Yes Magazine: Hospital Beats Federal Bureaucracy to Offer Local Traditional Foods

In the sigluaq, Inupiaq for ice cellar, Cyrus Harris processes locally harvested caribou, moose, fowl, and fish to feed elders at the long-term care ward.

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.

Elders who had a traditional diet based on the Arctic tundra and sea had no choice but to eat spaghetti.

In 2012, Kotzebue’s tribe-owned hospital opened a new long-term care ward to elders who needed medical assistance that couldn’t be provided at home. The ward alleviated the need to send family members to Anchorage or Fairbanks for care.

But staying at the new ward, which must adhere to federal food and health standards, meant a drastic change in diet for the Inupiaq elders. Ignoring local customs, federal regulations require that all foods must be obtained from a source approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Suddenly, elders who had a traditional diet based on the Arctic tundra and sea had no choice but to eat spaghetti. Wild game and other locally harvested foods, which were not state regulated, did not appear on the menu.

“It’s been a challenge to try to introduce traditional foods in a building that’s restricted by the federal government,” Harris says. In 2014, however, the Farm Bill passed with a clause that allowed traditional foods to be donated to schools and senior care facilities. The law paved a way for Harris and the tribally owned nonprofit Maniilaq Association to obtain a permit from the state of Alaska and open a unique food processing center.

Vernetta Nay Moberly cleans a sheefish on the Kotzebue Sound. The fish is a staple of the traditional Inupiaq diet.
Photos by Stephen Miller.

“Welcome to the sigluaq,” Harris proclaims, standing before a small, white building off one of Kotzebue’s dirt roads not far from the hospital. The name is Inupiaq for “ice cellar,” and it is indeed cold inside. It houses an open kitchen with stainless steel tables and white floors. There are knives, a large meat grinder, and a bandsaw, which Harris says gets the most use. Behind draped strips of clear plastic, a walk-in freezer is packed with sealed caribou, moose, seal, and sheefish, all harvested from the surrounding lands and waters.

Hunting is a family’s best chance for maintaining a healthy, inexpensive diet.

Since 2015, the sigluaq has provided a facility for Harris and others to process donated meat, fish, and fowl according to government regulations so they can be served to elders in the long-term care ward. The program kicked off with an inaugural meal of traditional musk ox stew.

The sigluaq is part of a greater effort to maintain the place of traditional foods in modern Inupiaq homes. Harris estimates that about a third of Kotzebue is food insecure, lacking reliable access to affordable, healthy food. It’s an issue that plagues many areas of the country where incomes are low: Grocery shelves are stocked with cheap, nutrition-poor packaged foods, and healthy options are hard to find. Here in the Arctic, however, the issue is compounded by extremely high costs—as much as $8 for a gallon of milk.

Hunting is a family’s best chance for maintaining a healthy, inexpensive diet, but the costs—especially of fuel for boats and snowmobiles—are not insignificant. Since 1993, Harris has led an assistance program for Inupiaq hunters. The Maniilaq Hunter Support Program supplies hunters with fuel and gear to help them successfully bring wild meat and fish to tables in Kotzebue and the surrounding villages. It also trains young hunters, securing a future for an integral part of Inupiaq culture.

In recent years, Harris has encountered a new challenge. Rising global temperatures have reduced Arctic pack ice, pushing the seals farther north earlier in the year. “When I was growing up back in the ’70s and ’80s, we used to have a two-month period of oogruk hunting. Today, hunting on the ice pack has shrunk to about a three-day period,” he says.

Kotzebue’s hunters can only keep up with the receding ice for so long. Without a drastic reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, traditional foods may be out of reach for the next generation of Inupiaq hunters.