For 80 years, Alaska Native May Watson’s diet consisted of foods such as whale blubber, seal oil and caribou. This was the norm in her village of Noatak, located in the northwestern region of the state and home to roughly 500 Inupiat Eskimos.
But when Watson moved to a long-term care facility in the city of Kotzebue, nearly 50 miles away, she was forced to eat what she calls “white man’s food.”
“I have stomach ache, and I get lots of hurt in my stomach [after eating the food],” says Watson, who was outspoken about her distaste for Western foods during the year and a half she lived in the facility. She moved to Anchorage earlier in January to be with one of her 10 children.
When Watson first entered the facility, called Utuqqanaat Inaat, nursing homes in Alaska faced strict limitations on the foods they were allowed to serve. She was only able to enjoy her comfort foods at monthly potlucks, or when her son would bring her meals to store in a freezer in her room.
Since then, the nonprofit organization that runs the facility – the Maniilaq Association – and facility Administrator Val Kreil, have been at the forefront of an effort for nursing homes and other public facilities to be able to provide Alaska Natives with traditional foods.
Though state laws have long permitted facilities to serve many Inupiat foods, as long as they meet certain standards, many of these public places receive federal funding, and are required to follow additional regulations.
Utuqqanaat Innat’s food sourcing, for example, must be approved or deemed satisfactory by either a federal, state or local authority to be approved by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, to receive federal reimbursements. Until recently, traditional foods were not recognized in national guidelines and, therefore, were out of the question for facilities to serve.
Adding to the issue, some traditional foods in Alaska such as seal oil (the Inupiat equivalent to butter) pose high risks for foodborne illness. Alaska leads the nation for its rates of botulism, an illness that can lead to paralysis and death.
But in 2014, Alaska Natives experienced a major victory when Alaska’s former Sen. Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young pushed for a “native foods” addition to the Farm Bill, a law revisited by Congress every five years that governs agricultural and food programs. This was the first time Native American and Alaska Native traditional foods were recognized at a national level, and the law largely reflects Alaska’s regulations.
And since the USDA’s guidelines do not specifically address some wild game, such as caribou and moose, the organization deferred to Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation to have authority over these foods, according to Kreil, who was instrumental in this development.
These were major victories not only for nursing homes, but also other public facilities such as hospitals and schools, which receive public funding.
Now, DEC Environmental Program Manager Lorinda Lhotka says the organization has been working to clarify its regulations and help people say, “Yes, we can [serve traditional foods].”
Since these developments, the Kotzebue nursing home has integrated many traditional foods, from salmon head soup to roasted seal meat and cawk (frozen reindeer), into its daily meals.
A traditional foods processing facility – the first of its kind in the state and built to prepare game meats and provide them to Utuqqanaat Inaat and the rest of the community – has made the new menu possible.
Kreil says the native elders now “eat better, they sleep much better … they eat much healthier.”
“They’re full when they go to bed. It’s comfort food for them,” he adds.
Besides providing a taste of home, traditional foods are also generally healthier than Western foods, according to Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services.
The introduction of commercial food and the Western diet has caused obesity rates in the state to spike, leading the Centers for Disease Control to develop a program in 2008 to encourage the consumption of traditional foods.
The foods are also important to the natives’ spiritual connection with the land and its inhabitants, says Estelle Thomson, a traditional healer for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, located in Kenai, Alaska. Following Kotzebue’s example, the tribe opened its own traditional food processing facility over the last year.
Thomson, who works at the tribe’s Dena’ina Wellness Center, says there needs to be more education for people to understand that natives’ food customs are “not just about nutrition but why we do it spiritually.”
Despite the progress in Kotzebue, Kenai and other places in Alaska, the communities still face a a number of challenges in catering to their Inupiat residents.
For one, Watson says she still doesn’t think Kotzebue’s nursing home serves enough traditional foods and wasn’t always satisfied by the Inupiat foods they do provide.
“If we live in an igloo and they feed us Inupiat food I would be more happy,” she says, speaking through a thick Inupiaq accent. “I would be more happy than being in a good-looking place I should be thankful for,” she said while still living at the home.
Kreil says the facility is doing its best, serving five to six Inupiat meals per week, but it will take some time to fully convert the menu.
The kitchen is still getting accustomed to how to safely prepare all the foods and learn the recipes. As a Ohio native who started working in Alaska in 2013, Kreil says he is still learning about traditional foods and has had the chance to try quite a few at the home.
He says another roadblock in satisfying his residents’ desire for Inupiat food is that they have extremely sensitive palates. For example, they can tell if a reindeer was raised in a particular environment. When Watson was served soup with a different type of duck than she was accustomed to, she immediately knew it wasn’t what she wanted and mistook the meat for chicken.
“They say that’s a duck soup and it was a chicken soup instead of duck soup! I was so excited to eat it but my mouth just closed up again,” she says.
One major ingredient the elders are missing from their meals is seal oil, a staple for Alaska Natives. Seal oil is still on the DEC’s list of prohibited foods because of its high botulism rate and the fact that researchers have yet to develop a method for safe preparation.
But they might be close, Kreil says. Researchers in Alaska and Wisconsin are working with the Maniilaq Association to create a safe process for making seal oil.
Their work, now in its final phases, will be evaluated by the DEC.