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Igiugig residents take on 6-week traditional food challenge as a health experiment

  • Author: Avery Lill, KDLG
  • Updated: September 12, 2017
  • Published September 12, 2017

Dannika Wassillie harvests salmonberries. (Jeff Bringhurst via KDLG)

DILLINGHAM — Nutrition-related health concerns plague the United States as a whole, and rural Alaska is no exception. People in the Southwest Alaska village of Igiugig are aiming to improve their health this fall with a Native Foods Challenge.

Igiugig's high school literature class read "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan last school year. In the book, Pollan details a seven-week project. A group of aboriginal Australians who lived in a city and ate a Western diet moved to the Outback and ate traditional food for seven weeks. At the end of the period, all saw health improvements.

"The kids in the class thought that'd be a great idea if we were to do this," said Tate Gooden, Igiugig School's head teacher. "We pitched it to the community as a community idea, and the community members were very excited about it. Now here we are; we've been preparing for eight months now."

For six weeks, starting Sunday, the adults and children in the village will challenge themselves to eat only traditional foods, locally raised foods and oatmeal.

Renae Zackar processes a seal. (Greg Zackar via KDLG)

For the past eight months, the village has been putting away fish, berries, greens and game.

"It's gotten people a lot closer together and talking about food and subsistence," said Gooden. "I think a lot of people are harvesting things they've never harvested before. We have people putting up sour dock and different greens. We've got people boiling down caribou bones and making fat cake."

The project is a health experiment, so residents have already begun regular health screenings. Every month in 2017 they have taken their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate. They will compare the results from before and after the challenge.

The final component of the challenge is a trek to Big Mountain. It lies 23 miles east of Igiugig. For four days in the last week of September the village will hike to the mountain, which is a traditional meeting place between Igiugig and the village of Kokhanok. At Big Mountain they will have a Native foods potluck, and then they will fly home.

Residents of Igiugig practice for the hike to Big Mountain. (Tate Gooden via KDLG)

The project's focus is much broader than watching weight or blood sugar or even honing subsistence skills.

"This project focuses on the relationships and interdependence of food, culture, identity, community, subsistence and health," said Gooden.

The challenge concludes Oct. 28.

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