This article was published by YES! Magazine.
“Imagine yourself in another world of ice. You’re out a ways from shore, and you’re traveling through ice pack, looking for good, clear, white ice. That’s most likely where you’ll find the oogruk, and it’s also a shelter in case the weather turns on you,” says Cyrus Harris, an Inupiaq elder from Kotzebue, Alaska, describing a traditional hunt for bearded seal.
“The oogruk can be a challenge,” he explains. “You definitely need to be a sharpshooter for that one. Your target is fairly small, but that’s what it takes to be able to land an oogruk.”
Seal hunting in the Chukchi Sea has put food on the table for generations of Inupiaq families, which make up most of Kotzebue’s 3,200 residents. A successful hunt in June can help stock a pantry with dried meat and oil through the long, frigid winter. Many who live along Alaska’s northwest coast continue the tradition, and some elders remember a time when seal oil and dried meat were a perpetual staple.
As Western culture has brought new comforts like central heating, snowmobiles, and modern medicine, it has also complicated a traditional lifestyle in unexpected ways.
In 2012, Kotzebue’s tribe-owned hospital opened a new long-term care ward to elders who needed medical assistance that couldn’t be provided at home. The ward alleviated the need to send family members to Anchorage or Fairbanks for care.
But staying at the new ward, which must adhere to federal food and health standards, meant a drastic change in diet for the Inupiaq elders. Ignoring local customs, federal regulations require that all foods must be obtained from a source approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Suddenly, elders who had a traditional diet based on the Arctic tundra and sea had no choice but to eat spaghetti. Wild game and other locally harvested foods, which were not state regulated, did not appear on the menu.
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