A Sense of Home Across the Arctic Through Wild Foods
By Harmony Jade Wayner, Student, University Centre of the Westfjords
Today, on January 25, 2021, the sun returns to Ísafjörður, a town in the Westfjords of Iceland. We celebrate with sunshine crepes and a deep sigh of relief, knowing that the sun’s short days of not rising above the mountains and long cold winter nights are over.
I am from Naknek, Alaska, but am currently attending graduate school in Ísafjörður at the University Centre of the Westfjords, in the Coastal and Marine Management Program. My experiences of growing up in Alaska and previously studying in Turku, Finland, I thought, had adequately prepared me for the shock of living abroad in a northern climate. However, with the darker days and COVID lockdowns resulting in online classes, it has been a challenging year resounding across the Arctic and the world.
Throughout my various experiences across the Arctic region, I am amazed at the shared mental attitude derived from coping with nature’s extremes and the cycles of light and dark in northerners’ collective experience. We know how to hunker down in a crisis like a winter storm or pandemic. We know how to emerge with fresh energy once the sun returns, making full use of every hour, and like the cloudberry, maximizing this period of light to produce a delicious product. I think this attitude towards the light cycles also applies to our shared wild foods.
In this period of lockdown and uncertainty, I have contemplated how best to find belonging while in Iceland. I encountered that feeling first while on a hike as I stumbled into a large patch of bláber, Icelandic blueberries, similar to the species that grow in the Aleutian Islands where I lived as a child. At that very first taste, I knew that I felt at home here. Regardless of the uncertainty, I would be okay, as I was gently taken care of by the comforting taste of northern wild foods.
As an indigenous woman from the Arctic, I often feel there are so many boxes that others expect me to fill. Indigenous people in the media are often portrayed as stuck in the past or with anthropologists’ photos from pre-1950. The question for me now, focusing on Indigenous food systems for my thesis work, is “How can we communicate our sense of place, our home here, to others in a modern way?” Also, it sparks the concept of “What inspires a sense of belonging to a place?” In Alaska, my sense of place is found in the family, the food, the familiar smells of tundra, picking blueberries and cloudberries, as well as harvesting wild salmon.
This food, culture, and nature are what we are trying to protect. This is what is valuable and worth fighting for. In a rapidly changing Arctic, how do we inspire connection and belonging? How do we communicate that what may be a novel extreme environment for others is our home? Possibly, the answer lies in further exploration and participation in these collaborative networks, north2north exchanges, and sharing of our experiences and unique challenges facing us across the Arctic region.