Village Food Systems

Dry fish, Holy Cross
Dry fish, Holy Cross
Geographically, Interior Alaska is defined by the Canadian border to the east, by the Brooks and Alaska ranges north and south, and in the west by a more fluid line that is generally drawn just downriver of Holy Cross on the Yukon. These boundaries are contiguous with those for the Doyon/Tanana Chiefs Conference region. Doyon Limited is the regional Native for-profit corporation for Interior Alaska; Tanana Chiefs Conference is the nonprofit tribal consortium providing health and social services to Interior Alaska tribal members. 
 
Within the Interior there are 42 tribal communities, 37 of which are federally recognized tribes. Scattered throughout an area slightly smaller than the state of Texas, eight  of these communities are located on the road system. The rest are only accessible by air or seasonally by boat or snow machine. Village size ranges from about 60 residents to as many as 600 in the regional hub of Galena. The majority population is Athabascan Indian. 
 
With the exception of Fairbanks, the region’s largest urban center, Interior villages are considered remote rural — a designation which captures both their geographic isolation and the absence of urban features such as hospitals, retail businesses, fire and police departments and diversified employment. All of the road communities, with the exception of Nenana, are more than 100 miles from Fairbanks.  
 
Fish wheel on upper Yukon at Beaver
Fish wheel on upper Yukon at Beaver

Interior village economies are mixed subsistence-cash, reflecting the values and realities of modern village life. Subsistence, a Western term used to describe traditional food gathering and consumption activities, forms the basis of village life. The driver for this is, first and foremost, cultural, but there is a practical aspect to it as well. Not only is wild food largely preferred but obtaining other food, such as prepared and packaged grocery items or fresh fruits and vegetables, is expensive and often difficult. 

As for Alaska Natives throughout the state, Native foods form the nutritional foundation for Interior Alaska Natives and ground people culturally and spiritually. Moose, caribou, fish, waterfowl, small game (muskrat, porcupine, beaver), wild greens and berries are essential food staples. Village residents also consume commercial food, which they obtain through a variety of ways. Every village has at least one store that stocks basic canned goods, soda, chips, candy and a limited assortment of frozen foods. Village residents usually buy in bulk when in town visiting friends and family or on medical or business trips, or use the bush order services offered by Fairbanks and Anchorage supermarkets.   

Relatives and friends living in town may also routinely shop for and ship groceries. This is not just a one-way flow of goods as in-town people often receive moose, fish, beaver and other Native foods that are difficult to obtain while living in the city. Food exchange also occurs among village residents with access to different wild resources. For example, Interior people may receive muktuk or seal oil from friends and relatives in coastal villages or send fish strips from the lower Yukon to people upriver.  

 
Community garden, Nenana
Community garden, Nenana

Gardening is also popular in Interior villages — an activity that was introduced by non-Native missionaries, miners, and other settlers. Today, many village residents maintain small plots beside their homes, and community gardens — some of which are fenced and annually tilled by the city or tribal government — are common.

Village food systems can best be characterized as networks of giving and receiving that are established within extended families, among villages and between villages and urban centers. While village residents, like people throughout the country, consume ready-made and commercial food stuffs that must be imported into their communities, a large percentage of their diet is composed of local country food. As part of  cultural and common practice, food from the land, whether hunted, picked or grown, is shared. While people may contribute gasoline or ammunition to a hunter, or lend a net, or help cut meat or fish, country food is rarely sold. There are some exceptions to this — such as jarred fish and fish strips — but generally, wild food is shared or traded for other food items that a family/individual may not have, or has in short supply. Thus, while village food systems have a market-based component, it is relatively small compared to rural and urban communities elsewhere in the United States, and is distinctly more communal in nature and undertaking than Western food systems.    

Back to Top