story and illustrations By Gilberto Daniel Rodriguez
Through the winding waterways of the Arctic, across the bright South Dakota plains, and into the dense multitudes of an Oakland boulevard, traditional Native food practices are being rediscovered, stengthened, and invigorated. They find an ally in the Seva Foundation, an East Bay service organization. For over 30 years, Seva’s Native American Community Health (NACH) program has promoted the health and well-being of indigenous people. It is currently focused squarely on recovering food practices that have long kept Native people healthy.
This fall, healthy harvests are under way in environments near and far, much as in the “old days,” with community members learning, teaching, sharing, cooking, and eating together. Seva’s East Oakland partner, Intertribal Friendship House (IFH), has served for 55 years as a Native cultural oasis in the urban environment. This year, off busy International Boulevard, there now exists a vibrant garden at IFH: Rainbow chard, crook-neck yellow squash, and heirloom tobacco are among the 47 varieties of indigenous plant life that are being welcomed into the multi-tribal community. California Indians such as Ohlone and Pomo, and dozens of other tribal community members from across the country, including Dakota and Oneida, have made their home in the Bay Area, joining here as one family known as the Intertribal Friendship House community. This family will soon assemble to share the Harvest Dinner as it does annually, but this year a portion of the harvest will derive directly from community hands rather than stores alone. In one sense then, the garden, some 728 square feet in total, holds far more than plants alone—its existence serves as a tangible, visible symbol of the resilience and self-reliance of the Bay Area Native community.
In a similar way, this kind of food heritage recovery and rediscovery is happening more than 3,000 miles away in a very different environment: an Alaska Native village. In this setting, unlike IFH, the only sounds piercing the air are the occasional CB radio broadcast and buzzing of mosquitoes, and wild food options abound. However, just like for IFH, there are significant barriers to maintaining access to a nourishing food supply. Both communities are fighting for physical well-being and cultural revitalization as they recover their ancient foodways.
I want to share a glimpse of my recent visit in the Northwest Arctic Borough village of Kiana, Alaska, where Seva is a partner in building ties to bridge food, health, and cultural heritage in the Inupiaq community.
Margaret “Midge” Schaeffer founded Ilinniagvik Attautchikun (Inupiaq for “learning together”) to revive the Inupiaq custom of harvesting food, essential oils, and clothing from marine and land mammals among native villages ancestrally linked by trading ties. Begun in 2007, it became the only community-based nonprofit organization in the entire 11-village region.
People from fresh- and saltwater villages come together to practice traditional techniques of hunting, processing, and preserving foods; villagers bring their own local harvests to trade with others. Walrus, caribou, bowhead whale, beluga, large bearded seal, and fish, as well as native berries and roots, may be brought in to again nourish community participants.
August into early September is a time for picking berries. Nagoonberries, salmonberries, lingonberries, and bearberries, among others more commonly known, are native to the region. It is also salmon and caribou season. These two species are, for the most part, still the main staples of Inupiaq people today. I was lucky enough to be taken out to participate in both harvests.
There is a reciprocal relationship with the land and animals that develops when one hunts and gathers. I learned to respect this as I traveled with local residents to participate in fishing, berry-picking and caribou hunting. What first struck me when I entered this country was the wealth of native species and fauna that all provide health-positive nourishment, but also how they are overshadowed by the predatory fatsaturated foods sold in mass that are causing staggering health impairments among the Native population. When Midge, her Auntie Marie, and I traveled east of the Kobuk River to a mountainside that provided an abundance of low-lying fruit, we finished picking with nearly 3 gallons of the blue to purplish black asriavik, bog or Alpine blueberries. On returning to the village, I would deliver to Inupiaq elders in their homes these same berries, as well as smoked salmon caught by I.A. participants earlier in the month. A single day of work provided three invaluable community elders as well as an Inupiaq family with a reserve of locally sourced food for the winter months to come. Plus, through trading the uniquely brined I.A. smoked salmon for the family’s fresh salmon, the gift served to revive an historical Inupiaq trading custom.
Ilinniagvik Attautchikun Corporation strives to reinforce Inupiaq culture through rebuilding age-old trading relationships between villages, improving health with traditional foods, and preserving language, crafts, and techniques for thriving in the Arctic. In the impacted villages of Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk, Kiana, Noorvik, and Selawik, between 14.3 and 34.4 percent of people live under the poverty line, which combined with their remote location makes purchasing fresh and healthful food very cost-prohibitive. Many people that rely on canned foods ingest highly salted, sweetened, processed goods that worsen health conditions. By supplementing the community’s diet with traditional foods, IA is working to reverse negative health trends, reducing the number of those suffering from hunger, and pointing a way toward self-sufficiency through ancestral Inupiaq knowledge.
In coming back to the Bay Area from this experience, the many forms in which food barriers affect our indigenous communities have been made all the more clear to me. Whether rural or urban, I can see that our communities will only grow in health if we reclaim our indigenous food heritage—and become “food sovereign.”
California born, Gilberto Daniel Rodriguez is currently a Program Associate at Seva Foundation’s NACH program. His interests include Bay Area blues, studying Lakota, and wild fermenting. He lives in East Oakland.