Most people in northwest Alaska grew up eating traditional foods, like caribou, seal, and different kinds of fish.
But as they aged and moved into long-term care facilities, those foods were no longer regularly available to them because of federal food safety regulations.
A team in Kotzebue is changing that with a modern-day siġḷauq.
Siġḷauq is Iñupiaq for ice cellar, but this modern one is more than a storage space cut into the permafrost.
Cyrus Harris stands in a sterile-looking room with stainless steel sinks and a commercial grade band saw.
He’s helping fill plastic bags with caribou t-bone steaks then vacuum sealing them for long-term storage.
“What we have more abundance of is caribou,” he explains as the frozen chunks tap against each other. “It’s our beef. But it’s wild. It’s a wild game.”
What he’s doing – processing and storing wild foods to give to elders – is nothing new.
It’s an intrinsic part of Inupiat values like sharing, respect for elders, and hard work. It’s where he’s doing it, and how, that matters.
The Siġḷauq is a small, white former wood shop that was converted into a meat processing and cold storage facility in 2015 by the Maniilaq Association, which provides health care and other services in the northwest Arctic region.
It was built to solve a very specific problem: federal laws prohibited them from serving traditional foods like caribou and moose to elders in the long-term care facility.
The laws were put in place to make sure the meat wouldn’t make anyone sick.
But Cyrus, who grew up in the region and runs the Siglauq and other programs, says denying the elders consistent access to foods they grew up with wasn’t healthy.
“There’s a big gap missing somewhere on along the line,” he explains. “If I were at a setting and the foods that I was raised with I was restricted from eating — something’s not adding up there.”
Donating traditional foods to schools and other organizations has been legal for years according to state law, but you couldn’t give them to federally licensed facilities like long-term care centers.
Then, in 2014 the federal government legalized it, too. Sort of.
There aren’t federal food safety laws for foods like moose or whale so the meat couldn’t be certified.
After months of back and forth, a team from Maniilaq, including Cyrus, long-term care administrator Valdeko Kreil, and environmental health manager Chris Dankmeyer, sat down with the state and the feds and figured out legal workarounds.
“They just want to see the steps that are taken to make sure things are safe for the people that are going to be eating it,” Chris says. “It wasn’t very difficult once we knew what’s the state code.”
He saod they got the state and federal officials onboard with what they wanted to do, they built the Siġḷauq up to code, got it certified, and that was that.
It helped pave the way for traditional food programs at healthcare facilities around the state, include Nome, Anchorage, and Southeast Alaska, said Melissa Chlupach, the Regional Healthcare Dietitian for NANA Management Services.
Some accept food straight into the kitchen, others send meats to licensed butchering facilities.
In Kotzebue, Cyrus runs the only processing facility of it’s kind in the state.
He inspects every animal that is brought in and asks questions about how it was harvested, though he and his hunting partners bring in most of the donations.
The animals are chopped up into usable pieces, vacuum packed, and neatly labeled.
Back in the freezer at the Siġḷauq, Brittany Anderson, who works with the Centers for Disease Control and helps Cyrus, explains the labels are another necessary step to make sure the elders are cared for.
“If there is a food borne outbreak we can contain it without it getting worse and worse,” she said.
Though they are doing everything to make sure the meat is safe, the labels are considered “best practices.”
And because they are following the best practices, elders have access to the food they’ve grown up with.
Facility administrator Valdeko Kreil said they wanted to see the project through because the elders are healthier, happier, and sleep better when the can eat their traditional foods.
“As an administrator, one of the initiatives we have to work on is improving the quality of life of our elders,” Valdeko said. “And for that, it meant working on getting the foods that they grew up with.”
Elder Richard Hensley agrees that the effort was worth it.
He laughs easily as he rolls around the long-term care facility in his wheelchair, showing off his fishing hooks and always ready to go ice fishing.
He says he can keep doing that because of one thing:
“Well, if we didn’t have no traditional foods, I don’t know how I would be getting around!” He says without the traditional foods – and Cyrus – he wouldn’t be alive.