Northwest Alaska health provider cleared to serve seal oil to elders

A jar with a translucent liquid
A jar of seal oil processed at the Siglauq building in Kotzebue. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

In Iñupiaq communities, more than any other food, seal oil is a fixture.

“I had it for lunch today,” said Cyrus Harris. “I’ll have it for supper tomorrow.”

Like many Iñupiaq people in the Northwest Arctic, Harris grew up eating traditional foods such as seal oil, caribou and musk ox. When his relatives moved into Maniilaq Health Center’s elder care facility, Utuqqanaat Inaat, he found they weren’t able to eat the same food they’d lived off for years.

“They didn’t choose to be living off the Western diet that they were being served every day,” Harris said. “So I found out I could cook a meal at home and take it to my ahna and taata over at the long term care, and serve it in that manner. But where does that leave the other 18 elders there?”

Seal oil has been a diet staple for Alaska’s Iñupiat people for centuries. But because of federal and state regulations, you can’t buy it in stores, and it can’t be served in restaurants.

Cyrus Harris is in charge of Maniilaq’s hunter support program. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

In 2015, Congress passed a federal farm bill which allowed people to donate wild game they’ve hunted to certified nonprofits, such as hospitals or food banks. Since then, Harris has been in charge of Maniilaq’s hunter support program, which prepares traditional foods for elders in long term care.

The food is processed at the Siglauq, a state-certified meat processing building. The name comes from the Iñupiaq word for the underground ice cellars used to store meat.

“Back in the day, everybody had their own Siglauq,” Harris said. “They had their own underground cold storage.”

Cyrus Harris shows frozen musk ox meat to be served to elders at Maniilaq Health Center’s elder care facility Utuqqanaat Inaat. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

Walking through the Siglauq freezer, Harris described some of the donations.

“These are some products that we will most likely use for our certain potlucks,” Harris said. “This is sheefish filet. We do have moose burger. We do have some musk ox burger.”

While getting wild meat on the menu for elders has gone smoothly for about five years, Harris said seal oil remained prohibited. The only time it could be served was at a potluck, and it had to be brought in from home. It couldn’t be made and served by Maniilaq — until now.

Just outside the freezer in the Siglauq is the main processing room. Sitting on a table are three large drums, with blubber floating in vats of seal oil. Harris describes the process for rendering the oil, which starts by separating the skin and blubber from the carcass.

“Then flesh the blubber from the skin,” Harris said. “And cut into maybe one-inch by three-inch pieces and set into containers like this.”

Three containers of seal oil being rendered by Cyrus Harris. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

Granted, Harris said, most seal oil is made out in the field, not under the strict lab requirements of the Siglauq.

“The best seal oil I ever had was stored in seal pokes,” Harris said. “Seal pokes have a long story behind it. It’s seal hides made into a container.”

While seal oil is generally ingested without incident, a major reason it was restricted was its connection to a foodborne illness called botulism, which can cause nausea, blurry vision, muscle fatigue, and in some cases, death. Since the 1950s, the Maniilaq service area has seen more than 15 outbreaks of the illness tied to eating traditional Native foods.

Chris Dankmeyer is environmental health manager for Maniilaq. For the past few years, he, Harris and others have been collaborating to develop a way to safely render seal oil. Those include food safety scientists at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center as well as microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin. After several years of running lab tests, they found heating seal oil to 176 degrees for 10 continuous minutes made it safe.

“That completely destroys the toxin that may or may not be in the oil,” Dankmeyer said.

Dankmeyer stated the heat treatment has only proven to make pure seal oil safe, not seal oil that contains other traditional additives.

“We’re not keeping blubber in there,” Dankmeyer said. “We’re not throwing in pieces of dry meat. And that’s a traditional thing.”

Chris Dankmeyer displays a sample of seal oil in 2018, when researchers were developing a method to heat treat the oil. (Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Once the seal oil is heat treated, it’s rapidly cooled to prevent the toxin from reforming, and placed in the freezer where all the other traditional foods are.

“And we keep it frozen until it’s time to serve,” Dankmeyer said. “Basically, over there at the hospital, they’re going to dip it out frozen into a serving dish. It’s going to come up to room temp and be eaten.”

Dankmeyer said the last step is ensure Maniilaq’s kitchen staff know how to safely handle and serve the seal oil. For example, it can’t be left out for more than four hours, or it runs the risk of creating more toxin.

In the next few weeks, elders can look forward to seeing plates filled with traditional foods they’ve eaten their whole lives.

One person excited to see the elder’s reactions is Marcella Wilson, who heads Utuqqanaat Inaat. She said elders have been able to eat seal oil during the occasional potluck, and she always sees an immediate reaction.

“It brings back memories,” Wilson explained. “Memories of when they were children, and how they had the seal oil and traditional foods growing up. And that brings about storytelling. And then the storytelling starts bringing about laughter.”

Wilson said that she’s learned a lot about the Iñupiaq culture from the elders, and she expects them to feel more lively as traditional foods become more available.

“I’m not saying there’s magic in it, because there’s not,” Wilson said. “But there is such a nutritional value to it, and such a cultural value to it, that the two together are just immeasurable.”

Dankmeyer said Maniilaq is the first organization in the nation approved to make and serve seal oil. He’s excited to share their process with other organizations in the future.