This article is the second one of eight in a series of outreach materials funded through a partnership between Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM) on harbor seal conservation and subsistence harvesting. Written by Abigail Sweetman.
“Food is medicine” is a common adage among Indigenous communities, and while it’s easy to see the capacity for cultural, social, and spiritual healing in the rituals of harvesting and consuming traditional foods, understanding the importance of these diets has not been an intuitive process. While the colonization of Indigenous lands by Western settlers led to conscious and violent suppression of language and culture, this disenfranchisement also had a significant impact on traditional diets. Harbor seals, as a species, are important not only for their roles in their environments but also for their cultural and nutritional impact on Native cuisine. Desiree Jackson, Goldbelt Heritage’s executive director and a Registered Dietician specializing in traditional foods, shared some of her knowledge in a decade’s worth of research in Alaskan Indigenous communities to help uncover how hunting seals feeds Native communities and how valuable traditional diets are to community health, cultural sovereignty, and food security.
Jackson always had an interest in healthy ways of living, which is what led her to study dietetics. She grew up eating some traditional Tlingit foods but became especially interested in them when one of her professors made a passing comment on subsistence use of whale fat without the context nor understanding to recognize its cultural or nutritional importance. After that event, she spent the next two years teaching her peers and teachers alike about traditional diets. She spent the next decade researching and working in Indigenous communities analyzing the nutrition of traditional foods. While Jackson’s work helped expand nutritional understanding to Western science communities, Alaska’s Native peoples have been continuously researching the nutritional benefits of local foods for tens of thousands of years. The importance of traditional foods has been observed within these communities for as long as they have had other foods to compare them to. Ailments such as dental decay, diabetes, and heart disease didn’t plague Indigenous communities before exposure to Western diets. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Alaska’s Indigenous peoples: in an influential study in the 1980s, Dr. Denis P. Burkitt observed the same dietary trends and negative health impacts in Africa, classing an entire subset of diseases “Western diseases.”
Even with years of observations in Native communities and in the body of modern dietary research as a whole, Jackson’s work analyzing traditional diets laid some important groundwork in protecting access to traditional foods. Her goal was to break down foods into ways that physicians could use. For example, she wrote a book for the Livestrong Foundation especially detailing which foods were safe to eat for those in cancer treatment or recovery. She also worked on the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s “Store Outside Your Door” initiative, where she conducted research and outreach on the dietary adequacy of Yup’ik women, which analyzed the nutritional value of traditional diets. This work, as part of a campaign with a film crew that highlighted language, culture, harvesting techniques, and medicinal qualities of foods, was an important step in bringing focus and attention to traditional diets and food security in Native communities.
In many remote Alaskan communities, Western groceries are limited and prohibitively expensive. In Barrow, groceries can be more than 53% more expensive than in Anchorage, which is already higher than national grocery averages by 22 points. While Western groceries are more expensive, they also tend to be less nutritionally dense. There’s been a wealth of economic research on food deserts since the Scottish Nutrition Task Force coined the term in 1995 to describe geographic areas without sufficient access to grocery stores in low-income communities. The findings are unsurprising: when time and budgets are limited, food choices tend to be inexpensive foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. Food insecurity is an issue that has been exacerbated especially over the past few years, with many Alaskan families waiting months for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, resulting in a lawsuit in January of this year against the state for failure to comply with federal law that requires issuance of benefits within 30 days.
Thus, knowing when and how to harvest, store, and preserve traditional foods is not only crucial for cultural survival, but it’s also necessary to combat critical food insecurity problems in rural and largely Native areas. However, there are challenges to accessing these foods as well: as there are fewer Elders to pass on traditional food knowledge, fewer people have the knowledge and confidence to eat traditionally. Some have well-founded fears of eating this way, as modern adaptations to traditional foods haven’t always been successful: foods fermented in plastic buckets instead of grass baskets or clay pots created environments that spoiled food instead of preserving it. Preparing traditional foods safely requires a level of knowledge and sensitivity that can be intimidating to those who haven’t grown up watching and learning from their Elders. Further threats to these diets include ecosystem shifts due to environmental change. When the climate shifts, the availability of traditional plants and animals changes as well; hunters and foragers may have to travel farther for food or experience reduced harvests as species struggle to adapt with warming and ocean acidification. In Alaska, climate change, food security, and indigenous justice are related issues. Food instability is an issue that disproportionately impacts Alaska Native populations, and ensuring access to traditional foods through research, outreach, meaningful public policy, and education can go a long way toward sustaining cultural longevity.
Research done by people such as Jackson allows for this kind of longevity. Through her work in Yup’ik boats and kitchens, she uncovered some information on seal harvesting that shows the importance of harbor seals to traditional diets. Seal meat is an excellent source of protein, iron, and vitamin A, and it is rich in omega-3s. To obtain similar nutritional benefits from Western groceries, one would have to look for a combination of foods like beef, milk, spinach, carrots, and eggs, which won’t be fresh or affordable if you can find them at all in rural Alaskan communities. Seal oil, which is widely used as a seasoning and preservative in many of Alaska’s Indigenous cultures, is low in sodium and rich in omega-3s. The preparation of foods is different across the state; for instance, in colder Northern climates, seal oil is rendered and fermented, but in warmer Southern climates oil is cooked and skimmed off the top. Jackson hypothesizes that Northern seal oil likely has some probiotics from fermentation, but there’s currently no research into the kinds of probiotics and the specific benefits to gut health they may offer. Oil fermentation hasn’t been popularized in many other cuisines but has seen some use in skincare in recent years. Thus, there’s not a lot of research in oil fermentation in general. Other oils that may be available in rural areas are usually highly refined and derived from plants, and if eaten in conjunction with other highly processed foods, may contribute to high levels of polyunsaturated fats and make aforementioned “Western diseases” more likely.
While understanding traditional foods such as seal products can help target or address disease in Alaskan communities, Jackson has conflicted thoughts on researching these foods further. She notes that while there’s understanding that these foods have many health benefits, there are limited advantages to investing in further research into their nutritional makeup. In pursuing this work, Jackson says Indigenous scientists are constantly walking a “tight line between sharing our stories and keeping traditional knowledge close.” Exploration of these diets by those with no cultural connection to them poses the risk of commercializing Native foods and medicines as limited supply and population of species would not support a broad market demand. While there is a critical need for the research and outreach that allows Native people to safely harvest, prepare, and access traditional foods, this kind of work must be done with the understanding that there are social and environmental risks that necessitate limiting traditional knowledge to cultural communities.
Traditional foods are an important part of Alaska’s community health, cultural sovereignty, and food security. These diets aren’t just medicine in the sense that they can help treat and prevent disease, but they’re integral parts of the way Indigenous communities honor and share their heritage. Eating a dish seasoned with seal oil is a celebration that knowledge has been passed down, and that knowledge may continue to be passed down. Amidst social, economic, and environmental pressures, these cuisines continue to sustain communities.
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