Alaska Natives Diet: Traditional Food Habits and Adaptation of American Foodstuffs
The Alaska Natives are one of the oldest tribes in America. The Alaska Natives have retained their culture up-to-date in spite of their interactions with the wider American society. Studies have indicated that over 5 million people who live in the United States are identified as either American Indians or Alaska Natives, regardless of whether they exist independently or are blended with other American races.
An approximate number of 3 million people are exclusively American Indians and Alaska Natives. This essay explores the acculturation of the Alaska Natives to the American culture by providing an insight into their traditional food habits and adaptation of American foodstuffs. It also provides an overview of how such acculturation has influenced their health and lifestyle.
Traditional Food Habits
Traditionally, the Alaska Natives were hunters, gatherers, and anglers. Consequently, their chief foods were fish, land-dwelling animals, aquatic mammals, and a variety of plants.6 Although geographic and demographic factors have changed, these foods are still their core diets. Other sources of food include birds and eggs. However, these diets varied greatly amongst the various Alaskan Natives groups.1
Most of the plants, which made a part of their diet, were eaten raw.5 Other Fish was smoked or dried to preserve it for long periods. Smoked or roasted fish was ready food for consumption. Hunters used to kill and some parts of the hunted animals while raw. Nevertheless, other parts of the killed animals were cooked back at the villages. Seal oil together with some herbs was used to season the foods.
Mainly, composition of food depended on seasons of the year and the various geographical locations in which they lived.2 Marine foods made a substantial part of daily meals. When ice capped the Alaska region marine animals such as cod, pink salmon, and whitefish among others were the main dishes. Salmonberries also formed part of their meals.
In addition, bananas, tropical fruits that are loved all over the world, are not favourite foods for the Alaska Natives. Alaskan myths hold that bananas can cause ocean accidents such as sinking of ships. As a result, the Alaskan Natives never welcome bananas and their related products in their fishing ships. Bananas form a part of the diet while on the land but not in voyages while at the sea, as the Alaskan Natives believe that they can bring about bad luck.4
Furthermore, the Alaskan Natives had to perform some rituals prior to hunting activities of animals such as whales, especially during whale immigration periods in April. Specifically, the Koniag whalers were to known to hold prayers in an attempt to get power for hunting.
They spend time in caves to hold ritual sessions then proceed with their fishing activities. At the end of the fishing season, they return to the caves to cleanse themselves before returning to the village. 5(p678)
The Devil’s Club is one of the preventive medicines that have been used by the Alaskan natives as a preventive medicine to a number of ailments for many centuries. It has strong medical qualities that were discovered by their ancestors.
Either they consume it while raw or it is added to tea or soup. Another important herbal plant in this region is the Labrador Tea. They mix Labrador Tea with honey and lemon juice to treat digestive disorders, arthritis, and cold. 3(p45)
A common food that is used for traditional celebrations in Alaska is the ‘kiviaq’. Preparation of this food requires them to ferment sea birds for at least three months in a clean wrapped seal of animal skin. They cover the preparation with seal oil and place it under a pile of rocks to repel flies.
During ceremonies, the ‘kiviaq’ is shared amongst those present. The food is also used for survival, especially during the winter seasons that makes hunting or fishing difficult. During funeral ceremonies, which are known as potlatches, fresh moose meat is used to feed the mourners.
The Alaska Natives regard fishing as a religious activity. Indeed, they catch salmons and whales for religious activities that are held by a few villages that practice traditional religion. Salmons and whales were also used to offer sacrifices to the spirits in a bid to seek blessings and healing. 5(p679)
Adaptation of Food Habits in the United States
Although the exposure of Alaska Natives to the American culture led to acculturation, seafood and vegetables still constitute their main foods. Enactment of laws to protect sea life such as salmon fish and whales has forced them to adapt to new foods.
However, they rarely keep packed foods in their homes. Wild animals, which they used to hunt for staple food, are no longer available throughout the year. Wildlife agencies have enforced closed seasons. At these seasons, hunting of wild animals becomes illegal.
The adoption of American diets by Alaska Natives was on sharp rise. However, a downtrend arose due to emergence of health complications amongst the Alaska Natives. Health disorders that were non-existent are becoming common amongst the Alaskan Natives due to abandonment of their traditional foodstuffs. 6(p65)
Food and Health Relationships
A strong relationship exists between the Alaskan food and their health. For instance, the salmon fish has rich fatty acids, especially Omega-3. These fatty acids offer various medications such as prevention of heart diseases to obese people such as the Yup’ik who live in Alaska.
Studies have shown that these people consume about 20 times of complex fish oils than the other Americans in a year. They have the least level of metabolic syndromes worldwide. As a result, prevalence of diabetes Type II is lowest in America. 2(p110)
Nevertheless, the diet is low in calcium. This situation has significantly challenged the health of women in Alaska. There has been development of weak bone structures amongst the Alaskan women that has resulted in increased fractures, especially to expectant mothers.
High intake of fats poses adverse health effects to the Alaska Natives. Moreover, fructose and glucose that constitute their modern diets have led to increased cases of obesity, especially in adults. Foods that are rich in calcium should be included in their diet. Furthermore, they should reduce intake of glucose to allow absorption of micronutrients and minerals. 1(p1999)
The exposure of the Alaskan Natives to wild political, social, religious, and harsh economic climates has forced them to adopt the American way of life. Significant cultural changes such as consumption trends have significantly influenced the Alaskan way of life. Health research indicates that a few generations will have to pass before they completely acculturate to the American culture. Nevertheless, the Alaska Natives highly value harvesting and consumption of subsistence foods that they regard as essential for personal, social, and cultural identity.
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Lujan CC. American Indians and Alaska Natives count: the US Census Bureau’s efforts to enumerate the native population. The American Indian Quarterly. 2014;38(3):319.
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