First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) representatives recently traveled to Alaska to conduct training and technical assistance in our role as a technical assistance provider for the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. Upon arrival at the remote Alaska Native Village of Emmonak, our hosts suggested we visit the local grocery store to buy food for our meals before the store closed.
Emmonak Village operates in a food desert like the more than 200 Alaska Native villages located in this beautiful and abundantly resourceful state that is called “The Last Frontier.” It is resourceful because of its diverse wildlife, fishing, natural resources, rivers, seas, oceans, mountains, tourism, Alaska citizens and Alaska Native people.
As we walked down the aisles planning our meals and searching for ingredients, we became overwhelmed by the costs of groceries. Our thoughts quickly turned to wondering how parents can feed their families.
On the American Nutrition Association’s website there is a map that color-codes U.S. regions where there is no car and no supermarket within a mile. When you examine the state of Alaska the map is entirely colored tan, which indicates “no data available.” When you look at the map where there is greatest concentration of tribes, tribal communities or tribal reservations, few exceed 10 percent.
We recognized how easily it is to get caught in unhealthy food habits when candy bars and soda were the most affordable items ranging in price from 79 cent to $2.59 each.
Alaska Native people have existed for millennia on subsistence hunting, fishing and plants. They must take advantage of the short window of time in the spring and summer months to conduct important subsistence activities in order to have food in the home in winter. Contemporarily, these activities are now regulated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which communicates through CB radio (or other means) when commercial fishing or subsistence fishing is allowed for Alaska Native people.
While in Emmonak, we saw a smokehouse where salmon was being traditionally prepared. It is a beautiful sight seeing salmon cured this way. The aromas and smoke infuse your senses and your soul. It tastes delicious.
Again, a short period of time exists when the fish is caught, gutted, cut in a particular manner and then hung to smoke with a fire continually burning to reach the right cure for transfer to a storage container for later use. We understand traditional processing can take nine days at minimum to complete, which does not include the time and resources to catch the fish.
Beyond the food desert scenario, we struggled to understand how a woman who is fleeing her abuser with children could find shelter in a community with likely no safe haven, and in a community that is only accessible by plane or boat. Further how can she provide the basic necessities to her children if she has no income? Diapers at that same store ranged from $56.77 to $64.77 per box.
There are no easy answers, but there are organizations like the Emmonak Women’s Shelter and the Yup’ik Women’s Coalition who are working every day to create avenues of safety for women who are victims of violence. These women have dedicated their lives to helping victims because they understand too clearly the hardships that living in rural Alaska presents.
The Emmonak Women’s Shelter is the only operating and Native-run shelter in the state of Alaska. The Yup’ik Women’s Coalition has been operating as a grassroots organization since the 1970s. The coalition is currently funded by the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women through the tribal domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions grant program.
How easily we take for granted the comforts we require in our lives, from personal safety to law enforcement, housing to transportation, and food to water. We need them to nourish us emotionally, physically and spiritually.
The future has got to change for our Alaska Native brothers and sisters. It is our hope that while President Obama is meeting with Alaska Natives about climate change that he is also being informed about the true realities, hardships and scarcity issues and concerns that Alaska Native people face in their daily lives.
To see the great work that is being done by courageous and resourceful Alaska Native leaders, visit www.yupikwomen.org or visit the Emmonak Women’s Shelter’s Facebook page.
See more about First Nations’ efforts to strengthen and revitalize Native American and Alaska Native economies and communities at www.firstnations.org.
By Montoya Whiteman, First Nations Senior Program Officer