On St. George Island, about 300 miles southwest from the shore of mainland Alaska, an abundance of birds, crabs, reindeer, halibut, sea lion and wild plants in the past provided nutritious, hearty traditional foods for the Aleut or Unangan people living here.
Though some of the 13 Alaska Native tribes of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands like the tribe here still rely on subsistence hunting, modern conveniences such as packaged foods have crept into the Unangan and Unangas diets resulting in unhealthy dietary habits. Rates of diabetes have soared over the years and nearly 40 percent of residents in the region are obese.
The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Inc. (APIA) Head Start Program is addressing this health concern among families through its new Qaqamiiĝux̂ Head Start Traditional Foods Preschool Curriculum, with lessons focusing on healthy eating and sparking interest in traditional foods.
“I’m hoping that this will bring awareness to our communities about how traditional foods have all the necessary nutrients to keep us sustained, and that tradition and our culture are very, very important. It’s vital to who we are as Aleut people or Unangan people in our region,” lmid Bonnie Kashevarof Mierzejek, APIA Head Start program director, who grew up on St. George eating off the island. APIA is an Anchorage-based nonprofit that assists in meeting the health and safety of the Unangan and Unangasin the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Region.
The remote, rural region is home to some of the most unique and nutritious foods in the world. The curriculum, which will be taught in four communities beginning in September, includes nutrition information on such foods as fish, kelp, marine mammals, reindeer, wild birds, and berries. Recipes include fish spread, seal pot roast, salmonberry cobbler, sea lion meatballs and kelp chips. A nutrition graphic compares the iron content in three ounces of seal meat to the same iron found in pounds of hot dogs or chicken nuggets.
“We wanted to highlight the local foods and their highly nutritious qualities, and communicate this to our younger children in a meaningful and culturally-relevant way,” said Suanne Unger, curriculum co-creator and APIA Wellness Program Coordinator.
Unger said the basis for the curriculum was to fill the gap of relevant, cultural information and highlight recipes and nutritional information about the local foods while incorporating the Unangam tunuu language (podcasts of the language can be found on the APIA website. While current national Head Start nutrition curricula may be applicable in Chicago or even the Navajo Nation, those in the Aleutian and Pribilof region realized that discussions on foods such as cantaloupe and broccoli weren’t quite applicable in their lesson plans since the foods weren’t grown in the region or even available in stores.
Accompanying culturally-relevant nutrition information are activities, such as coloring a salmon, seagull or puffin, or asking a community member to talk about how animal skins were used to create kayaks and boats. Several lessons encourage asking a parent or community member to share a hunting story. The curriculum includes sample teacher letters to families discussing the next lesson and a request for donations of plants or animals to use in recipes prepared in the classroom. Parent letters also encourage participation in the classroom in activities such as teaching a traditional song or dance or helping prepare the traditional foods.
These discussions for preschoolers and their families are vital as contemporary lifestyles and conveniences have impacted traditional ways of life. Access to affordable, fresh, nutritious, and high-quality store foods are limited while traditional local foods are right outside people’s doors.
Traditional foods have such a high nutritional value, Unger said, “and because of the potential for food insecurity in the region it’s vital that people understand the importance of their local traditional foods.”
In addition to eating off the island, Kashevarof Mierzejek remembers constantly being outside growing up even in inclement weather. No TV existed so people gathered at the local movie hall for entertainment and socialization.
“Our 3- to 5-year-olds are being exposed to modern technology like video games and they stay home in front of these games, so it’s hard to get them outside. And they’re sitting there eating junk food—that certainly contributes to obesity as well,” she said. “My hope is that this book will be able to bring awareness and our children will be healthier than they ever were in the last 20 years.”
The curriculum, which was created with a one-year, $40,000 grant from the Notah Begay III Foundation, is an adaptation of a book, Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, written by Unger in 2014 compiled after she searched for a single resource guide on harvesting and cooking methods of traditional foods in the region but discovered none. The NB3 Foundation also awarded the organization an additional $5,000 for digital storytelling.
Olivia Roanhorse, NB3 Vice President of Programming, said the foundation is proud to support this Head Start curriculum as it addresses the traditional and cultural needs unique to the Unangan and Unangas. “We know when Native American communities take ownership of what works for them, in this case instilling healthier eating habits and lifestyles based on their values and beliefs, healthier outcomes can be achieved,” she said. “By instilling these habits and lifestyles early, APIA and their partners are creating a healthy foundation.”