fish and game are a source of ample protein – on average, 189% of daily requirements for rural villagers (ADFG, 2013). Sedentary lifestyles and eating processed foods is an indicator of declining consumption of subsistence foods which leads to an increase in health risks such as diabetes and heart disease.
Innovative Use of Traditional Foods
The Food Bank of Alaska and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium have brought a new food source to rural Alaska through the commodity foods program. Many remote Alaska Native communities will benefit from the program due to the increased use of traditional foods. Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the program was initially only available to American Indians in the lower 48. It has now been expanded to thirteen Alaskan villages that are piloting the program.
According to Melissa Chlupach, Regional Dietician of NMS, a subsidiary of NANA Regional Corporation, “traditional foods are very nutrient dense.” She described a new food processing facility in Kotzebue that provides traditional foods such as moose and seal to Alaska Native Elders who are in long term care. The processing facility was recently named Sigluaq, an Inupiaq name meaning ice cellar or cold storage. The name was suggested by the Kotzebue Elders Council Chairman, Willie Goodwin, Jr.
Alaska Native food pyramids have been designed to include traditional foods by region. These food pyramids may be found on the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) website at www.anthc.org/chs/wp/nutrition.
Native foods provide good sources of protein, iron and vitamin A and are low in saturated fat and sugar. Alaska Natives have been nourished by food from the land and water for thousands of years. Alaska Native Elders pass on ways to harvest and preserve these foods to the next generation. Each region of Alaska relies on different types of animals, fish and plants to provide nutrients needed to live in a harsh environment. (Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors, 2008, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, p. 10). The traditional food guide highlights traditional foods that can be eaten by cancer patients during and after treatment. It also serves as a valuable resource for healthcare providers to encourage Alaska Natives to maintain a healthy diet.
Sharing Traditional Knowledge
Interest in Alaska’s plants as food is steadily growing. The fourth annual Alaskan Plants as Food and Medicine Symposium was recently held in Anchorage on June 22-24 and was sponsored by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Health Promotion, Disease Prevention Program. The goal of the conference was bringing stakeholders and learners together to promote traditional plant knowledge and ethical harvesting.
The recent symposium featured presentations by Beverly Gray, author of The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, Elise Krohn, author of Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar: the Gifts of the Northwest Plants, and Dr. Rita Blumenstein, International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, Traditional Doctor, born in Tununak.
Traditional foods are an important part of the Alaska Native culture. Gathering, hunting, preserving and eating traditional foods promotes health not just within ourselves and our families, but within the broader community and ecosystem. It teaches us respect for the planet and the diversity of life it supports.
To learn more about traditional food gathering and wild plants please see the resource list below.
Traditional Food Gathering Resource List
- Ainana, Lyudmila and Zagrebin, Igor. 2014. Edible Plants Used by Siberian Yupik Eskimos of Southeastern Chukchi Peninsula, Russia. Anchorage, Alaska: National Park Service Shared Beringian Heritage Program; United States Department of the Interior.
- Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. 2008. Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors. Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Office of Alaska Native Health Research, Cancer Program.
- Gray, Beverly. 2011. The Boreal Herbal Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North: A Guide to Harvesting, Preserving and Preparing. Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada: Aroma Borealis Press.
- Jensen, Pia and Nobmann, Elizabeth. 1994. What’s in Alaskan Foods: Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Area Native Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Indian Health Service.
- Karri, Priscilla Russell. 1995. Tanaina Plantlore Dena’ina K’et’una. Fairbanks, Alaska: Alaska Native Language Center, Alaska Natural History Association, National Park Service.
- Schofield, Janice. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Anchorage, Alaska: Todd Communications.
- Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). Southeast Alaska Traditional Food Guide. Juneau, Alaska: SEARHC
- Viereck, Eleanor. 2007. Alaska’s Wilderness Medicines: Healthful Plants of the Far North. Portland, Oregon: Alaska Northwest Books.