As per tradition, every year the village hosts a potluck dinner on Thanksgiving. Everyone is welcome.
Before dinner, dishes are announced as well as who they are for (elders, children, everyone, etc.). They also announce what the dish celebrates, from my understanding most of the celebrations are that of first kills. A four year old behind me was celebrating his first fish.
The school gym was packed. I had been waiting on a tray of cookies and showed up a few minutes late, just in time for prayer and the festivities to begin.
The first thing I noticed was the amount of people that fit into our gym. I had never seen so many adults in the village in one place at the same time. Then, as I handed off the dish I brought and found some students to whom I promised a fresh baked cookie, I noticed that there were plastic bags of maqtaq (bowhead whale blubber) and whale meat being handed out to each family. What a wonderful gift for which to give thanks.
All of our lunch tables were stretched out and the bleachers were down. As there were no more spots at the tables, Brittni, my roommate, a coworker and I took a small corner of a bleacher on the edge of the room.
Sitting on the edge was a wonderful way for me to get to take it all in: the smells, the sights, the people. Everyone was sitting around, eating, laughing, and having a generally good time.
In my experience, most potlucks and Thanksgiving dinners have been buffets. Not this time. Volunteers walked around serving dishes to its recipients, offering whatever they had in their pot.
It was bring your own dishes, so there we sat with a bowl in hand, unsure of how the night would proceed.
The village had decided that they wanted more traditional dishes at Thanksgiving. This meant less turkey (or spaghetti) and more Inupiaq dishes, dishes that were created with plants animals from the region.
The first dish was caribou stew. We shared it amongst ourselves (and the first grader that was joining us) and even dipped the bread rolls being passed around in the broth.
Dish after dish came and every time we asked for a little to share.
Of course, there were some dishes that we weren’t offered (for elders only) and there were some things that we had a chance to taste off of the amazing and kind family sitting behind us.
All in all we ate:
- Caribou Stew
- Caribou Fried Rice
- Maqtaq (a cut of bowhead blubber and skin)
- Seal meat
- Lettuce salad dressed in seal oil with herring eggs, roots, fin, seal meat and more
- Aqpik (Salmonberry) pie
- Three variations of Eskimo ice cream (Eskimo ice cream is dairy free…just berries mixed in whipped caribou fat.)
- Frozen fish – we took it home and did not eat it then and there
- Turkey neck
- Cranberry broth (it was soup like and warm, almost like a cranberry cider)
- Caribou heart and tongue soup (this was something that reminded me of my family back home and our holidays with Booyah made from cow tongue). One my student’s moms made it and she made sure I took some home.
- Soup with oysters, shrimp, and beluga.
The night ended with some traditional dances and an invite for everyone to join…including teachers….so naturally, Brittni and I danced, but not in our usual way, as some students came to join us and others giggled from the sidelines.
I left STUFFED…and with a little bit of a starting migraine from all of the new foods. I was only a little nervous because I’d heard stories about bathroom emergencies caused by outsiders first experiences with too much seal oil. We hadn’t known the salad was dressed in it at first. I’d also heard stories about it having strange effects on white people, aside from uncontrollable bowel movements. Aside from a headache, some pacing and giggling, and the need to not eat for a very long while, everything was great!
I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and for the people that have made me feel welcome and at home. I never thought I would spend a Thanksgiving in the arctic eating Inupiaq foods. Heck, when I was growing up, I never imagined I’d spend a holiday away from home. So a thank you to my family and their undying support of my life decisions.
The following day we did a teacher Thanksgiving and all gathered in a classroom to share our favorite family dishes. This was a little more like what I was used to…turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, broccoli salad, taco plate, macaroni and cheese, and tons and tons of pie!