Food Traditions In The Arctic: Thankful For The Bounty From A Frozen Land : Goats and Soda In the Canadian Arctic, food that's shipped in can be costly. People still hunt as their ancestors did — for seal, polar bear and narwhal.
NPR logo PHOTOS: How Families Eat In The Arctic: From An $18 Box Of Cookies To Polar Bear Stew

PHOTOS: How Families Eat In The Arctic: From An $18 Box Of Cookies To Polar Bear Stew

Carrying her baby in a pouch on her back, Susan Enoogoo, 39, hunts for ringed seal on the sea ice near Arctic Bay, Nunavut. Inuit mothers often carry their baby when hunting. If a seal surfaces, Enoogoo tries to snag it with the hook she's holding and drag it out of the water. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Carrying her baby in a pouch on her back, Susan Enoogoo, 39, hunts for ringed seal on the sea ice near Arctic Bay, Nunavut. Inuit mothers often carry their baby when hunting. If a seal surfaces, Enoogoo tries to snag it with the hook she's holding and drag it out of the water.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

In the most northerly Canadian territory of Nunavut, grocery shopping is expensive.

Like, really expensive.

So much so that residents regularly post in a Facebook group called Feeding My Family to share photos of high prices at their local stores.

A package of vanilla creme cookies: $18.29. A bunch of grapes: $28.58. A container of baby formula: $26.99.

While his parents shop for groceries, Ulluria Ejangiaq climbs on cases of soda in a supermarket in Arctic Bay. Although expensive at $2 to $7 per can, soda is exceedingly popular. Most of it is brought in once or twice a summer by cargo ship when the sea ice melts. Right: As the temperature hovers around 50 degree below zero, Apitah Iqaqrialu and Leetia Kalluk enjoy a frozen slushie. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

While his parents shop for groceries, Ulluria Ejangiaq climbs on cases of soda in a supermarket in Arctic Bay. Although expensive at $2 to $7 per can, soda is exceedingly popular. Most of it is brought in once or twice a summer by cargo ship when the sea ice melts. Right: As the temperature hovers around 50 degree below zero, Apitah Iqaqrialu and Leetia Kalluk enjoy a frozen slushie.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Leesee Papatsie, founder of the Facebook group, says she spends at least $500 a week on food for her family of five — and that's just for basics in the capital of Iqaluit, a city of some 7,000 residents.

Because it costs a lot to fly goods into communities in remote regions of the Arctic Archipelago, there's not much that can be done to drastically reduce prices, she explains. But that's why — in a territory where about 84% of the population identifies as Inuit — "country food" is still the preferred source of sustenance.

The tail of an arctic char near an ice fishing hole at Kuugarjuk Lake. Every year the community camps together at nearby lakes over a three-day weekend in May to catch arctic char. Cash prizes are awarded for the largest fish. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

The tail of an arctic char near an ice fishing hole at Kuugarjuk Lake. Every year the community camps together at nearby lakes over a three-day weekend in May to catch arctic char. Cash prizes are awarded for the largest fish.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

These traditional Inuit foods include arctic char, seal, polar bear and caribou — often consumed raw, frozen or dried. The foods, which are native to the region, are packed with the vitamins and nutrients people need to stay nourished in the harsh winter conditions. The parts of the animal that aren't edible, like the fur and skins, are used to create clothes and other products that hunters can then sell to make a living.

A freshly washed polar bear skin is cleaned in the family bathtub. Using a lottery system, only a limited number of polar bear-hunting tags are distributed each year. The family eventually sold the skin on the Internet, but the $4,439 profit "still wasn't enough to pay off a new sofa set and other household items, including food," a family member says. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

A freshly washed polar bear skin is cleaned in the family bathtub. Using a lottery system, only a limited number of polar bear-hunting tags are distributed each year. The family eventually sold the skin on the Internet, but the $4,439 profit "still wasn't enough to pay off a new sofa set and other household items, including food," a family member says.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

"We've got to find ways that work in the North," Papatsie says. "What's already working in the North is Inuit culture — harvesting, sewing, making art. So it's not reinventing the wheel but working with the wheel that's already there."

And that includes sharing meals and leftovers not just with your neighbors, but with anyone in the community who could use a little something extra to eat.

Acacia Johnson, an Alaskan photographer, spent several seasons documenting these customs in Arctic Bay on the northern tip of Baffin Island, where the population is around 750.

Houses in Arctic Bay in the dusky blue of midday in January. That's the middle of the polar night, when the sun stays below the horizon for three months. The year's first sunrise is still more than a month away — in the first two weeks of February. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Houses in Arctic Bay in the dusky blue of midday in January. That's the middle of the polar night, when the sun stays below the horizon for three months. The year's first sunrise is still more than a month away — in the first two weeks of February.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Qaapik Attagutsiak, 94, the eldest member of the community of Arctic Bay, bakes a loaf of bannock — traditional bread — over the heat of a seal oil lamp called a qulliq. These lamps were once the most important possession in any Inuit home, providing light and warmth. Although few people still use them today, they remain a symbol of Inuit culture and family. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Qaapik Attagutsiak, 94, the eldest member of the community of Arctic Bay, bakes a loaf of bannock — traditional bread — over the heat of a seal oil lamp called a qulliq. These lamps were once the most important possession in any Inuit home, providing light and warmth. Although few people still use them today, they remain a symbol of Inuit culture and family.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Johnson first received a Fulbright grant in 2014 to complete a "poetic landscape project" in the small community. She lived with a local family for four months and sometimes joined groups on hunting and fishing trips out on the ice.

"I went there to make a photo project about the importance of the Arctic landscape to people, and I don't know what that was going to look like. I guess I was imagining landscape pictures," she says now. "But I realized that the best way to show people's connection to the land is through the hunting practices, because the land is the food source that sustains people."

As spring camping season approaches, the shoreline of Arctic Bay becomes a parking lot for qamutiks — traditional sleds that family members will fill with gear and food for extended trips for hunting and camping. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

As spring camping season approaches, the shoreline of Arctic Bay becomes a parking lot for qamutiks — traditional sleds that family members will fill with gear and food for extended trips for hunting and camping.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

But it's extremely sensitive to take pictures of someone skinning a seal, Johnson says. She remembers the question a hunter asked her the first time she went out on the ice: "You're not Greenpeace, are you?"

In 1976, Greenpeace Canada launched a graphic anti-sealing campaign that picked up steam around the globe. The environmentalist organization has since issued several apologies to Inuit communities, saying that they intended to target the commercial sealing industry and not independent hunters. But the impacts of that campaign are still felt by Inuit communities in Canada and Greenland decades later.

In the complete darkness of a January afternoon, Inuit elder Peugatuk Ettuk skins a seal by the light of his snowmobile. He caught the seal to feed his dog team. Ettuk was camping at the site of the old outpost camp near Arctic Bay where he had grown up as a child. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

In the complete darkness of a January afternoon, Inuit elder Peugatuk Ettuk skins a seal by the light of his snowmobile. He caught the seal to feed his dog team. Ettuk was camping at the site of the old outpost camp near Arctic Bay where he had grown up as a child.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

In 2009, the European Union banned the trade of seal products. Although the provision included an exception for seals sourced through Inuit hunts, the market for seal products suffered an intense decline. In 2015, seal pelt exports from Greenland had dropped by 90%.

After catching a ringed seal on the sea ice near Arctic Bay, Rex Willie slit it open and then wove a strip of sealskin through the edges to make a drawstring bag. The thick layer of seal blubber acts as insulation to keep the meat and organs fresh until it is eaten later. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

After catching a ringed seal on the sea ice near Arctic Bay, Rex Willie slit it open and then wove a strip of sealskin through the edges to make a drawstring bag. The thick layer of seal blubber acts as insulation to keep the meat and organs fresh until it is eaten later.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, a filmmaker from Iqaluit, explored the detrimental effect of anti-sealing legislation and environmental campaigning on Canadian Inuit hunters in her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk. The film shows how the drop in seal prices has made it more difficult for hunters to afford hunting supplies, earn an income and ultimately feed their families.

In a region that already suffers from poverty and food insecurity — a 2014 report by Action Canada found that almost 70% of all households in Nunavut struggle to obtain nutritious and affordable food — less money means less food on the table.

Clara Itturligaq teaches her son Spencer, who is younger than 2, how to ice fish for arctic char at Kuugarjuk Lake near Arctic Bay. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Clara Itturligaq teaches her son Spencer, who is younger than 2, how to ice fish for arctic char at Kuugarjuk Lake near Arctic Bay.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Wade Thorhaug, executive director of the Qajuqturvik Food Centre in Iqaluit, is trying to fix that. But it's not easy to allocate resources so that everybody has enough to eat.

"There's not a whole lot of public funds available for things like a daily meal program or a food bank," Thorhaug says.

The center operates on donations and government funding from a program called Urban Programming for Indigenous Peoples. The funds are awarded to organizations that build skills and prepare residents for employment preparation, so Qajuqturvik offers culinary training and work experience alongside their meal program, which provides 150 to 200 free meals a day for those who walk through their door.

Peugatuk Ettuk, 63, drives his dog team on the sea ice near Arctic Bay. Like many Inuit in his age group, Ettuk grew up in a traditional outpost camp, living almost entirely off traditional foods, until he was pressured by the government to settle in Arctic Bay in his 20s. He was one of the last people in town to drive a dog team, preferring it over a snowmobile. He died in 2015. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Peugatuk Ettuk, 63, drives his dog team on the sea ice near Arctic Bay. Like many Inuit in his age group, Ettuk grew up in a traditional outpost camp, living almost entirely off traditional foods, until he was pressured by the government to settle in Arctic Bay in his 20s. He was one of the last people in town to drive a dog team, preferring it over a snowmobile. He died in 2015.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

They serve traditional and nontraditional foods — polar bear stew made the lunch menu on Nov. 11, the day Thorhaug spoke to NPR. Thorhaug says they're looking for a hunter to come on staff in order to be able to provide the community with more country food options.

"We're just making sure that people can have one reliable meal per day that ideally is as nutritious and as delicious as possible," Thorhaug says. "And also, when it's available, to be as culturally appropriate as possible."

Residents of Arctic Bay gather in the Community Hall for a feast of narwhal muktuq — that's the layer of skin and fat that's high in vitamin C. All are welcome to come with grocery bags and take what they need for their families. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Residents of Arctic Bay gather in the Community Hall for a feast of narwhal muktuq — that's the layer of skin and fat that's high in vitamin C. All are welcome to come with grocery bags and take what they need for their families.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

There's another way the community looks out for its members when it comes to food. In Arctic Bay, people hold community feasts to make sure no one goes hungry. Hunters will lay out the catch, like narwhal, and everyone enjoys the meal in each other's company. This is especially significant for families who may not have the equipment or skills to hunt themselves. They still get a chance to give their children the nutritional benefits of their traditional foods.

On the menu at an Arctic Bay community feast: raw seal ribs, frozen arctic char and narwhal maktaq. Community feasts are held at the Community Hall, where everyone gathers to collect nutritious country foods donated by hunters. The curved ulu knife is used by women to cut skins and butcher animals and as an eating utensil. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

On the menu at an Arctic Bay community feast: raw seal ribs, frozen arctic char and narwhal maktaq. Community feasts are held at the Community Hall, where everyone gathers to collect nutritious country foods donated by hunters. The curved ulu knife is used by women to cut skins and butcher animals and as an eating utensil.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Food-sharing occurs on a smaller scale too, and is a regular part of life in Nunavut. Johnson recalls how her host family would prepare large breakfasts every day and invite neighbors or community members over to share, sometimes even posting about extras on Facebook so that anybody in need of a hearty meal could pop by.

Papatsie says that despite the high rate of food insecurity in the region, she believes the culturally ingrained act of sharing keeps many people from struggling.

While her grandchildren roast marshmallows, Piuyuq Enoogoo cooks a pot of seal meat over a fire made from heather gathered on the nearby tundra. The family was spending a few days of camping and hunting near Arctic Bay. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

While her grandchildren roast marshmallows, Piuyuq Enoogoo cooks a pot of seal meat over a fire made from heather gathered on the nearby tundra. The family was spending a few days of camping and hunting near Arctic Bay.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Darlene Willie scrapes the skin of a ringed seal at her family's hunting camp at Nuvukutaak on Baffin Island to prepare it for use as clothing. Darlene's mother, who was in poor health, had just taught these skills to her daughter. Right: Horizon Willie, 11, holds snow goose eggs she gathered near her family's camp. They harvested hundreds to bring to neighbors who could not make the trip. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Darlene Willie scrapes the skin of a ringed seal at her family's hunting camp at Nuvukutaak on Baffin Island to prepare it for use as clothing. Darlene's mother, who was in poor health, had just taught these skills to her daughter. Right: Horizon Willie, 11, holds snow goose eggs she gathered near her family's camp. They harvested hundreds to bring to neighbors who could not make the trip.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

"Eating has always been kind of sacred to the Inuit because years ago there were a lot of starvations," she says. "So eating together is one of the stronger Inuit customs we have. It's who we are."

And the biggest solution moving forward, she believes, is to invest in programs that keep the Inuit tradition alive by teaching younger generations about hunting, harvesting, weaving and other arts and crafts, even in the face of a changing climate.

Horizon Willie, 11, examines the beak of a snow goose she shot near her family's hunting camp. She used a rifle that she bought with money she won in Arctic Bay's annual ice-fishing competition. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Horizon Willie, 11, examines the beak of a snow goose she shot near her family's hunting camp. She used a rifle that she bought with money she won in Arctic Bay's annual ice-fishing competition.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

Over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest type of Arctic ice has declined by 95%. This threatens the surrounding ecosystems and the people who depend on it for survival.

On her most recent visit to Arctic Bay in the spring of 2018, Johnson accompanied families on camping trips out on the land meant to pass Inuit customs down. There's a stark contrast in the generational divide, she says — some of the elders remember a time before Inuit lived in settled communities, while their grandchildren are growing up in thriving towns with smartphones and social media.

But on those trips, they find common ground in the practices that have kept their communities alive for milleniums.

On the back of a traditional sled (called a qamutik) on the sea ice, the Naqitarvik cousins Isabelle, 6, Julie, 4, and Violet, 8, admire a ringed seal caught by a family member. The girls were accompanying their families on a camping trip to ancestral hunting grounds at a place known as Nuvukutaak. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

On the back of a traditional sled (called a qamutik) on the sea ice, the Naqitarvik cousins Isabelle, 6, Julie, 4, and Violet, 8, admire a ringed seal caught by a family member. The girls were accompanying their families on a camping trip to ancestral hunting grounds at a place known as Nuvukutaak.

Acacia Johnson for NPR

"The vastness of indigenous knowledge really made an impression on me, and it's something that I don't really expect to ever understand," Johnson says. "But it's been an honor to be allowed to witness it."

Inuit elder Olayuk Naqitarvik, 74, washes a ringed seal in fresh water on the surface of the sea ice near Nuvukutaak. Raised in a traditional Inuit lifestyle before moving to Arctic Bay, Naqitarvik was traveling on a camping trip with his family, passing on his knowledge of the land and its animals to the younger generations. Acacia Johnson for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Acacia Johnson for NPR

Inuit elder Olayuk Naqitarvik, 74, washes a ringed seal in fresh water on the surface of the sea ice near Nuvukutaak. Raised in a traditional Inuit lifestyle before moving to Arctic Bay, Naqitarvik was traveling on a camping trip with his family, passing on his knowledge of the land and its animals to the younger generations.

Acacia Johnson for NPR