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Niqipiaq summit held in Kotzebue

September 15th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Traditional foods were in the spotlight at a recent niqipiaq symposium in Kotzebue. Called Niqipiat Niġikkavut, the multi-day conference was meant to bring together health professionals, researchers and subsistence users to talk about what we eat.

"We basically just wanted to provide this forum to start this discussion on health and traditional foods with these different groups," said Chris Dankmeyer, the environmental health manager with Maniilaq Association.

The conference came out of years of work by a handful of locals to better incorporate traditional foods, or niqipiaq, into people's diets in the Northwest Arctic.

"I thought it went really well," said Cyrus Harris, who works with the Elders' traditional foods program at Maniilaq. "It took a lot of time and effort."

Harris has been working with others to make local foods available for Elders in the community, specifically those who live at the long-term care facility.

"It really began when I first started working for Maniilaq for this program back in 1993," he explained. "When I first started working, the way I understood it, was when Maniilaq first got the funds, we felt like we couldn't go to the market to go buy the Western diet to keep food on the Elders' table, mainly because they were not accustomed to it. With an agreement with the Feds at the time, Maniilaq got switched over to gasoline, motor oil and ammunition which is hunter support for able-bodied hunters and fishermen to go out and harvest wild game, berries and plants that our Elders eat. Today, that's what we call the hunter support program and the entire region is involved in this through their tribal government services."

For years now, the program has helped provide resources for local subsistence users to go out and collect traditional foods, which they can then share with the community.

A couple of years ago, Maniilaq got the funding to build the Sigluaq, which is a code-compliant processing facility in Kotzebue where hunters can butcher and handle their meat, which then is shared with Elders through the meal program at the care facility.

The building of the Sigluaq was one step toward formalizing a niqipiaq-focused diet for those who need it most, Harris said.

"For the second year now, we have this process in place to be providing traditional foods to the long-term care facility that's been processed at the Sigluaq," he said.

However, one of the foods that is still restricted is seal oil, due to fears of improper handling and the potential for botulism. Last year, a group of locals formed the Seal Oil Task Force to research what it would take to bring seal oil back to Elders' tables at the facility.

"This really came from our work with seal oil," said Dankmeyer. "We're doing all this research on something that's so important to the region here, and we thought we should start sharing this information."

The group, which was backed by Maniilaq and supported in part by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, brainstormed how best to share the information they'd been collecting and came up with the idea for a symposium.

Months in the works, it came to fruition last week. Though seal oil was the starting point, there were panel discussions with doctors and research biologists and hunters, Elders and youth sessions, and presentations by local stakeholders.

Participants talked food security, health statistics, affordability and Inupiaq values. There was a nature walk, diabetes prevention talks, and practical demonstrations, in which people could share knowledge about the safe gathering of plant-based medicines.

There was also a potluck, which featured a niqipiaq spread of meats, fish, berries and more.

Organizers hope having visible events like this one will encourage people to learn more about traditional foodways and will help bring more local food to the table through the sharing of research and knowledge.

The Sounder will bring you more information about the Seal Oil Task Force in the coming weeks.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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