the first cut into the shoulder of the caribou

Maintaining our subsistence rights in Alaska has always been a struggle since the conflict of interest and values between the Indigenous and Western peoples.  The struggle to maintain our subsistence hunting/fishing right is always a big topic during the AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) Convention, held annually the third weekend in October.  Every year, somewhere in Alaska, we lose a right, or the rules have become tighter or a new rule has been created by the State of Alaska Fish and Game.  Every year there is less and less of gathering and rights; more and more restrictions and laws.  And there are always vague excuses as to why the indigenous peoples are the ones who must be controlled when we are the ones who take the least numbers of whatever the food is that the State of Alaska (or the Federal government) is trying to control.  So we must work within the confinements of the laws, lest we be judged and thrown in jail with a big fine; yet somehow we continue to survive with the bare minimum of the foods we love, that we grew up with, and the various kinds of nourishment we receive.

"filleting" the shoulder blade of the caribou

I have been allergic to red meat all my life, however on occasion, when I have never tasted an indigenous meat, I will make an exception, foregoing the known repercussions that shall follow within a few hours later after consumption.  I want to experience what I do not know.  Today, I had the opportunity to have my first taste of caribou up here in Anchorage.  Friend John went caribou hunting with his sister and husband; they brought home three.   John proceeded with an all-day process of cutting up the parts of the big animals and hanging the various sections in the smokehouse and in his tool shed.  In the process, he of course saved all of the organs, including the stomach and it’s protective layer.

The caribou heart valves (this does not show the heart)

I remember my grandmother and grandfather bringing home seal, skinning it, stretching the hide, and then cutting up the meat.  When my father went deer hunting, he would have all of the skinning and cutting of the meat completed before he brought it home, so I never got to see the entire process of preparing the meat for storage and immediate consumption.  This evening, I had an excellent educational experience regarding the caribou.  One by one, Steven carefully cleaned each organ and asked me to guess each part.  I guessed most of the parts except the stomach lining, and this other thing that I cannot remember the name of but it resembled a stomach full of what looked like mud with flexible strands stretched from one side of the organ to the other; each strand had rows of tiny “teeth” – Steven figured it was the organ that could grind up twigs and branches, digesting them to a fine mud.

Caribou stomach stretched out shows an intricate texture

Margaret fried the thinly-sliced cuts of caribou in olive oil.  I agree with John and Margaret, caribou tastes better than chicken, although it contains no protein, which is why the indigenous people add another protein like bacon to the meal.  After eating a part of this animal, I began to think about our indigenous lives being whittled down to almost nothing.  Most of us have become quite American.   It made me think about the various kinds of diseases that have come about us especially since the restrictions on our lifestyle and life ways, and with the introduction of another kind of lifestyle with once-foreign and now everyday “life-taking” foods, values and certain levels of greed, fear and jealousy.

Let’s talk about one of the big fearful words:  Cancer.  It had not become a household word until the past couple of decades; many relatives, friends and community members have been diagnosed with cancer and diabetes, leading us to what I call “pre-mature” deaths.  Most of these folk were healthy and strong.  What happened?  Our exclusion of indigenoous foods in our diet and the lack of “natural” exercise?

Caribou stomach

I remember my grandparents talking about the “3 staples” to purchase at the general store:  white flour, sugar and coffee.  Research has shown these three things have contributed to many of our physical, mental and emotional diseases; Obesity, schizophrenia, high-blood pressure, heart disease are included.  The prevalence of all these diseases in our Native communities has risen drastically in the past 40 years; were these disease terms even present in our Native vocabulary?  Did we have a word for cancer?  I know we did not have one for Diabetes because I know we did not have sugar in our traditional diet.  What can we do to eliminate the diseases that have become prevalent in our society?

I suggest two approaches:  !) “natural” exercise and 2) the elimination, or at least the minimal use of flour, sugar and coffee, would lessen the level of, or even be ridden of these diseases.  What is my definition of “natural” exercise?

three caribou tongues

In our modern world, we define exercise to include running, power walking, yoga, aerobics, and weight-lifting to name a few.   These are activities we do before or after our 9-to-5 jobs.  However, in our Native way of life, there is no separation between our physical exercise, our psychological well-being, spirituality, livelihood, and how we gather our food sources, maintain shelter, fetch water and create clothing.   We exercise while gathering and harvesting food and supplies from the land and sea.  We naturally exercise while stepping through the thick underbrush and uneven terrain while berry-picking.  We naturally lift weights while fishing and hunting.  We naturally climb as we gather cedar bark for our weavings.  We naturally do aerobics during any of our subsistence ways; all the while we are in touch with Nature, who is our best healer for heart, mind, body and spirit.  And because we lack physical connection to our Mother and to our food sources and supplies, we have become naturally unhealthy; like what did we expect!?  During our conversation about this topic, Steven reminds us:  “Why are we crossing this street?”

Most of the washed inner organs of three caribou lay side-by-side

Why eliminate the coffee, sugar and white flour?  Figure it out.  Research the negative effects these foreign foods have had in our lives.

For most of us, our natural Native ways of being healthy have gone by the wayside.   We have indulged in the seductive, tasty and comfortable ways of living in the Western methods of daily existence; we have chosen to live within the Western monetary system; we chose to buy things creating weights and clutter up our lives in many more ways than one.   Over the years, these unnatural patterns have become engrained in us creating dis-ease.   However, we know our soul yearns to be in touch with our innate, wild selves; that part of us who enjoys the beauty and bounty the wilderness provides, the part of us who becomes challenged to maintain a state of balance and wellness in all ways.

We can learn to balance and integrate the best of both the Western and Native ways of being and doing by returning to our food source and eliminating the three harmful foods of the Western mainstream; this is large part of our definition of being a “modern” Alaska Native while maintaining traditions.  As individuals and members of clans, how do  we learn to “accentuate” our traditions and customs while moving into this 21st Century?  How do we continue our subsistence harvest living within a government who restricts and/or eliminates our rights to our indigenuity?

John, his sister and her husband went caribou hunting.  They brought back three caribou.  They cut it up, had a meal where we savored  each bite, and the next couple of days, all the caribou were hand-delivered to friends and relatives from as far north as Talkeetna, Wasilla, Palmer and Anchorage, to the Kenai Penninsula’s Soldotna, Ninilchik and Homer.  Sharing the catch and sharing the bountifulness of our great land is a value still continued amongst many families and relatives in Alaska; it’s a staple of our wellness of being; it’s how we survive.  As in the words of my father, the late William Lampe:  “…you share food, you share everything… – you don’t share you food, you share nothing!”