The History and Culture of Food and Drink: The Arctic and Subarctic Regions

Linda J Reed. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Traditional foodways have played an intrinsic part in the daily lives of the Native American peoples in the Arctic and Subarctic. Unlike other Americans, whose visits to their local grocery stores for food are seldom memorable, the people of Minto could look at a piece of dried fish and remember where they caught it, the activity on the river, and congratulations received from family members. The point is that food is more intimate for those who catch, grow, or gather it than for those who simply drop it into a shopping cart. The procurement, processing, preparation, and serving of food unites such people with their history, their future, and each other. The use of local resources serves as a direct emotional and spiritual link to the environment on which they depend.

This chapter explores the prehistoric, historic, and current dietary patterns of Native Americans in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Because of the wide variety of cultures in the Subarctic and Arctic, this is necessarily a general discussion.

The People

The Native American groups of the Arctic and Subarctic consist of two major genetic and linguistic populations—the Northern Athapaskan Indians and the Eskimo. In Alaska and Canada, the Eskimo are generally coastal people who are believed to have entered North America some 9,000 years ago. The older denizens are the Northern Athapaskans, located for the most part in the interior of Alaska and Canada, who are thought to have crossed the Bering Strait about 15,000 years ago.



The Tanana people are Athapaskans who reside in the area of Minto Flats on the Alaska Plateau, which is dissected by the Yukon, Tanana, and Kuskokwim rivers. The landscape includes mountain ranges of 3,000 to 4,000 feet, rivers, streams, marshes, grassy fields, and islands.

There are four seasons in this Subarctic region. The winter—long, dark, windy, and very cold—is a time when minimal light and extreme cold limit travel. Spring is associated with the thawing of the rivers and boat travel, but frequent stops to warm up with tea and snacks are necessary to combat the cold. Spring weather is variable from day to day, with warm days and cold nights. Summer is short, warm, and without darkness, with rainy days often bringing concern about flooding rivers. These are the months that are associated with travel on the rivers and roads and, of course, with fishing and gathering. Autumn is marked by the gradual darkening of the night and colder days. By late autumn, the leaves have changed color or fallen, the snow has returned, and the focus is on moose and duck hunting.

A wide variety of flora are present in the Subarctic. Tree types include aspen, white spruce, birch, poplar, and willow. The spruce, birch, and willow are used for medicine, building materials, and fuel. Edible plants include wild rhubarb, Indian potato, wild onion, low-bush cranberry, highbush cranberry, blueberry, wild rose, and raspberry.

Animal populations that are hunted and trapped are mountain sheep, moose, bear, muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, and duck. A variety of fish are available, including salmon, burbot, grayling, whitefish, pike, and sucker.

All Northern Athapaskan populations practice a subsistence strategy of hunting, gathering, and fishing, which varies with location. It is a seminomadic subsistence strategy which, for some, involves moving from their villages to winter, summer, fall, and spring camps in order to take advantage of the local resources of each, although many now reside permanently in the winter camp.

There are, of course, regional variations. For example, the Tanaina, who reside in a lush coastal and river-ine environment around the Cook Inlet in southern Alaska, have access to a wide variety of marine and inland resources. They are primarily hunters and fishers who procure mussels, crabs, seals, beluga, moose, caribou, and groundhogs. But their diet also incorporates a wide variety of plant resources during the spring, summer, and fall.

By contrast, more northerly populations, such as the Koyukon, live in a riverine environment considerably more mountainous. Like the Tanaina, these people also depend on hunting and fishing but rely more heavily on the latter throughout the year because of their access to the Yukon River. Salmon (chinook, chum, coho, and sockeye) has long been a primary resource for the Koyukon.


The Arctic is designated as a high-altitude region, usually lying above the tree line. It includes a broad expanse of land stretching from western Alaska through Canada as well as Greenland. The ground is frozen year-round (permafrost), and minimal precipitation occurs.

The diversity of food sources in the Arctic is low compared to the Subarctic region. Eskimo populations throughout the Arctic depend mostly on marine species, including seals, whales, walrus, and fish (Freeman 1984). But inland fish are also procured, including char, trout, pike, grayling, and salmon (Freeman 1984). The most important land mammals that provide food are the caribou, arctic hare, and musk ox.

Precontact Subsistence

The majority of precontact Northern Athapaskan groups were interior populations of hunters, fishers, and gatherers, whose seasonal rounds were similar to the pattern seen today.

In winter—a time of minimal subsistence activity—large groups congregated at winter camps, where local resources were processed for food and clothing, and some celebrations were held. When the weather improved, from spring through fall, the larger groups divided into individual family groups that traveled to smaller camps, permitting greater access to food resources. Each family group tended to visit the same camp sites—loosely considered the group’s own “territory” – every year. Some, such as the Upper Tanana people, were more dependent on large game, but they nonetheless fished the inland lakes and tributaries and the Tanana River. Spears, bows and arrows, fish traps, gill nets, dip nets, lures, and hooks were all employed in this seasonal harvest of protein, the storage of which was, obviously, important for the coming winter months (Sullivan 1942; VanStone 1974).

Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Northern Athapaskans dried, froze, and stored food in birchbark baskets above and below ground. The caches aboveground were small boxlike shelters on stilts with cutout openings or doors. Belowground the caches were dug into the permafrost and covered with wood to seal in the cold air and to protect against animals.

The mobility of the Northern Athapaskans allowed consistent access to food sources, yet their small groups were able to avoid depletion of such sources in any one subsistence area by having a variety of sites. The Tanana Valley people, for example, still continue to use a number of different sites during the year, moving from one to another by birchbark canoe or by snowshoe (Sullivan 1942; VanStone 1974).

In the spring and summer, the major foods obtained included whitefish, salmon, duck, and birds’ eggs. Gathered products, such as blueberries and cranberries, were also stored during the late summer and fall months. The important foods during autumn were moose, caribou, duck, grouse, and rabbits. In the winter, stored foods were supplemented by trapping small game and by ice fishing.

Throughout the year, families spent considerable time exploiting other resources as well. Ducks were hunted in the spring as soon as the weather warmed and people could safely travel by boat. In the summer, berries and small animals were sought, in addition to fish, whereas larger mammals were hunted or trapped mostly during the fall. Such a pattern of seasonal subsistence was common for Indian populations, such as the Kutchin, Koyukon, Ingalik, Kolchan, Tanaina, and Ahtna (Clark 1981; De Laguna and McClellan 1981; Hosley 1981a; Slobodin 1981; Snow 1981; Townsend 1981).

In addition, some populations, such as the Ahtna and the Tanaina, who resided close to mountainous regions, could hunt Dall sheep (De Laguna and McClellan 1981; Townsend 1981). The Koyukon, who are northwest of the Tanana, actively traded with the Eskimo, which increased their subsistence region (Slobodin 1981), and some populations in the Subarctic, such as the Tanaina, hunted sea mammals along the coast of southern and western Alaska (Townsend 1981).

Almost all native Alaskan populations continued their seminomadic lifestyle until the turn of the twentieth century, when increased mining and fur-trading activities eventually brought about the development of permanent villages. But even today there are still many hunting and gathering populations that carry on in a traditional manner (Hosley 1981a; Berger 1985). Older members pass on subsistence knowledge to the rest of the population, which links the generations together (Berger 1985).

Contact and Chance in Subsistence and Diet

Prolonged contact with Western culture brought a dependence on trade goods, such as guns, iron chisels, knives, and axes and gradually led to the development of sedentary camps around the trading posts, which disrupted traditional subsistence activities (VanStone 1974; Martin 1978; McClellan 1981; Frank 1983; Newman 1985, 1987; Yerbury 1986).

In Canada, reliance on trade goods brought an increasing interdependence between Indians and trading-post inhabitants, as many of the former entered into economic relationships with traders. They hunted and fished for them, receiving trade items, such as guns, for their efforts.

One need only consider the disruption brought about when the Canadian Iroquois began, in the mid–seventeenth century, to hunt for furs instead of food. After depleting their own traditional hunting grounds of both food and fur-bearing animals, they began to encroach on the territories of neighboring groups. And as food resources continued to decline, they became increasingly more dependent on the trading posts. By the early 1800s, the moose and caribou had been overhunted and a dietary change had taken place, forcing the Indians to rely on hares, fish, and purchased food (Martin 1978). Yet even as food resources declined, sedentary life fostered Iroquois population growth, which considerably enhanced the risk of severe food shortages (Ray 1974).

To obtain goods to trade for food, many Alaskan natives turned to trapping in the late 1800s (McClellan 1981; Schneider 1986). The steel trap gained importance around 1900 and accelerated the pace of trapping animals for economic rather than subsistence reasons. Cash and trade relationships with the Alaska Commercial Company and the Western Fur and Trading Company, in particular, enabled Alaskan natives to purchase Western foods and products from trading posts and from Europeans moving through the region.

Animal populations declined as trapping increased and native human populations became more sedentary. Native trappers traveled ever farther away from these settlements in search of quality pelts, and it became necessary to leave family members behind, often for days. Moreover, as native populations continued to nucleate into fewer, and larger, settlements on the main rivers, the decrease in nomadic patterns led to a summer–winter dualism. By the middle to late 1930s, many families had established a pattern of occupying fishing camps during the summer and trapping and hunting from more permanent villages in the winter (Hosley 1981a). Finally, and obviously, an exchange of the traditional subsistence lifestyle for a kind of Western economic mode of living meant that increased sedentism also disrupted traditional dietary patterns.

Trade goods offered unique tastes in compact forms that were intriguing to the native populations. Foods high in carbohydrates, such as the white potato or crackers, infrequently found in the traditional diet, seemed attractive because they added variety. Other items, such as coffee, tea, flour, and sugar, quickly became staples to be purchased in bulk, and they are still bought in large quantities today. Coffee and tea quickly replaced the beverages decocted from local plants because they were easier to acquire than the traditional items.

The seductive appeal of trade goods reached out even as far as to the Greenland Eskimo (Freuchen 1935).Their participation in European whaling activities was rewarded with a variety of Western foods, such as tea, coffee, crackers, oatmeal, and chocolate (Freuchen 1935). The growing dependence on such foods was well documented by Peter Freuchen: “[T]he coffee beans they purchase raw and roast them to a crisp. To make them go a long way, the Eskimos mix the beans with rice or barley. This form of coffee turns them into near-addicts. When they are without coffee, they say they feel worse than when they are starving” (1935: 109).

Disruption of traditional life by the fur trade was further exacerbated by the gold rush (1884 to 1920). Alaskan natives who had become dependent on Western products now encountered much difficulty in obtaining them. Competition for scarce food resources pushed the price of Western foods beyond their purchasing ability, and as a consequence, natives took jobs for wages in mining towns and on riverboats to increase their purchasing power. The trend toward sedentism that had begun with the fur trade accelerated, with some people abandoning all of their traditional subsistence activities as a result of the high wages to be obtained in the towns and on the rivers. And, as highways and roads were built in Alaska, the natives sought jobs associated with their construction.

Although such activity was generally destructive of old ways, such goods as firearms and dogsleds did help some people to adhere to traditional subsistence activities and diets. Certainly the rhythm of subsistence hunting was altered dramatically with the introduction of firearms, as hunting changed from a communal to an individual activity. It was the use of the rifle that ensured that moose and caribou would continue to be overhunted. Indeed, the caribou were ultimately decimated because they traveled in large herds, and with decreasing caribou, native populations focused their hunting strategies on the moose. Along with the greater access to food resources permitted by the rifle, hunters also increased their harvest of fur-bearing animals.

The adoption of sleds pulled by dogs was yet another factor that affected Indian lifestyle. Dogsleds permitted travel in the winter months, which extended the trapping season. In addition, as Robert

A. McKennan (1981) points out, the introduction of the dog team increased both the need and the market for dried fish, an easily transportable dog food.

With an increased demand for fish, the Lower Tanana Indians adopted the use of the fishwheel, which meant larger quantities of fish for both human and animal populations. But because the fishwheel required deep and fast-moving water in order to be functional, Indian populations began moving away from the smaller rivers to the larger Tanana River.

Other dramatic changes came with the introduction of transportation based on fossil fuels (Cohen 1974), such as gasoline-powered boats, snowmobiles, and automobiles. Boats greatly increased access to local resources, especially during the fowl- and moose-hunting seasons. Water travel thus became more efficient, and winter and summer villages were able to be more widely separated (Hosley 1981a: 551).

Other gasoline-powered vehicles also allowed native people to move within their subsistence area faster and more frequently. In the 1960s, the Canadian Netsilik used snowmobiles to chase caribou. Unfortunately, it was this combined use of gasoline-powered vehicles and firearms that brought about the near total destruction of caribou in Canada (Neatby 1984). Another technological factor that encouraged this sort of overhunting was the home freezer, which led to the taking of more game and fish than could be immediately used.

Current Dietary Patterns

The Mix of Western and Traditional Foods

Current diets in the Subarctic and Arctic contain a mixture of traditional and Western foods. Many native populations eat such a combination because they are unable to obtain adequate foodstuffs by reliance on either traditional subsistence activities or Western resources alone. Traditional activities are frequently limited by participation in wage labor, yet many people are unable to afford the cost of Western foods on a daily basis.

This reliance on both subsistence foods and trade goods is aptly described by Kristin Borre (1991: 49) for an Inuit population of North Baffin Island, Canada. In this Arctic region, traditional hunting activities are of great importance, with children ages 7 to 15 contributing 40 percent, men 37 percent, and women 23 percent of the effort to capture most of the protein consumed. But despite a high level of traditional subsistence pursuits, the Inuit are also incorporating Western foods, purchased for immediate consumption, into their diet. Among other things, Western foods are increasingly attractive to younger members of the community.

A similar pattern can be observed among the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope. Although many of the adult men work as wage laborers in the oil development at Prudhoe Bay, the Inupiat still need to rely on traditional food hunting and gathering for about 45 percent of foods consumed. Their increased income has resulted in the consumption of junk foods, especially soda pop and candy by the children (Kruse, Kleinfeld, and Travis 1982).

The uneasy juxtaposition of Western foods and traditional foods in the diet is evident in Richard K. Nelson’s description of Athapaskan Alaskan life:”Sitting down for an evening meal, members of an Athapaskan family might find moose meat, bear grease, and wild berries on the table along with store-bought soup, bread and butter, and canned fruit. Before eating, someone may give a Christian blessing; and then a young daughter might be told not to eat a certain food because it is tabooed for a woman her age” (1986:214).

Ceremonial Diet

Ceremonial food use, which also features a variety of traditional and Western foods, deserves consideration in any discussion of food and drink among current Subarctic and Arctic populations. Thus, the ensuing discussion highlights Alaskan Athapaskan potlatches observed by this author in 1987 and 1989, which illustrate the incorporation of both, along with comparative examples drawn from both Canada and Greenland.

Potlatches serve the important purpose of marking an event taking place or a stage of life. Such events include death, the memory of a person (and perhaps the making of a memorial song), a birthday, the first salmon catch of the season, a moose killed, a marriage, and important meetings. The largest potlatches are the funeral and memorial ceremonies. Family members give a memorial potlatch some one to five years after an individual’s death. Memorial song potlatches are organizational ceremonies to create a song about the life of the person who died. Important meeting potlatches usually occur when a weighty decision has to be made concerning the village. The occasion may specifically involve an individual, or a family, but the holding of a potlatch often radiates out gradually to include the entire village, as well as other villages, due to the interrelationships existing within the population. The extensive quantity of food available during potlatches means that the Northern Athapaskan people understand them to be feasts as well.

Knowledge of an impending major potlatch, such as a birthday or a memorial, spreads quickly through villages in interior Alaska—especially the ones in proximity to Minto by river travel or to Fairbanks by air. People in different villages have developed close ties at potlatches, events that encourage them to reevaluate long-held traditions, relationships with friends, and village ties.

At another level, the potlatch is an occasion for distributing goods (Langdon and Worl 1981). During any type of potlatch, people who attend receive both food and gifts. The latter are given in respect and gratitude by the people hosting the potlatch. At a funeral potlatch, for example, some of the possessions of the deceased are given as presents, which makes them emotionally significant for the recipients.

Extensive quantities of food are common in ceremonies in the Subarctic and Arctic. One example is the Northern Alaskan Coast Eskimo Messenger Feast, which is a matter of competition among villages, with the village giving the feast attempting to “overwhelm a guest with food” (Spencer 1984).

A wide range of traditional foods, featuring both animal and plant items, is served at potlatches. Important animal dishes are moose, duck, salmon, beaver, and whitefish. Plant foods include a variety of berries, such as blueberries and highbush and lowbush cranberries, all boiled with water, flour, and sugar.

At a major potlatch, such as a funeral, the chiefs and other men receive the most highly desired portions of food, such as the large bones with moose meat still attached and the heads of salmon. Fish heads, considered a high-status food, are also served to the elder women.

Although moose meat is an important traditional food served at every potlatch, it obviously is of greatest importance at a first moose potlatch. After a family obtains its first moose of the season, its members hold a potlatch during which moose may be the only traditional food served.

The use of a traditional food as the primary dish also occurs at a first salmon potlatch, which is held in the village after someone catches the first salmon in the spring. Following the first catch, every effort is made to procure enough salmon for everyone. At the potlatch, the salmon is cooked in a variety of ways—boiled, in soup, and its eggs are also served.

Other protein foods, such as beluga, are important ceremonial foods for the MacKenzie Delta Eskimo. Marine animals are also used by the Iglulki to supplement “feasts of boiled meat … to which the whole camp was invited” (Mary-Rousseliere 1984: 440).

Western foods too are consumed at the potlatches, although these products are generally considered supplemental to traditional foods. Of all the village potlatches, the birthday ceremony contains the greatest variety of Western products, such as barbecued chicken, hot dogs, carrots, celery, green salad, fruit salad, white cake with frosting, deviled eggs, cauliflower, margarine, jam, and sweet soft drinks.

By contrast, at funeral potlatches mostly traditional foods are employed. Funeral potlatches have been a tradition of the Minto people for a long time, which explains the greater use of traditional foods, whereas birthday potlatches are relatively new (elders have indicated that they never used to celebrate the event).Thus, the presence of more Western foods corresponds with the newness of the birthday potlatch.

Current Dietary Patterns and Health

Traditional diets in both the Subarctic and Arctic provided much protein with a good ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats, and they were low in sugar and carbohydrates. But current Western foods incorporated into the diet do just the opposite in that they deliver high levels of saturated fats, sugar, and carbohydrates.

H. H. Draper (1977) discusses the contrasting health effects of traditional and Western foods in the diet of the Arctic Inuit. The traditional diet yielded much protein, and the consumption of the stomach contents of caribou, along with seasonal plant harvests, contributed important vitamins and minerals to the regimen. But the addition of dairy products, sugar, and carbohydrate-laden foods to the diet has created serious health problems. In the case of dairy products, Native American populations lack the ability to absorb lactose, and lactose malabsorption can produce cramping and diarrhea (Harrison 1975). There are other health difficulties that arise from the sugar and carbohydrates in the Western diet, ranging from tooth decay and obesity to diabetes and heart disease. In short, a departure from traditional diets to which they were well adapted has created a frequently life-threatening crisis of health for native peoples of the Subarctic and Arctic regions of the Americas. Alleviation of that crisis must begin with this realization.