Our traditional Tlingit foods are essential. Many of us feel this way and during this pandemic our foods have become even more important. We aren’t going to the grocery store as often, but relying on eating foods we’ve put up in jars and in our freezers as well as the foods our friends or family are bringing to us.
Maybe we’ve had a caribou steak in the freezer we haven’t eaten yet. Or there’s a package of herring eggs waiting to be dipped in seal oil or made into a salad.
Beluga muktuk, bearded seal black meat, cabbage and seal oil. Dried seal meat and seal blubber soaked in seal oil. A meal of black seal meat, seal oil and smoked white king salmon save the day. We’ve been eating all of our favorite soul foods because now is now. If you’ve been saving traditional foods for special occasions, while you’re waiting for a vaccine, there’s time to make ordinary days special occasions. It’s a great time to eat your favorite soul foods you’ve been storing.
White fish with seal oil. Soul food. Who needs vegetables when you have meat with a side of oil?
When I worked as a health educator part of my job was to create sustainable food systems in Southeast Alaska. I teach people what vegetables grow in the wild here and what loves to grow in our gardens here. We typically eat a fusion of traditional foods and foods the western world has brought us. I sometimes find it difficult to teach wild food preservation because it’s hard and time-consuming work, but it’s so worth it. Caribou tacos, mooseburgers, shrimp linguine, deer roast and veggies. Yum! I have lots of tips and tricks to make harvesting and storing food easier. I also know what fruit trees grow best in this zone and where to get trees for free. I even have a salmon calculator a friend made and I can tell you how much fish you’ll need to harvest in order to feed so many people based on the different salmon species. Yes, it’s hard to grow food and it’s hard to wild harvest food. I used to think that someday I’d need all this knowledge, and sure enough, along came a pandemic and it turned out to be useful.
Fish skin chips make everything better.
I come from a family with a history of surviving pandemics. I heard the stories. When I was young I knew if the apocalypse happened and there was a food shortage, I could go to my Aunty Evi’s house and ask to be taken in and do my best to be absolutely useful to her and anyone she cared for. She was always taking people in and helping people. She knew where to look for resources and she wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Plus, she knew how to store food.
Note to self: Thoroughly clean seal oil out of your Tupperware container otherwise your watermelon will taste more like seal oil than watermelon.
We Alaskans typically feel like we’re all ready for the apocalypse anyway. But the empty shelves at the grocery stores suggest otherwise. We might be a barge away from a disaster. Our food sustainability conversations began early on in the pandemic and haven’t stopped. We have a ways to go, but our best assets are still one another. I love that our traditional foods make their rounds in our communities. We’re still helping one another out. I’m thankful there are Tlingit people taking the time to go seal hunting and share with others. Our traditional foods — our soul food — are healing for our spirit. They are healing for our mental health, keeping us going through all this. Our foods are full of nutrients that boost our immune system and are healthier than most foods you can find in a store. Connecting to the land by harvesting sustainably is truly healing on so many levels. Getting outside, getting exercise, and good clean air is healing
Dried caribou in seal oil with a little bit of salt is one of my favorite things in the world.
In the middle of this pandemic, while going through my freezer checking out subsistence foods, I thought about creating my own Indigenous Health Challenge, not only with the intention of losing a few COVID-19 lockdown pounds, but as a way to manage the stress brought on by this experience, including the sadness of not being with those we love, and the incessant rain and gray skies we were experiencing this past summer. I started out walking and hiking for 30 days in a row no matter the weather and no matter how I was feeling. I also actively sought out traditional foods and medicine trading buddies and increased my trade system because food sovereignty is important.
Seal meat with a side of deer meat. And red wine because you should have fruit with dinner.
I also realized having a better foundation of health helps to not stress our healthcare system. Unfortunately, here in Alaska, especially among Alaska Natives and other Indigenous peoples, we have high rates of underlying health issues that make us susceptible to getting a severe case of COVID-19. As an Indigenous person, I feel if our enemy is a virus, then we need to figure out how to be the best warriors at fighting this virus — that starts with a better foundation of health. It’s not too late to start. For me, waiting for the right time rarely works and there’s no need to do most things perfectly. So if days happen where you just can’t do something like take a walk or eat right, there’s no need to beat yourself up. I’m a big fan of doing things imperfectly. Try. I harvested this summer and fall as much as I could in order to prepare for winter. I’m increasing the amount of traditional foods, limiting processed foods, increasing my water and tea, stretching every day. Plus, I find humor every day, and find moments of silence every day.
Herring eggs, seal meat, and smoked salmon (already eaten) for dinner. I think the hemlock needles count for vegetables.
Now, as we move into winter, I realize this virus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and we need to have a good foundation of health to fight it. One of the ways is to think about the changes we make in our diets and exercise as a celebration of our lives, that we’re still here. We may be struggling but we’re still here. Since March we’ve been through quite a few holidays where I’ve celebrated with traditional foods. At the beginning of sheltering-in-place, on Easter, I made sure I had herring eggs, blueberries, bearded seal oil, and wine. On Thanksgiving we made traditional Alaska Native foods as a kind of protest against the colonizer’s mythological Thanksgiving. Sometimes we had traditional foods for no other reason other than it’s Saturday: Fraggle Rock, herrings eggs, seal oil, soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, my partner and our pups. Saturday night party!
I decided to celebrate Christmas before Thanksgiving and maybe through New Year’s Eve. The festive lights are lighting the tunnel we’ve all been in and reminding me we are getting through this pandemic because of friends and family and for friends and family.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.