Chances are good the ancestors would have loved the cooking of chefs Flora Deacon and Rob Kinneen. Ponder this menu: Alaskan fresh roll—salmonberry chutes, sea asparagus, herring eggs, shaved carrots, shaved celery, rice noodles and romaine lettuce, wrapped in a spring roll skin; halibut with a salmonberry sauce reduction; moose meatloaf with dandelion pesto; Octopus cakes (think “crab cakes”) with sea lettuce salad; rockfish braised with vegetables and accented with seal oil and seaweed.
Granted, these are contemporary twists to traditional foods, but Alaska Natives could be eating like this—most of those ingredients can be found right outside their doors. However, over the past 200 years, much of the knowledge of harvesting and preparing native foods has been lost while Natives lived in a Western, cash-based economy. The time it takes to harvest traditional foods doesn’t seem to mesh with job commitments required to pay the bills. The result has been a dependence on store-bought processed foods.
In fact, Alaska imports at least 95 percent of its food, those processed foods have wreaked havoc on the health Alaska Native health. The ancestors of Alaska’s First Peoples lived on the bounty around them: berries, plants, caribou, deer, moose, fish, seal, whale. Today, the top food and beverage items consumed in Alaska are soda pop, Hi-C, fruit juice, soup and milk. Today, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are among the leading causes of death among Alaska Natives.
Leaders of an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium program (AnthcToday.org) hope to change this picture. Gary Ferguson, Unangan/Aleut; and Desiree Bergeron, Tlingit, are leading the Store Outside Your Door, a multipronged effort to reintroduce Alaska Native people to the healthy foods of their ancestors. The program aims to educate Western doctors and academics about the nutritional value of Alaska’s traditional foods; reintroduce Alaska Native people to the lifestyle of identifying and harvesting foods “outside your door”; and start food-sharing networks, similar to community-supported agriculture programs, that can make native foods more available to communities and employ traditional harvesters and hunters.
“There’s a big need for this kind of program,” Bergeron says. “There’s not a lot of information [in the general public] on the nutrient benefits of our food.”
Enlightening academics and the non-Native medical establishment hasn’t been easy. If you have cancer, you have to have a very clean diet to avoid ingesting any pathogens, Bergeron says. Many non-Native doctors would not consider foraged plants or whale blubber, for example, to be “clean” foods. The National Cancer Institute recommends a diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, modest amounts of meat and milk products, and small amounts of fat.
“If you are at risk for heart disease, you’d have a specific diet of foods with low-saturated fats,” Bergeron says. “A doctor would say, ‘Don’t eat as much meat, don’t eat as much fat.’ But muktuk and seal oil are high in omega 3s, which protect against heart disease.”
In college, Bergeron corrected a professor’s characterization of muktuk, or whale blubber, as being part of a high-fat diet among Alaska Natives, implying it was not healthy. “He didn’t understand that it is high in omega 3s. It’s very lean and heart-healthy,” she recalls. Muktuk is also high in vitamin E, selenium and other antioxidants.
Dr. Nora Nagaruk of Nome told the Anchorage Daily News in 2008 about diet restrictions she faced when being treated for acute leukemia. “The rule was, if it wasn’t clear or understood [by the medical establishment], don’t risk it,” she told the newspaper. “So I had to avoid a lot of the stuff I like to eat.” For example, she wanted fresh tundra berries; doctors said she could eat them only if they were thoroughly washed, which made them mushy, or cooked in a muffin. Another cancer survivor told the Daily News that her doctors wanted her to eat kale, a vegetable she was unfamiliar with; she wanted sea asparagus, which is loaded with vitamins A, B, B2 and folic acid.
In response to Nagaruk’s story and others like hers, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium developed the Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors. The consortium’s Christine A. DeCourtney, Karen Mitchell and Bergeron compiled nutritional information from past studies on Alaska native foods and presented them in an easy-to-understand format, interwoven with stories from Native people all over the state about why these foods matter. The guide gives the common and Native name for foods; how to identify, harvest and prepare them; and their nutrient value.
Alaskan food plants—nutrient-packed so they can survive in harsh climates—are high in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. The fats in salmon, seal and whale meat are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Those acids are believed to support development of the brain, eyes and nerves in children, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Caribou, deer and moose meat are low in the saturated fats that contribute to cardiovascular disease.
While education is helping to increase understanding about traditional foods, overcoming the lure of the convenience of processed foods and restoring the harvesting lifestyle is a major undertaking. Consider many of the foods sold in Alaska’s grocery stores. Because they’re shipped in, they are more expensive; fresh fruits and vegetables cost two to three times more than in the lower 48 states, Bergeron says. “One pint of orange juice costs $10.”
So people buy the stuff that is more affordable and keeps longer. That means foods with poor nutritional value. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Bergeron says.
Ferguson says the cycle began more than 200 years ago, when settlements sprang up around the fur trade, and then mining and fishing. By 1939, Weston A. Price (1870–1948), a Cleveland dentist, documented nutrition-related health problems among Alaska Natives “[at] the point of contact with modern civilization where the only apparent important change has been the displacement of the Native foods with the foods of modern commerce.”
Chefs Rob Kinneen, Tlingit, and Flora Deacon, Athabascan, believe Alaskans can make healthy food choices that are environmentally friendly because those healthy foods don’t have to be imported. “They’re all right here,” Kinneen told AlaskaDispatch.com. “Clover, fireweed, spruce tips, there’s a whole world out there you can live on.”
Kinneen wants to reconnect Alaska Natives with the “awareness and accessibility of Alaska’s food supply.” He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and worked at high-profile restaurants in New Orleans, North Carolina and his home state. Now, he hosts a website, Fresh49.com, to showcase Alaska’s food bounty; and is featured on Traditional Foods, Contemporary Chef, a series of instructional videos produced by Store Outside Your Door. Deacon, also featured in the series, knows a lot about preparing good foods in harsh environments. She has a culinary arts degree from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, and has worked on the North Slope Dutch Harbor, Kodiak Island, Denali and Antarctica.
Each episode of Traditional Foods, Contemporary Chef introduces viewers to foods readily available outside, then takes them back into the kitchen to learn how to prepare a delicious and nutritious traditional dish—with a contemporary twist.
The food is not only nutritious, it’s fun to gather and cook. Several episodes open with Ferguson and Peter Devine Jr., a Qagan Tayagungin Tribal Council member, harvesting on the shore and then taking their bounty to Deacon so she can work her culinary magic.
In his episodes, Kinneen goes out with local Native people to fish and harvest in the local area, then returns to a kitchen to prepare a meal. The seal oil and seaweed he used to accent his rockfish are rich in vitamin A. The yarrow, wild parsley and springtime greens he used are rich in fiber and vitamins A and C.
Sometimes, Kinneen will use U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities distributed in Alaska’s rural areas to show how they can be used in a healthier way; he prepared a seal posole with canned vegetables and hominy. Or he’ll take a popular food and show how to make it healthier. In an episode filmed in the Interior region, he made Indian fry bread using nutrient-dense whole grains, Labrador tea and berries. “To me, traditional food is better than getting them at the store, because they’ve got no additives, or anything in them,” Yupi’k elder Marcella Jack said on an episode of Traditional Foods, Contemporary Chef. “I think it’s healthier for everybody to eat because they don’t put chemicals or whatever [in it], like where store-bought meat comes from. In these [foods], they’re off the land and from the ocean…so they’re much more healthier for everybody to eat.”
Bergeron says the benefits of harvesting go beyond good eating. Families spend time together outdoors when harvesting. Knowledge is passed down from adults to children. And the activity of harvesting is good exercise.
Bergeron and Ferguson have high expectations for their program. “My hope is that in five years there will be an increase in the number of Alaska Native people eating native foods,” Bergeron says. “We will be supporting our hunters. There will be a decrease in diabetes, obesity and other health disparities. And we will find strength in our culture.”
Elders have high expectations for the program too. “Back in the day, when our ancestors had [the] subsistence way of life, they were healthy people,” Unangan elder Sally Swetzof said on an episode of Store Outside Your Door. “Let’s go back and start getting ourselves introduced to this style of living again, and we’ll be once again healthy people.”