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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Rain has soaked the ground, and a deep chill settles in Danielle Alvarez’s gloved fingers as she rubs them into the wet hide of a moose.
Soaked in fermented moose brain for two weeks, the hide is now soft and malleable, easier to dehair, stretch and strip. Alvarez, 20, and her mentor, Rochelle Adams, bend over the table to work, tediously scraping off the fine, stringy hair follicle membrane.
They will scrape for hours, the stench burning their noses.
Both women are Alaska Natives. Adams, a Gwich’in Athabascan from the Interior villages of Beaver and Fort Yukon, patiently teaches Alvarez, whose family is Upper Tanana Athabascan. Alvarez grew up in Anchorage and is passionate about reconnecting with her roots.
“This is a tradition that has evolved over hundreds of generations,” Adams said. It’s a tradition that has fit like a puzzle piece in a nutritional lifestyle of Alaska Natives centered around fishing, hunting, gathering and growing. Every bit of the moose is used, Adams said. The meat to eat. The hide to clothe. Its own bones and organs aid in the tanning process.
And it makes sense that here, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, the women spend a Saturday demonstrating the task. But away from the center, in downtown Anchorage at a local café, or in a rural village with no road access, whether Native nutrition traditions like this are truly being passed down is more uncertain.
That concern is at the heart of an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) initiative encouraging a return to traditional Native foods and preparation. The Store Outside Your Door, started by nutritionist Desiree Bergeron and Dr. Gary Ferguson, is a program that highlights traditional foods from around the state. They visit communities to learn from elders, and then to film the conversations, the harvesting and eventual cooking for webisodes that air on YouTube.
“There is so much wisdom and history in our region, and so much is still available via elders,” Ferguson said.
From tundra to rainforest
The state, a land mass larger than Montana, Texas and California combined, includes a diverse ecosystem ranging from tundra to rainforest. Before contact with other cultures, Native Alaskans spent years perfecting the traditional medicinal and nutrition lifestyles according to their region, Bergeron said.
Bergeron is a Klinkit from southeastern Alaska, and was raised in several different parts of the state, living off the land, and eating the animals, fruits and vegetables available in the region.
“In Nome, it was bear,” Bergeron said. “It was a really great opportunity. As I chose a career in nutrition, I looked at how that diet affected me and how people are losing that way of traditional foods. That knowledge is just gone.”
A number of things led to the changes, said Ferguson, an Aleut from Sand Point.
The introduction of a cash-based economy, tribes forced to stay on designated land rather than live nomadically and follow herds, and the assimilation of children into Western language and culture while they were sent away to boarding schools all had a chilling effect on traditional culture, language and nutrition.
“They taught us to eat according to the food pyramid,” Ferguson said. “Western food was prized. Traditional food was seen as the poor food. It was almost a shame thing.”
When traditional is medicinal
Before colonization, traditional diets were high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
Fireweed, for example, is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, as well as fiber. Salmon is high in omega 3s and protein. The berries in Alaska have 10 times the amount of antioxidants than berries in the lower 48 because of the conditions they grow in, Ferguson said.
“It’s a super-powerful nutrient,” he added.
From southeastern Alaska all the way to the northern tip at Barrow, sea mammal consumption has provided vitamin D and omega 3s.
“There is so much research out there that validates the traditional ways,” Bergeron said. “It’s medicinal; it’s not just eating.”
Kelsey Saakvitne works with elders at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to mentor young people in traditional language, art, culture and nutrition.
As with many Natives who experienced assimilation practices in the United States during the 1800s, Alaska Native elders today are hesitant to teach again because it brings back painful memories.
“They were forbidden to speak their language,” Saakvitne said. “That might have broken a really vital link between generations.”
“When we did focus groups in the very beginning, some elders got angry when we asked them to talk about the benefits of traditional foods,” she said.
Many of them were persuaded that Western medicine and food was healthy, but now struggle with medical issues that can be traced back to their new diets.
“The Western providers are coming back and saying, ‘Oops, we were wrong. Your traditional foods were better for you,’” Bergeron said.
A cultural reawakening
Although the prevalence of diabetes among Alaska Native people is lower than among U.S. whites, the prevalence of diabetes since 1990 has increased in every region and tripled in some.
Cancer is the leading cause of death for Alaska Native people, accounting for 1 out of every 5 deaths. The Alaska Native cancer death rate is 30 percent greater than for U.S. whites.
Even with research, the tide is difficult to turn when it comes to persuading people to change their diets today, experts say.
According to a recent ANTHC survey, store-bought foods, such as juices, soda and coffee, were the most frequently reported food items of surveyed Native Alaskans. Salmon, moose, whales, seals, berries, ducks, geese, ptarmigan and caribou, all of which were once staples for Alaska Natives, are no longer the most consumed food.
Adams said it makes sense that there would be a change in the health of her people.
“It’s important for Native people to eat a traditional diet,” she said.
“That’s what our bodies are used to. They’re not used to the sugar, the processed foods, the hormones, the antibiotics.”
People in rural villages face real challenges in making a change but also have very viable opportunities to accessing traditional foods.
“The villages are food deserts,” Ferguson said. “There’s no healthy food; it’s expensive. A gallon of milk is $12.”
Bergeron said the Store Outside Your Door teaches what foods are available, where and at what time of the year.
“If you gather food seasonally, as we have in the past, you can have a vibrant life with food that is nutrient-dense,” she said.
Alvarez is intent to learn.
“With Western culture, you buy food in a package and you don’t know how it got there,” she said. “I feel like we want it; it’s a cultural reawakening.”
Gold for wooden nickels
Adams’ family lives on the Yukon River and practices many of the traditional ways, including moose hunting and traveling to a fish camp.
“In the fall during moose hunting season, our whole family will go out and camp,” she said. “It’s not only the actual eating. It’s the activity and carrying out the indigenous knowledge.”
Bergeron said research shows that youth who participate in traditional activities have lower rates of suicide.
“It’s important to be able to walk in two worlds,” Adams said.
Ferguson’s family fished commercially, and he now thinks of a saying his grandpa taught him when they fished.
“He would say, ‘Don’t take any wooden nickels now,’” meaning not to be fooled by things of little value, Ferguson said. That’s exactly what has happened with Alaska Natives, he said.
“We’ve given up gold for wooden nickels,” he said. “Our food and our connection to the land — we’ve given up a huge health care tool. This is right under our feet. Native people can go back to thriving.”