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In the Arctic, A Hunger for Ancestral Foods

The loss of traditional hunting has forced many Inuit to rely on expensive imported food, but many find the Western diet leaves them feeling empty, body and soul.

Photo by David Kilabu

“Our foods do more than nourish our bodies. They feed our souls,” said the late Inuit activist Ingmar Egede in Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic by Marla Cone. “When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am. I feel the connection to our ocean and to our land, to our people, to our way of life.”

After thriving for thousands of years on a high-protein, high-fat diet of “country foods”—Arctic meats like whale, seal, walrus, caribou, duck, goose, and quail, along with salmon, whitefish, pike, and char—today, the Indigenous peoples of the far north find themselves struggling to survive on a Western diet.

According to a 2008 study by McGill University, 70 percent of Inuit preschoolers now live in households rated as food insecure. Cut off from their nomadic hunting lifestyle by modern economic and environmental pressures, and crushed by the astronomical prices of imported processed food, Inuit across Alaska, Canada, and Greenland wonder what will fill the plates of the next generation.

“An inch of whale muktuk, which is whale skin, contains the same vitamin C nutrition as a whole orange,” says Mayor Madeleine Redfern of Iqaluit, Nunavut. “If you actually ask a lot of Inuit, they crave country foods more often than not. Almost everyone I know would love to eat more country foods.”

The move away from those ancient foods began with the arrival in the 1940s and ’50s of military bases in the Arctic. Tribes settled nearby, becoming dependent on the service and support jobs that employed Inuit men—the traditional hunters of the family. Now, because of work and school schedules, the long cross-country hunting treks that used to involve the entire family have become a thing of the past. Without the time and resources to care for dogsled teams, and unable to afford modern hunting technology like snowmobiles, fuel, and ammunition, most families began filling their plates with imported food.

But decades later, many within the community find that the modern diet leaves them unsatisfied—in both body and soul. A 2007 McGill University survey of Indigenous Arctic women found most preferred “pure, natural” country foods. “Traditional food was felt to offer physical and nutritional health advantages as well as social and cultural value, all essential elements of holistic health,” the study found.

Harriet Kuhnlein, the author of the study and founding director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples Nutrition and Environment at McGill, spent 15 years in Arctic Canada researching the Indigenous diet and nutrition. “Indigenous people really know what they are doing, and they know what the benefits are with the traditions and their local food,” she says.

Traditional foods also make up an important family and community bond that goes far beyond what’s experienced at the Western dinner table. On a typical hunt, the entire family and extended family would come together, looking to an elder to decide how the food would be distributed. Meat would be shared throughout the community, with preference given to elders and growing children. “It’s actually been shown that for every hunter, he is not only feeding his household, but also feeding eight other people’s households,” says Redfern.

“Hunting embodies everything in the Inuit’s 4,500-year-old society: their language, their art, their clothing, their legends, their celebrations, their community ties, their economy, their spirituality,” said Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier in Silent Snow. “It’s not just food on a plate. It’s a way of life.”

But even as they look for a way to reclaim their traditional hunting practices, the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic face another challenge: the contamination of their heritage foods by industrial pollution from the south.

Even though toxic polychlorinated biphenyls were largely banned in the 1970s, they continue to accumulate in the Arctic environment, moving north on air and ocean currents, then being absorbed by plant and animal life as they move up the food chain and finally concentrating in the blubber of some of the most commonly hunted game. Today, Inuit in Greenland, Nunavut, and Anunavik carry more mercury and PCBs in their bodies than any other population on earth, and a 1987 Laval University study found that the breast milk of mothers in Nunavik contained 10 times as much PCB and pesticide as the breast milk of women living in Canada’s largest cities. Other studies have linked PCBs with developmental disorders in Arctic babies.

But importing food seems like an unsustainable alternative. In addition to being nutritionally inferior to the traditional Inuit diet (much of the food flown in to Arctic villages is highly processed, because it’s lighter to transport), commercially produced food is astronomically expensive in communities where the median annual income can be as low as $17,000—well below the poverty line.

The Arctic food crisis made headlines across Canada this summer when Leesee Papatsie, a mother of five living in Iqaluit, turned to Facebook to organize local protests against the rising cost of food—recent posts showed a bottle of cranberry juice on sale for $25—and to draw national attention to the issue.

For at least some Inuit, the value of eating the foods of their ancestors is worth the cost.

“Contaminants do not affect our souls,” Egede said. “Avoiding our foods from fear does.”


Photo by David Kilabuk Photography.