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Part 5 - Elders crave Alaska Native comfort foods, attribute longevity to them

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA News Director

Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken soup, biscuits - Every culture has its comfort foods – dishes that remind us of our childhood and of home. For Alaska Native elders, comfort foods are more often dishes like smoked salmon, moose soup, or whale skin and blubber – called muktuk. But what happens when you get too old to gather those foods? KNBA’s Joaqlin Estus has more.

Tlingit elder Marian DeWitt shares a two-bedroom apartment with a daughter, a grand-daughter, and a great grandson. Her grand-daughter is doing most of the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. DeWitt says she was able to do more until recently. She’s home from the hospital after being treated for gallstones earlier this month, but says her birthday in November was a turning point.

“Until I reached 92 everything was fine, then whooo,” says DeWitt. When asked what happened when she turned 92, she said, “Everything just kind of aged all of a sudden. I started aging. I walked slower. I took more time to do things. I couldn’t go out like I used to, I had to wait till the weather was good. That’s about it.”

DeWitt still enjoys taking walks, going to Bingo and getting together with friends. She attributes her longevity to a lifelong healthy diet.

“Of course, I did like fresh fish, which we had a lot of fortunately, said DeWitt. “It was the mainstay of our diet since we’re from southeast [Alaska].

DeWitt says her husband, John, who has passed away, was a commercial fisherman and a good hunter. He’d get or trade fish for deer, moose and caribou. So their freezer in the island community of Wrangell was always full of fish and game. DeWitt still enjoys food her relatives send from southeast such as fish, seaweed and fermented hooligan oil.

Traditional foods that come to Anchorage from rural Alaska are important to a lot of elders. Agnes Mayac, grew up on the now abandoned village of King Island, 90 miles northwest of Nome. She’s 73. Her husband Teddy is aged 77.  

“People we know, Natives, they bring us Native food whenever we come,” says Agnes. “There’s this guy from St. Lawrence Island, he’s always bringing us some to taste. Even muktuk.”

“This is what we’re used to somebody always have something for you,” adds Teddy. “They remember you. It’s good to be in that situation where someone is always thinking about us.”

This fits in with the tradition among Alaska Natives that food is to be shared, says Agnes. “The more food you give away, the more food comes. We find that out.”

Mellisa Heflin, is an Elders Outreach Coordinator with the statewide Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She says she understands the longing for certain foods.

“It’s because of my grandmother that my three kids eat Eskimo food. Because I think if they didn’t spend that time with her, I’d be just like one of my sisters, her kids. My nieces and nephews don’t eat Eskimo food. My kids are the only ones that do. And they look forward to it. So it’s had a huge impact on my kids.”

A 2005 Consortium study on the long term care needs of Alaska Natives shows traditional foods are essential to elders’ well-being. Heflin says using donations, ANTHC quarterly hosts traditional food meals for elders at nursing and extended care homes in Anchorage:

“They ask for it quite frequently. They actually ask their activities coordinator ‘when are they coming in?’ So they actually call and say, ‘hey Melissa, when are we scheduling our next date?’ Which is good.”

Research shows a traditional diet is nutritious - high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and rich in healthy fats. The Consortium and the tribal health organization Southcentral Foundation both have programs and publications promoting knowledge about and use of traditional foods.

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