by Stephen Miller | Oct 11, 2017
A unique program in the Arctic tundra finds a way around federal regulation to put traditional foods on the hospital menu.
“Imagine yourself in another world of ice. You’re out a ways from shore, and you’re traveling through ice pack, looking for good, clear, white ice. That’s most likely where you’ll find the oogruk, and it’s also a shelter in case the weather turns on you,” says Cyrus Harris, an Inupiaq elder from Kotzebue, Alaska, describing a traditional hunt for bearded seal.
“The oogruk can be a challenge,” he explains. “You definitely need to be a sharpshooter for that one. Your target is fairly small, but that’s what it takes to be able to land an oogruk.”
Seal hunting in the Chukchi Sea has put food on the table for generations of Inupiaq families, which make up most of Kotzebue’s 3,200 residents. A successful hunt in June can help stock a pantry with dried meat and oil through the long, frigid winter. Many who live along Alaska’s northwest coast continue the tradition, and some elders remember a time when seal oil and dried meat were a perpetual staple.
As Western culture has brought new comforts like central heating, snowmobiles, and modern medicine, it has also complicated a traditional lifestyle in unexpected ways.