Keeping It Real in Urban Alaska
Keeping it real as an Alaska Native in urban Alaska can be difficult. I know one of the biggest barriers to hunting/gathering is transportation, time and money. When you move here, your access to our traditional foods becomes limited. You are surrounded by people who only speak English, who have different values, and in most cases could care less about you and your culture. This article is mostly directed at those of us who have lived here a while, or who grew up here but still yearn for a stronger connection to our culture. And if you are non-native, it doesn’t matter, you can participate too.
1. Make Time For Hunting/Fishing/Gathering
Even if you can’t do these things the same as you can at home, make some time. I know lots of us do this already, but if you don’t, I encourage you to do it. Last fall, we gathered a couple of gallons of nice, fat blackberries from Flat Top. A quart of blueberries, too. I also found 11 salmonberries, but I felt bad for them so I left them alone. I’ll check back in a couple of years and see if the patch grew into something respectable.
Hooligan fishing is coming up, and they may not be herrings but they are damn good dried, and it is super easy to split them and dry them. There are a lot of opportunities even in urban Alaska to hunt and fish – no matter how insignificant it may seem, it will feel good for you to get outside and get your own food.
I highly recommend Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s “Store Outside Your Door” project, which has a lot of videos and information to encourage us to eat food from the land, instead of the store. You can also find all their videos on YouTube The series includes alternative methods of preparing traditional foods. The series encouraged me to make ptortilla soup. Ptortilla soup is tortilla soup, made with ptarmigan. I slow cooked the entire bird bones and all to create the stock and replaced chicken with ptarmigan in the recipe. It was actually better with ptarmigan. Facebook groups such as Native Food Recipes are a good place to learn how to prepare certain foods, or get alternative recipes. Alaska Barter and Seller’s page is mostly crafts but you can also barter and trade food there, especially if you don’t have access to things like seal oil. Be careful though, the feds are not our friends so make sure what you are trading is legal. I realize it’s not always easy to access our traditional foods. Sharing and generosity is one of our values, so try ask your family to send you some.
This last summer I made dried hooligans, and dried salmon on the deck of my condo. On some of the days that were hot and still, I had to bring the fish inside and put a fan on them because the flies got pretty crazy. Flies don’t really bother me, but I didn’t want my neighbors wondering why flies were swarming my deck. Some of my friends dry caribou and moose in their houses.
2. Feed Your Kids Native Food
I’m not a big fan of seal oil with berries. I love seal oil and I love berries, but I don’t like them mixed. I also am not the hugest fan of walrus, but I’ll eat it. Lots of us in this generation didn’t grow up eating a lot of our native foods and some of them are an acquired taste, some of which I re-acquired recently. I tell my wife the key to trying new foods is to wait until you are real hungry then try it. Or my personal favorite – try it with some cracker first.
I’ll tell you who does like seal oil and berries though: My kids.
I feed my kids’ stuff I won’t eat, which sounds a little strange but there is a method to my madness. I’m letting them acquire tastes for our cultural food so when they grow up they appreciate native food. I encourage everyone to feed their kids native food. If they won’t eat uqsrugaaq treat it the same way you treat veggies, make them sit there until they eat it. Our food is good for us, it’s better for you than most of the stuff you buy at the store, especially if you are on a low income.
I know one of my friends is attempting to get used to fermented fish eggs, apparently they taste like gorgonzola or bleu cheese or something. Fermented foods are really good for you, but the smell can make the task a little daunting. Really good cheese is the stinkiest. For the longest time I would not eat feta cheese because of the smell, but boy do I love me some feta now. Feta does not even smell that bad. Poke fish leaves a smell on your fingers that takes days to go away, but oh man is it delicious.
So stick it to the man, spoon feed your toddlers seal oil even if you don’t like it.
3. Speak Your Language
Even if you only know two words, start using those two words. For instance, I know a decent amount of Yupik words. Here are a couple examples:
Puirra: a goodbye
ii-i: yes, or agreement
I try and use those words as much as I can, even to non-native people. It was hilarious when I was at the Starbucks drive-through and she asked me if that was all I was ordering, I responded with “ii-i” and through context she understood me.
At first it was really uncomfortable to get into the habit of using the words I know, but it becomes more and more comfortable the more I do it. Don’t be afraid to slaughter words either. Think about when you were growing up. It took you a while to get some words right. It can also be funny. A couple weeks ago my friend said “Mamterilleq esirliq” as she was leaving. I asked the other girl “what the heck did she just say?” That literally means “Bethel yellow”. We laughed our asses off. She just wanted to practice the words.
(If you are a native language speaker and you are impatient or rude about correcting people trying to learn their language I will nunuq the hell out of you)
4. Mix It Up With Indigenous Bling
This one is my wife’s recommendation and I’m seeing it more and more. Wearing your ivory, beadwork, quillwork, etc., just because. Yesterday I wore a dentalium choker and I looked good if I don’t say so myself, and I often rock my qaspeq and I know lots of you already do! I’ll admit I think qaspeqs are hot, and when I see you wear them it just makes you all the more beautiful.
Be careful with this one though. My wife and I were informed not too long ago that it is inappropriate to wear the dentalium necklace I bought her for mother’s day because it is a chief’s necklace. My wife is head of this household, and a leader when it comes to breastfeeding and child care but she is not a chief. It’s okay though. Now it is a piece of art for our home.
5. Call Home More Often.
Keep in touch with family at home, call just to say hi. Keep each other updated on how things are going. Your family is one of the most important connections to your culture. Facebook is also good for this, but you need to call them once in a while too.
Oh and call your grandma right now if you are fortunate enough to be able to do that.
If you have any more ideas and tips for keeping it real in urban Alaska post a comment, or send me a message and I’ll include them in a future post! I’ll update as we move into spring when I split, dry and smoke hooligans, and attempt to make some hooligan grease!
Keeping It Real in Urban Alaska