Sustaining Culture and Livelihood in Remote Igiugig Village

Igiugig High School students plant seedlings, which will grow into food for sale.

Igiugig High School students plant seedlings, which will grow into food for sale.

In Igiugig, a small village of only 69 people on the Kvichak River in southwestern Alaska, resources are scarce. Food must be flown in, and strategies to keep the village – and the culture of the Yup’ik Eskimos, Aleuts, and Athabascan Indians – flourishing must be seized. Here, with the support of First Nations Development Institute, this close-knit tribe is finding new ways to develop sustainable food sources, and creating opportunities for young people to succeed.

They’re doing it by running a local food stand that is serving the community, while developing the entrepreneurial skills of the youth who make Igiugig Village their home. As a grantee of First Nations and the Seeds of Native Health campaign, the village is thriving, and a culture of pride and self-sustainability is living on. (The Seeds of Native Health campaign was created and is funded by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.)

A Stand for Business

The food stand was proposed in 2015, as part of a three-tiered approach to enhancing the village’s food system. Over the course of the project, the village would build and operate a greenhouse to grow fresh produce, train residents how to preserve traditional foods for year-round use, and create an entrepreneurial opportunity for youth through a retail venue for traditional foods.

For the food stand, the village’s young people would be involved from the very beginning – developing a business plan, purchasing and ordering food, managing expenses, and operating the stand. According to Jeff Bringhurst, project director, the kids would learn how to price food, what’s involved with the point of sale, and how to determine a profit margin.

“We realized it would be a lot to throw at teens,” he said. “But we have mentored them. We held their hands, and built their confidence.”

Villager Karl Hill makes the first transaction on opening day of the food stand.

Villager Karl Hill makes the first transaction on opening day of the food stand.

Sure enough, the kids’ self-assurance kicked in soon after the food stand opened. They went from not knowing how to prepare food, to cooking and serving new recipes they found on their own. They’ve been given opportunities to not only provide a valuable service, but also be successful.

“The project has shown them a way they can contribute and make a difference. They see they have a role in the village, and they see a future in helping it grow and thrive,” he said.

A Stand for Solutions

Ensuring this future is key to keeping the village and culture going.

“One of the unique things about Igiugig is that it is a small isolated place,” explained Renée Grounds, Igiugig’s grants administrator. “There are no stores or food sources. It is up to individual families to hunt, fish and gather, or order supplies on their own that must be brought in by airplane.”

There is no place in the village to gather for a meal, and the only place to eat is at the school or at home. Getting fresh food presents further challenges in the time and costs of transporting it in from the nearest city of Anchorage. By the time fruits and vegetables arrive home, they must be eaten within a few days before they go bad. Things you don’t want to spoil need to be frozen or canned.

This lack of fresh food has made it more difficult to make good nutritional decisions, which can affect the long-term health of the community. In addition, with no cafes or restaurants in town, there have been no ways to create revenue and growth opportunities for serving the community, tourists, and local fishermen. The Igiugig Village food stand is helping change this situation.

A Stand for Food and Education

The project started with seed money and guidance of teachers and village members, and an initial food order of $500. The students first began selling reindeer hot dogs and hamburgers. They quickly learned the ropes of the food business: Procurement, ordering, marketing, advertising, sales, and customer service.

Smoked salmon sushi prepared by Igiugig High School students.

Smoked salmon sushi prepared by Igiugig High School students.

They next set out to leverage the capabilities of the new greenhouse to begin offering squash, zucchini, turnips, kale, chard, and other vegetables, which were so rare in the village that many people didn’t even know how to cook with them.

“The students were so nervous at first,” explained Bringhurst. “But as the project went on they met with village cooks, and they started looking up recipes. They were soon able to make their own side dishes to sell, showing people what could be done with the fresh produce.”

Menu items have slowly been added, including grilled chicken, smoked salmon, moose stir-fry, and even sushi. “They’re making complex meals and thinking of them on their own,” said Bringhurst. “And they are more relaxed, friendly and confident.”

With their increased confidence has come increased knowledge. Teens have learned the realities of how to run a business, from operations to marketing and advertising to attract commercial fishermen and lodge guests. And lessons have been coordinated through the high school to develop entrepreneurial skill sets, including budgeting, procurement, and time and money management.

Students flash their play money at the $pending Frenzy workshop.

Students flash their play money at the $pending Frenzy workshop.

The teens and community have also taken part in First Nations’ $pending Frenzy simulation, which teaches youth how to manage finances and make informed spending decisions.

This education is helping frame the village of tomorrow. They are “growing new learners” and mentoring the next generation of leaders in the community. As Bringhurst imagined, “You never know which one of the kids will be our administrator some day.”

A Stand for Tradition

In the past year, the food stand has also bolstered other projects that make the Igiugig community and culture stronger. “Part of our identity is to live off the land,” said Bringhurst. “We practice subsistence living – the practice of hunting, fishing or gathering food to live on.”

Students set up the food stand for business.

Students set up the food stand for business.

This means promoting education about cooking and preserving native foods, including wild plants, caribou and salmon; incorporating the Yup’ik language at every opportunity, and  embracing the ways in which their people have always lived.

“We do this so we don’t lose that,” said Bringhurst. “We have three elders in the village. We need to use the knowledge they have left. and not forget it.”

A Stand for the Future

Indeed, the knowledge is helping the community thrive. According to Grounds, half the village is young and under 20, and the stand is providing a vehicle for education and outreach that ultimately will reach up to 30 kids.

“There’s always a lot going on here, and everyone wears five to six different hats,” Bringhurst said. “We’re always looking to the future. And with this opportunity kids get the experience to explore business, come up with questions, and find the answers.”

It’s success the village will build on, with more greenhouses, a new fitness facility that will improve health outcomes, food preservation workshops, an agricultural research center and community gardens.

Grounds said they are grateful for the support of First Nations in making efforts like these possible. “With First Nations, we were able to get the food stand launched, and pursue more opportunities to improve the village. First Nations keeps us motivated.”

“We’re a big family,” said Bringhurst. “First Nations has helped us all move forward with one goal and one purpose: helping our village thrive.”

To learn more about Igiugig Village and the three-pronged “Greenhouse and Traditional Wild Foods Project,” visit

By Amy Jakober

2 thoughts on “Sustaining Culture and Livelihood in Remote Igiugig Village

  1. Best wishes for this exciting greenhouse project! It is always a matter of concern whether northern peoples such as Native Alaskans can find a good supply of plant-sourced foods.

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