Wind rips through the boat as Alakanuk hunter Paul Ayunerak Jr. and his sons gaze out across the water. The subsistence hunters are looking for seals, whales, marine life.
Cut to an alabaster fin moving through the choppy waves. One young son stands poised with a harpoon hoisted above his right shoulder, his left arm outstretched for balance as the boat veers in hot pursuit of the beluga. As they near, he launches the spear into the water, piercing the whale's tail.
Soon they're pulling it ashore and the hunters set to work, slicing great hunks of meat off the whale from tail to head. All the while, men in the background discuss how they're going to hang the meat to dry.
This all happens in less than a minute. It's the opening scene in a webisode produced by Store Outside Your Door, an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium initiative designed to showcase healthy traditional foods from around the state. For the web series, nutritionist Desiree Jackson and Dr. Gary Ferguson visit Alaska communities to film lessons from elders on harvesting and on cooking recipes with traditional ingredients. Each three- to four-minute video is shared on YouTube and broadcast for visitors in the Alaska Native Medical Center.
"Nothing is really planned beforehand," Jackson said. "Just like traditional food, you never know exactly what you're going to get when you go out to hunt or harvest. That's your episode right there. It's all about what presents itself in the community."
The rest of the beluga webisode shows Chef Rob Kinneen making whale scaloppini. He walks viewers through the recipe in a way that's quick and easy to replicate, if you have some fresh whale meat available.
In other webisodes, Ferguson and Jackson connect with locals to create a sea cucumber and rice dish in Hydaburg, harvest chaga for tea near Kenai and mix up a batch of wild berry fruit leather in Metlakatla. Each clip highlights one of the four core principles of Store Outside Your Door—hunt, fish, gather or grow—and educates viewers on the ways traditional foods can be harvested and used.
"One thing that's unique about this program is it allows different Native groups to see how other groups render various products," Jackson said. "How people use seal in the North is very different from how it's used in the Southeast part of the state."
The program was launched after ANTHC convened focus groups to determine what kind of nutritional information Alaska Natives were seeking.
"We're trying to engage people where they're at," said Jackson, a Store Outside Your Door program manager. "We don't always have time for a 30-minute show, so these short videos are perfect for getting the message across."
Jackson added that it was important for Alaska Native youth to have this resource to help them understand their culture.
"Nobody taught me how to use our plants or identify our plants when I was in school," Jackson said. "To give the kids this knowledge is amazing. To give them that appreciation for what grows and why it's good for us, it makes them vested in their community and their culture, which I think is very important."
When Margie Attla sees dandelions she doesn't think "weeds." She thinks about them in salads, as natural additives for medicines and as ingredients for teas.
Attla is a living legend in her community.
She's taught throughout Alaska on the importance of subsistence living—how it relates to the Athabascan language, improves the health and safety of Alaska Natives and keeps culture alive. She's taught classes at every level, from elementary to university, lectures at conferences and summits. People across Alaska and down the West Coast tune into her weekly two-hour radio show.
At 75, she's one of the oldest elders in Galena and a virtuoso in the four tenets of Store Outside Your Door: hunt, fish, gather, grow.
While the program is still relatively new, Attla has a lifetime of experience with its message.
She grew up in a village of roughly 100 people. Attla doesn't remember the exact number, but she remembers all the family names, the baker's dozen of which she ticks off on her fingers. As a kid, she learned how grow her own crops and gather a variety of edibles in all seasons.
"We picked everything: wild mushrooms, leaves, potatoes, onions, eggs, everything we could," Attla said. "We needed to to survive."
Once she married, her husband taught her how to trap and process an array of animals, from beavers and otters to wolves and caribou.
"In our culture, women don't do that when they're young ladies," Attla explained. "I couldn't learn until after I got married."
It's a skill Attla said she's taken to over the years. When I showed up to her stilted house tucked into the woods in Galena, she was wielding a butcher knife and trimming generous portions of moose on her kitchen table.
Her movements were thoughtful and precise. Slowly, tenderly, she wrapped her project and stashed it on a plastic chair in her enclosed porch, taking great care to arrange the meat just so. Once satisfied, she donned a fleece jacket, poured a fresh cup of coffee and slipped on her now loose-fitting wedding band. When she finally hunkered down at the table, she grinned broadly, emphasizing the mosaic of smile lines around her eyes and mouth.
Our conversation leapfrogged from her village childhood (where her family frequently moved their tent camp) to starting her English language education at age eight (and subsequently penning letters on her grandparents' behalf as practice) to how she got started working with Store Outside Your Door.
In the spring, the Galena Interior Learning Academy, the Yukon-Koyukuk School District and Store Outside Your Door team up to do a two-week health academy. Students spend each morning in an emergency trauma technician class and each afternoon learning about traditional health and nutrition practices in Alaska, a course once taught by Attla herself.
"Food that you can hunt, fish, gather or grow are the foods that are best for us, because they're not processed and have the nutrients we need," said Desiree Jackson, Store Outside Your Door's program manager. "Margie encompasses everything we're trying to do."
This year, Attla will take the students out to forage for medicinal plant ingredients—like dandelions, spruce and lavender—to be turned into lip balms and lotions, as well as other plants to transform into tasty meals.
"One of the days they'll be making nettle crackers and rose hip jam," Jackson said. "The nettles are five times higher in calcium than spinach. The thought is, if we have something growing all over that tastes great, why aren't we using it more? That's our philosophy to teach and get this healthy living momentum going."
Attla agreed, saying she wished more people—more "Western" nutritionists included—understood how foods sourced from nature have sustained her people for thousands of years.
At the last academy where Attla taught, she showed the students how to skin and prepare a beaver. Store Outside Your Door was on hand to film the process for a roast beaver webisode to be aired this April. The episode shows Attla teaching the students about the nutritional benefits of beaver, coaching the students through relevant songs, dances and Athabascan words.
At the end of the lesson, after the barbecued beaver (and beaver bacon) has been consumed and cleaned up, students return the bones and claws to the river that the beaver came from as a sign of respect.
"It is important for kids to know how to do these things," Attla said. "Wouldn't you want to know what your parents and grandparents did? To know where you're from and who you come from? That's what makes you you."
On a chilly fall morning, just as the sun had started to swell over the horizon, Triston Madros and his cousins crept through the woods.
The group was armed with their hunting rifles, skinning knives and a vast amount of knowledge that their grandfather and fathers had passed down to them over the prior decade. They'd been up for hours—setting up camp in the twilight—and were keen to find some moose.
Madros, 14 at the time, was anxious to get his first moose kill.
He had started going moose hunting when he was 5 years old, though for most of his formative years he would just watch. He'd follow his father and grandfather around the forest, looking for prints, droppings or other signs of animals having passed by recently.
This trip was different.
It was the first time all the cousins had been able to get together to hunt, which Madros said was a big deal in itself. As they rounded the corner and tiptoed to the slough, they saw a few moose lounging in the shallows—some munching on grass, some merely lazing in the water. Before they could get a clear shot, the moose got wise to the hunters and took off, splashing through the water.
But the practiced hunters descended and, within minutes, Madros had snagged his first official moose.
"It was very exciting," Madros said. "I felt very proud."
From there, the team of hunters cut up the meat—first the front quarters, then the hind quarters, followed by the ribs, neck, tailbone and head—and packed it into their boat to bring home.
The whole process, Madros said, takes about four or five hours of skinning, cutting and separating. But it's worth it when his auntie turns the spoils of their hunt into moose head soup. Something indescribable happens to the meat from the cheeks, tongue and nose when it meets broth and vegetables in the kettle.
"It might not sound like it, but it's delicious," Madros said. "I can't describe the flavor, but it is more tender."
The rest of the meat will be stored to use throughout the year or gifted to elders or others in need throughout their community. "That's an important part of our culture," Madros explained. "It's all about respect."
For nine months of the year, Sonni Shavings attends the Galena Interior Learning Academy, a boarding school that serves students from more than 80 Alaska villages. It's a decidedly modern school—some students learn to fly before they learn to drive a car. And like most high schools, the students have fixed, heavily-laden schedules that prepare them for careers ranging from medicine to cosmetology.
But post-finals, Shavings will continue her more traditional education in the same place her family has gone for generations.
Her family's haunt is Nunarrlugarmiut, a fish camp on her home island of Nunivak—a large volcanic island in the Bering Sea.
Over the course of a couple weeks, Shavings and her family will catch about 350 fish, primarily chum. Each evening, Shavings and some of her family members head upstream with a massive net. One end of the net will be looped around a boulder on the river's edge and the other will be speared into the ground on the other bank with a sharpened stick.
If the family isn't able to set the net up overnight, they'll slip on some waders, go further upriver and stomp their way back down, scaring the fish into the net as they go.
"It's my favorite when we get to chase the fish down the river," Shavings said. "It's harder, but it's more fun."
Once the tide is high, the family will drag the net onto the sandbar, remove their haul one-by-one and bop each wriggling fish on the head with a club. They'll fillet their harvest and hang it to be dried by the sun and wind. The fish they amass over the course of those few weeks will feed the family for the year.
Now 16, Shavings started helping at her family's fish camp at age 11.
"It's important for me to learn about this because if we didn't have the opportunity to go to fish camp, my generation wouldn't know how to subsistence fish," she said. "My parents and grandma are teaching us how to do this for when we have our own family. Then we can pass our lessons down on to them."
LeAnn Smoke didn't grow up gardening. Her family didn't have a garden at their Tyonek home and nobody had taught her how to grow anything from the earth before. But when an internship position at the community garden opened up, she jumped at the chance to get involved.
Now she's a pro.
For six hours a day last summer, she and a handful of other high school-age interns tilled the soil, watered the plants, helped make fertilizer, weeded the garden and watched their handiwork go from seed to ripened plants to a feast for the entire community to enjoy together.
"It was fun watching how far everything came," Smoke said. "The progress was amazing."
She learned how to grow lettuce, peas, rhubarb, strawberries (which she enjoyed snacking on during her breaks), tomatoes, carrots (the hardest to grow, because of the number of weeds surrounding them) and watermelon (her favorite, because she didn't think she'd ever have the chance to grow them in Alaska).
Once the plants matured, Smoke helped harvest them. Some were donated to a program aimed at making sure elders had enough vegetables. Others were sold at the market in town. Whatever was left over made its way to another farmers' market in Anchorage on the other side of Cook Inlet.
But at the end of the season, after the last harvest, the yield was turned into a massive community dinner party. The team made salsas and dips, plenty of pasta dishes and saucers of watermelon. Other community members donated moose and fish to boost the traditional menu.
Storm said she intends to return this year—even though she had an unfortunate run-in with a frog last year.
"It was a really hot day and we were raking," Smoke said. "I got tired, so I decided to lay down. Then a frog jumped right into my mouth. It was so scary."
The biggest drive for Smoke, she said, is being a part of a project that has brought the community together.
"Everybody came and contributed to it and helped build it up," Smoke said. "A lot of people came and helped pull the ground up or brought their fruit cores and egg shells for compost. It's nice to have this source of sustainability that we can all learn from. It's really good for everyone."
Sierra Leask is just 2 years old, but she's already learning the importance of helping her family forage for food.
She helps round up seaweed from the rocks at the family's picking grounds, hauls a miniature bucket around the woods to collect salmonberries and sits with her older siblings to strip the labrador tea leaves off the plant.
The Leask family lives 16 miles south of Ketchikan in Metlakatla on Annette Island, where the total population is just over 1,400 people. Because of the location, the four generations of gatherers in the Leask family—the oldest is 77 and the youngest (Sierra) is 2—rely on gathering for as much as half of their daily food.
"This has always been our way of life," said Melody Leask, grandmother to the youngest generation.
Over the course of the year, the family will harvest everything from beach asparagus, clams, cockles and seaweed to wild berries, fiddleheads, nettles and mushroom. At the end of the summer, the Leask family cupboards and freezer are bursting with jars of jam, honey, canned food and air tight containers.
"Growing up, I had no idea we were considered poor," Melody said. "Because our pantries were always so full with food at the end of the season, I felt we were wealthy. It was a necessity growing up, but we never ran out of food."
Melody said the family has a litmus test for who and what is needed for a particular harvest. While salmonberries have a two-month growing season, leaving ample time for the family to get together and pick, seaweed has only a two-week window before it releases its spores, so that harvest requires all hands on deck.
Though it may seem like a lot of work, Naomi, Melody's daughter, said its importance extends beyond having fresh food.
"It's something that gets us up and moving," Naomi said. "It's important to get out there and spend some time working as a family."
Melody added, "The kids are so proud that they're contributing. There's definitely a sense of pride from them when we make dinner and they know they helped harvest the food put on that table."
While she has no shortage of stories about gathering and singing with her family, Melody said her favorite memory of foraging was when some teachers came to town to lecture about survival shelters. One of her sons took the survival experts around, showing them what plants were safe to eat and which were dangerous.
"He was in eighth grade, but they were taking note about what he was telling them," Melody said. "He had a little entourage following him around because he was so knowledgeable about the different plants."
Sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 150,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.
This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at email@example.com.