Open access

“We call it soul food”: Inuit women and the role of country food in health and well-being in Nunavut

Publication: Arctic Science
5 March 2024

Abstract

Indigenous knowledge is central to understanding environment and health sciences in the Arctic, yet limited research in these fields has explored the human–animal–environment interface from the unique perspectives of Inuit women. Using a community-led, Inuit-centred research approach, we characterized the use and meaning of country food in the context of community well-being for Inuit women in Nunavut, Canada. In-depth conversational interviews and focus groups (n = 16) were held with Inuit women (n = 10) who are knowledge holders in the Qikiqtani region that hold decades of country food knowledge. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis and constant comparative methods. Inuit women described country food in the context of (1) well-being, connection, and identity, (2) hunger, craving, and healing, (3) food security and nourishment, and (4) change and adaptation. Inuit women described a wide range of country food as central to physical and mental health, food security, identity, culture, healing and medicine. Adaptive strategies were discussed, such as eating more fish when caribou were scarce. This research highlights the critical role of country food for health and well-being for Inuit women and shares knowledge and perspective that is relevant to wildlife and environment researchers, public health practitioners, policy makers, and others interested in advancing health, well-being, and food sovereignty in Inuit communities.

Introduction

Inuit country food (i.e., locally harvested animals and plants from the sea, sky, and land) is a critical contributor to nutrient intake, physical health, and disease prevention for Inuit communities (Kuhnlein et al. 2004; El Hayek et al. 2010; Jamieson et al. 2012; Sheehy et al. 2015; Caughey et al. 2021; Little et al. 2021). Dietary studies and nutrient composition analysis have supported vital knowledge generation and contributed to understanding the importance of country food for Inuit nutrition, health, food security, and mental health outcomes (Lucas et al. 2009; Egeland et al. 2010, 2011; Johnson-Down and Egeland 2010; Kunhlein and Humphries 2017; Skogli et al. 2017; Little et al. 2021; Warltier et al. 2021). While these studies focus on the quantifiable health benefits of country food, less health research has engaged Inuit knowledge and understanding of these phenomenon or explored Inuit perspectives on the role of country food for health and well-being (Rapinski et al. 2018; Caughey et al. 2021; Little et al. 2021).
At the same time, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are deeply linked to the environment (Lemke and Delormier 2017) and, within Inuit Nunangat, Inuit knowledge is central to understanding health, environment, and climate sciences (Rapinski et al. 2018; Huntington et al. 2019; Martinez-Levasseur et al. 2020; Harper et al. 2021). Researchers in public health and medicine are increasingly engaging with qualitative inquiry using methodologies and methods that have historically been considered humanities-based, such as storytelling (Weiss 2001; de Leeuw et al. 2017). Qualitative methods have been applied successfully and rigorously in multiple health disciplines (Guyot et al. 2006; Pilnick and Swift 2011; Burdine et al. 2021), and have advanced understanding of health and well-being within Inuit communities across Canada (Bird et al. 2008, 2009; Harper et al. 2012; Cunsolo Willox et al. 2013a; Egeland et al. 2013; Cunsolo Willox et. al. 2013b). Such approaches to research can reveal rich insights into real world experiences that may be complementary to, or different from, knowledge created using quantitative methods (Braun and Clarke 2014); qualitative research “locates the observer in the world” (Creswell 2007), seeks to learn about and interpret life experiences (Sword 1999), aims to “hear silenced voices” (Creswell 2007), and is particularly well-suited to engage Inuit knowledge of environmental health and nutrition in Inuit communities (Harris et al. 2009). Moreover, qualitative approaches to knowledge generation, knowledge regeneration, and knowledge sharing frequently align with Indigenous research methodology (Smith 2012), and with Inuit-specific methodology advocated for in health research with Inuit communities (Healey and Tagak 2014; McGrath 2018; Ferrazzi et al. 2019).
Indigenous scholars (Kovach 2009; Smith 2012; Tuck and Yang 2012), researchers working with Indigenous communities (Gearheard and Shirley 2007; Jones et al. 2018; McGrath 2018; Ferrazzi et al. 2019), and Inuit in Nunavut (Karetak et al. 2017; Qikiqtani Inuit Association 2019) expect research to engage local knowledge in priority setting and methodology, including research focused on advancing food sovereignty and nutrition (Caughey et al. 2022). Indigenous scholars have called for an epistemological shift, moving past “damaged-centred” research toward strengths based narratives (Tuck 2009; Smith 2012), and circumpolar health scholars have advocated for research focused on the “ways in which Arctic peoples experience good health that could be strengthened” to inform appropriate interventions that support wellness (Cueva et al. 2023). The centring of research in Indigenous community concerns and worldview (Smith 2012) is of particular importance for environmental health, nutrition, and food sovereignty focused research with Inuit communities, where country food is central to cultural identity and holds a unique place within Inuit food systems (Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019; Hauptmann et al. 2020; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021).
Although country food has been linked to Inuit identity, culture, economics, health and way of life (Searles 2002; Sowa 2015; Fletcher 2017; Ready and Power 2018; Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019; Newell and Doubleday 2020; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021), limited research has explored perspectives and experience of Inuit women (Beaumier et al. 2015). Inuit women hold unique and rich knowledge of the environment and of country food preparation within Inuit food systems and community health (Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada 2006). Furthermore, Inuit women involved in our research team who are holders of decades of country food knowledge identified this research as a priority (Caughey et al. 2022). Therefore, the objectives of our research were to characterize the role and meaning of country food for Inuit women, and to offer this lived experience and perspective to inform and advance environment, health and food security research, policy and practice in Inuit communities.

Methods

Nunavut

Inuit Nunangat describes the Inuit homeland in Canada, an area that occupies 35% of the land mass of Canada and is home to 51 Inuit communities (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2018a). Nunavut, the largest region in Inuit Nunangat, is home to approximately 30 100 Inuit living in 25 communities, all of which are accessed only by air (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2018a) (Fig. 1). This research took place in the Qikiqtani region, located in the eastern region of Nunavut. Inuit communities in Canada experienced significant change in the early 1900s resulting from numerous colonial policies and initiatives that altered, and continue to impact, Inuit society (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021). These changes included relocations, forced settlement programs, and residential schooling, with consequent disruptions to families, food harvesting practices, and life skills transfer. In the context of historical and ongoing colonization, systemic racism, and limited access to culturally relevant healthcare (Cueva et al. 2023), disparities exist between Inuit in Canada and non-Indigenous Canadians; Inuit in Canada experience a significant life expectancy gap of over 10 less years than non-Indigenous Canadians (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2018a), and food insecurity rates in Nunavut are consistently the highest in Canada (St-Germain et al. 2019). Within this challenging reality, Inuit women identified that country food represents an important strength within Inuit food systems and within community health and well-being in Nunavut.
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Map of Nunavut Canada, identifying three regions of Nunavut including the Qikiqtani Region where this research occurred.

Research approach

This study was part of a transdisciplinary research project led by a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers from the natural and health sciences, utilizing community-led participatory research development principles described in detail elsewhere (Caughey et al. 2022). Briefly, our team conducted multiple workshops and meetings in Nunavut communities to engage Inuit women working in the health field in developing a food security and climate change focused reserch program. Reserach questions focused on existing Inuit knowledge to support country food use and community health. The Inuit-led process of identifying research questions to address food security and climate change adaptation in Nunavut followed a community-centred, locally informed research approach, guided by the National Inuit Strategy on Research (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2018b) and by decolonizing approaches to research with Indigenous communities (Kovach 2009; Smith 2012). Considering pandemic travel restrictions, this research was carried out both in person, and virtually in four communities in the Qikiqtani Region during spring 2022. This research was approved by the University of Guelph Research Ethics Board, University of Alberta Research Ethics Board, and the Nunavut Research Institute (License #0101721 N-M).

Gathering and analyzing the data

We engaged in a modified constructivist, grounded theory approach (Creswell 2007) to provide an inductive, structured, and systematic method of collecting and analyzing conversations about country food (Charmaz 2006; Creswell 2007; Chapman et al. 2015). We sought to explore the meaning and lived experience that Inuit women hold of country food for themselves, their families, and their communities (Creswell 2007); therefore, a conversational approach to data collection was used, described by Kovach as one aligning with Indigenous worldview that “honours orality as a means of transmitting knowledge” (Kovach 2010). These conversations, along with active listening (McGrath 2018) and slow narrative (Ferrazzi et al. 2019) aimed to support and prioritize the lived experience, meaning, and values of Inuit women (Creswell 2007; Pilnick and Swift 2011).
Ten Inuit women living in the Qikiqtani region of Nunavut who are country food consumers and knowledge holders (Pilnick and Swift 2011) were invited to participate in an in-depth interview, or a small focus group conversation through theoretical sampling (Charmaz 2006). All women were over age 50, focusing the research on knowledge held within communities over many decades and on knowledge holders who have been involved with providing for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and family. Topics discussed were guided by the interest area of each woman, and included the meaning of country food for women and their families, country food for children, country food preparation, and historical contexts that woman brought to the conversations. Although translation was available, all participants chose to conduct conversations primarily in English; during two focus groups there was some Inuktitut language spoken with simultaneous interpretation to English. Conversations ranged from approximately 30 to 70 min. Each woman chose to participate in one, two, or three research conversations, allowing for in-depth perspectives to emerge (Seidman 2006). A total of 10 Inuit women participated in a total of 14 interviews and two focus groups (consisting of three participants). Conversations were digitally audio recorded with informed consent and transcribed verbatim by a professional transcription company.
A modified thematic analysis was used as a analytic approach (Braun and Clarke 2006, 2014; Chapman et al. 2015) for coding the data and identifying themes (Braun and Clarke 2014) and patterned responses across the dataset (Braun and Clarke 2006). A constant comparison method was applied to establish analytic distinctions (Charmaz 2006), comparing transcripts with inductive, open coding allowing themes to emerge from the data (Creswell 2007). Data underwent initial coding through close reading of the data, and subsequently focused coding to sort, synthesize, integrate, and organize the data (Charmaz 2006). Transcripts were initially coded and reviewed by lead author, and then codes were discussed, revised, and refined with the research team. In support of the constant comparison, reflexive memo-writing was used throughout the research process. This comprised written notes and reflections to support data organization, synthesis, and development of iterative themes (Charmaz 2006). Memos were used to identify codes, categories, and links in the country food conversations, and formed a methodological journal (Charmaz 2006; Birks et al. 2008). Charting and clustering were used to organize themes and visualize the data (Charmaz 2006). Themes that emerged from the coded data informed theory development, which was compared and checked with both existing and new data (Chapman et al. 2015). To support a participatory research approach, themes were discussed, revised, refined, and checked with Inuit women involved in the research to ensure authenticity, reliability, and validity (Anderson 2010).

Results

Inuit women identified country food as a necessary source of nourishment and food security, and linked country food to supporting mental and physical well-being, community and family connection, identity, satisfying hunger and craving, feelings of stability and home, and healing and medicine. Women described a strong and positive emotional connection with a wide variety of country foods they consumed and enjoyed, discussed how country food systems are changing in their life, and discussed the ways they are adapting to broader environmental and societal changes in country food systems. A visual synthesis of results is presented in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. Main themes emerging from in-depth research conversations (n = 16) with Inuit women (n = 10) who are country food knowledge holders in the Qikiqtani region of Nunavut, Canada.

“We call it soul food”: well-being, sharing, connection, and identity

All knowledge holders described the centrality and interconnectedness of country food to identity, culture, and well-being. As one woman summarized, “Country food is part of who we are as Inuit. It is absolutely part of us”. Another woman expressed that country food was central to her life, stating “our diet tells us who we are”. The deep associations to country food held by Inuit women were expressed by some as a “connector” to the body, mind, and soul. One knowledge holder explained:
When you haven't had country food in a while and you finally have it, it's like okay, this is what has been missing. This is what's been missing in my life. It just brings you back home… and the whole body, mind, and soul get connected and you are back home to your life as an Inuk person.
References to “home”, and the comforting and stabilizing role of country food in bringing one “back home” were frequently discussed. One woman described the feeling of home she experienced when she ate fish gills, recalling: “(when I ate them) my mind got better…. Because my mother use to eat gills, and by watching, at home (I learned) how to prepare it”. Feelings associated with eating country food and sharing country food were described using words such as “beautiful”, “rich”, “happy”, “stabilizing”, “connection”, and “comfort”. One community leader described the importance of country food to herself and to her family that extended beyond food for physical nourishment: “A lot of people say it (country food) is soul food. We call it soul food, good for our soul and our body.” Another knowledge holder shared that “when you have fish, caribou, seal in your freezer, it is the greatest feeling on Earth. You feel very rich”. Women described the happiness associated with the common practice of eating country food with others, for example, the profound joy of being involved in a gathering of women eating beluga whale together:
That's the best experience I ever had in my whole life, when the beluga is caught. The tail part is for women. You can ask other women to eat with you. I love it when we have a whale tail party, just to experience all that noise, the happy noise that they are talking and eating beluga tail together, it's like you can hear happy sounds. Eating beluga tail together, everyone is excited, everything being cut and shared.
This sentiment was echoed by others who described the connection between sharing country food and positive feelings, describing how country food is “stabilizing” and “boosts our system”. One woman described the role of country food in the context of supporting mental health and healing:
The whole eating together thing is so good for our mental health too… just the fact of having country food together without being forced to do anything else, that in itself will do the healing part… because it connects you back to your core, from where you came from.
The importance of country food sharing and connection within the family was also considered by women, including the importance of introducing country food at a young age: “We were always encouraged to start when they're babies for them to start learning that taste, that's where you start to give them small bits, and children can enjoy country food” adding that country food can be an “acquired taste”. The importance of eating together and the positive aspects of eating country food with children were commonly discussed. Women related their own experiences as children growing up, observing that “we grow up eating with other people”, and explaining that country food “was such a natural part of our diet growing up, so I crave it”. Another community leader summarized the significance of growing up with country food: “It's an everyday thing, everyday thing! You need it… it's good for your body, your mind, your health. And when you grow up with country food, you constantly need it”.

“You can't go without it”: hunger, craving, and healing

All women expressed that country food was something they had to eat often, using phrases such as “I need country food,” and explaining “I have to eat it almost every other day, it's very much in my diet”. One woman stated: “in our generation, we ate country food every day, I still have to have it every day or every second day”. The notion of being “hungry” was frequently described in the context of not having country food to eat. As one grandmother explained: “you cannot live just on (food) from the (grocery) store, no…. if you eat a lot of store-bought meat, you're constantly hungry”. Another knowledge holder described the role of country food in satiety as: “if I eat walrus meat, I will not be hungry for a long time, I can be filled up longer with walrus meat than any other meat”.
The concept of “craving” country food was also frequently discussed. One community leader shared the story of an elder who craved for a whole caribou, a caribou with all parts of the animal, but was only able to get part of the caribou without the stomach, the liver, or the lungs. Her craving for the entire caribou was described as a “craving that hurts to the core”; she craved to experience the entire caribou and experience the taste and the smell associated with eating the entire animal. This story was shared with deep lament and disappointment that the elder could not have the food she desired. Others described the challenge of not having country food they were craving: “We grew up with country food. When it's not available and we are craving it, it is really awful”. Others expressed a longing for parts of an animal that they ate less frequently, but craved nonetheless, stating: “(Boiled) polar bear feet… they are the best”! and “The walrus flippers, I love them fermented… (I love) the smell”. The positive associations with eating a wide variety of animal species and organs were expressed by all women. Many women discussed the role of country food for supporting health at different life stages, for example when breastfeeding: “I would have to have seal broth, whale broth, or caribou broth, or harp seal broth… you just boil the meat… those are very rich in nutrition. They are very healthy for the baby”. Others described the importance of country food for elders and those who are sick: “Their body is completely changed, because that craving that they want when they are sick, the country food will help them either way, every way… their condition, their mind. Any country food will help a person”. Another woman explained that for people who are sick, “we always have to give them what they're craving for, that's part of healing”.
The concept of “healing” properties of country food was summarized by one community health worker: “Country food is medicine. When elders crave something, and then they have it, their spirits are better, their health is better, after they eat the country food they have been craving for”. This sentiment was shared by others, who described examples of the role of country food in supporting mental health: “Ptarmigan heals the mind. Mental well-being is very connected to ptarmigan. Harp seal (ugjuk) is another important medicine for mental health in South Baffin, and of course walrus and seal igunaq”. Seaweed was also discussed as important for healing, one woman describing it as “a very important plant from the sea to cure”. Seal meat was described as supplying the “feeling of strong”; another woman described the experience of eating seal meat as “it envelopes you from the inside, it makes you strong and invincible”.

“It's a beautiful thing”: food and nourishment

Country food was described as a critical source of nutrition for Inuit women and their families. For many women, discussions about the meaning of country food included the wide variety of country food species and parts of an animal that are consumed within their family and in their community, alongside the rich emotions and positive feeling that accompanied preparing, sharing, and consuming country food. Women discussed the “beautiful” and “exciting” experience of eating many parts of an animal and enjoying specifically prepared foods, sometimes described as “delicacies”. For instance, one knowledge holder enthusiastically described the joy of eating a variety of beluga whale organs:
Beluga lungs cooked, they are very chewy and lovely…. We eat the skin, we eat the meat, the intestines, the heart are all eaten. All the skin and all the meat, the cartilage is delicious, everything is eaten. The skin can be fermented too, it is really good.
The importance of organs as a food source, and the large variety of meat, fat, organs, and skin of the animal that are eaten was discussed by many women, who described deep connections to these food sources. For instance, several women described a love for eating the heads of animals: “I love eating heads of anything, especially from goose”, others expressing with longing and excitement “The heads of an animal are the best part, like seal, and walrus head is for the men, the meat, the brain, the tongue on the head…. very, very good…. Pretty much all heads can be eaten”. Stomachs and stomach contents were frequently discussed as important food sources. One woman described her excitement and love for walrus stomach contents: “When my husband catches a walrus, I wish all the time that the stomach is full! Because usually when it's full, it's fresh clams… I love it”. Another woman described that “Caribou stomachs are one of my favourites…. They definitely have their own unique taste but it's a taste that brings you back home. It's a beautiful thing”.

“We are adapting in another way”: change and adaptation

Women shared a variety of experiences related to environmental and societal changes impacting country food systems. Challenges in access and availability of country food were discussed by all women; most often, these experiences evoked feeling of loss, sadness, and frustration related to decreased access to country food, or challenges in securing country food. One woman stated: “It's quite hard, because (caribou) was always available, now it's not so much”. Others expressed similar lament and frustration with not being able to access caribou because of many years of caribou hunting restrictions on caribou in the Qikiqtani region: “That (frustrated) is what you start to become when you're craving so much for your soul food and when you can't get it”. Caribou was commonly discussed with participants, who reflected on the negative impats of caribou hunting restrictions on food sources: “you can't just go out and hunt for it…. That was one meat that was a big part of our diet growing up”. One grandmother described her experience in coping with restrictions on caribou harvesting: “I finally got into more fish than we have ever had, more so than before… and my grandkids love fish… we are adapting in another way, that we were not brought up with”.
For others, social changes impacted country food access and availability. One woman discussed population growth in her community: “We want to eat country food, but the lack of it, there are so many people in the community now, there is sometimes less sharing outside of family members, because there is not enough.” Events related to the COVID-19 lockdown in Nunavut were discussed by several women in relation to country food availability; significant financial assistance was provided to support community country food access in Nunavut for 2 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, but financial assistance stopped several months before this research occurred. One woman lamented:
During COVID, we had plenty of country food because there was money for hunters to catch it and distribute it to the community. But that [money] is not around anymore, the money ran out, so country food is not as available now as when COVID was around. That was the good part about it [COVID].
Women also identified changing country food practices they had adapted to and embraced throughout their life. For instance, one grandmother discussed generational difference in food preparation, explaining, “for me, cooking country food naturally, just boiling it is the healthiest way for me, and that's all I need…. Younger generations are more prone to adding many (other ingredients) to it”. Women described exploring opportunities to try country food that was new to them, such as one person who received muskox for the first time:
I just boiled it. It was very, very tough because I had never cooked muskox before. I didn't think it would take as long as a polar bear or a walrus, but it was still good. Just like caribou I dipped it in fermented oil, and I got my needs met right then and there.
Women reflected on uses of country food to address challenges such as food insecurity, for example describing the significance of walrus, a large animal: “Walrus meat, you can share it, lots of meat, lots of people can share from one walrus”. Further, women shared solutions and adaptation strategies to address changes to their personal country food systems and support country food access, particularly focusing on programs that support young people to be engaged in country food harvesting and preparation. One grandmother stated: “we need more (hunting) programs, we need young people to know these things… young people are losing the skills to go out on the land, they need hunting gear”, and “if the Hunters and Trappers Organization is going to distribute country food, we will need a community freezer”. Women also identified the importance of having country food in the school environment, to support children to be familiar with country food. One knowledge holder reflected on the importance of country food for children in school:
If they haven't had it for a while at home because they cannot get it, they are very lucky that they can have it at school. So, in every region, if that can happen in schools, buy country food – because once you start cutting them up… you don't need a whole big piece … you need your craving fixed, but even if it's a least a small bit it will help students…. And everyone's happy.

Discussion

This research responds to the growing call to engage Inuit knowledge in environmental and health research, and to support country food consumption for health and well-being for Inuit communities in Canada (Ootoova et al. 2001; Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019; Martinez-Levasseur et al. 2020; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021), and throughout the circumpolar north (Hauptmann et al. 2020). It is clear from the voices and lived experience of Inuit women in the Qikiqtani region of Nunavut that country food is integral to physical and mental health, and remains vital to culture, identity, cravings, healing, and nourishment. Country food instills feelings of cultural connection, and eating country food was associated with positive and deep emotions: happiness, connectedness, stability, comfort, and feelings of “home”. Inuit have long communicated this centrality of country food to culture, well-being, food preference, and overall food sovereignty (Ootoova et al. 2001; Bennett and Rowley 2004; Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021). The current study adds a health and well-being lens to this conversation and adds to the limited works focused on country food knowledge perspectives of Inuit women (Ootoova et al. 2001; Karetak, Tester and Tagalik 2017), in particular the significant health benefits of country food beyond physical health.
Improving and supporting mental health is a priority of many northern, Indigenous communities (Middleton et al. 2020; Blondin et al. 2021), including Inuit communities in Canada (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2014), and mental health for Inuit communities is strongly linked with the environment and ability to access and connect with the land (Cunsolo Willox et al. 2012, 2013a; Middleton et al. 2020; Harper et al. 2021). Inuit women in the Qikiqtani region clearly associated consuming country food with positive mental health and well-being, and frequently equated country food with positive feelings that feed the mind and the soul; at the same time, not having country food was linked to negative feelings for all women in this study. Nearly 30 years ago, social science research discussed the centrality of country food to cultural identity, and to maintaining the body and the soul: “To be healthy is to be “warm”… A warm body is the source of the energy which keeps a person active and prevents depression, a sickness of the soul” (Borré 1994). While research has described the mental health benefits of engagement with the environment, of land-based activities and of practicing culture (Cunsolo Willox et al. 2012, 2013a, 2015; Young et al. 2015; Blondin et al. 2021), this study demonstrates that consumption of country food, in and of itself, continues to have mental health benefits for Inuit women. Given calls for enhanced mental health supports for Inuit communities, further consideration of the benefits of country food in the context of mental health are warranted (Qikiqtani Inuit Association 2019). Focused consideration of country food in health policy and practice may support calls from Northern scholars (Blondin et al. 2021; Cueva et al. 2023) and Inuit organizations (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021) to advance and promote strengths based, protective factors that enhance mental health and well-being.
Women also highlighted the paramount importance of supporting country food consumption for children and youth through various ways including early exposure to country food and involving children in eating together. While watching and learning about country food at home was discussed as a critical factor for supporting country food for children, women also identified the school environment as one that can support country food availability and exposure. Evidence suggests that country food contributes to nutrient intake and food security for Inuit children, and strengthening country food sharing networks for Inuit children has been identified as a means of protecting children from food insecurity (El Hayek et al. 2010; Johnson-Down and Egeland 2010; Egeland et al. 2011). This is of particular importance given both concerns with diet related health status observed in Inuit children (Tracey Galloway et al. 2010; Caughey et al. 2021), and the role of nutrition in childhood contributing to long-term health (Schwarzenberg and Georgieff 2018). Moreover, Indigenous diets and activity have been described as protective factors for chronic disease (Damman et al. 2008). Our research supports previous work highlighting the importance of country food in the diet of children in Inuit communities (Johnson-Down and Egeland 2010; Galloway et al. 2012; El Hayek Fares and Weiler 2016), and highlights an example of community-based solutions called for to advance health and wellness for circumpolar communities (Cueva et al. 2023).
Given that Inuit women identified the strong role that country food plays in “holistic” health and wellbeing for themselves and their communities, existing challenges to country food availability and access are concerning. Inuit women identified community-level protective mechanisms to support country food access that have been previously expressed by Inuit communities (Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019), such as opportunities for youth to participate in land activities, sharing country food knowledge, and funding to support community harvesting (Cunsolo Willox et al. 2013a; Karetak et al. 2017; Carter et al. 2019). While women described the ability to adapt to the kinds of country food they consume (i.e., cooking muskox for the first time, eating more fish now) in response to a variety of external pressures, women also identified that limited access to country food remains a major concern and lack of caribou has negatively impacted family food security and person well-being. Other Inuit regions in Canada have observed significant health impacts related to decreased ability to harvest caribou, including negative impacts to physical health, mental health, and intergenerational knowledge sharing (Cunsolo et al. 2020; Borish et al. 2021). As well, previous food security research engaging Inuit women in Nunavut suggests that reliance on a small number of country food species may place women at further risk of food insecurity if those species are disrupted (Beaumier et al. 2015). These findings resonate with our research, where Inuit women described enjoying a wide variety of animal meat, fat, and organs, and identified the importance of Inuit knowledge associated with eating these. Inuit country food knowledge sharing that supports consumption of a wide variety of country food species and parts of an animal can build adaptive capacity for communities with changing access to country food species (Lambden et al. 2007; Egeland et al. 2013). Indeed, eating a wide variety of country food species and parts of an animal supports the consumption of a range of important nutrients necessary for humans (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Moreover, the preparation of country foods requires Inuit knowledge that has evolved to support this wide variety of country food to be consumed (Qikiqtani Inuit Asociation 2019; Hauptmann et al. 2020). Inuit have expressed concerns that such practices for preparing traditional food are at risk of being lost; given the critical role of country food preparation in sustaining nutrition, health and culture, efforts to support the protection and sharing of these skills and knowledge are needed (Hauptmann et al. 2020; Caughey et al. 2022).
Stories that Inuit women shared about the parts of the animal that are eaten, and the methods used to prepare country food for consumption, are extremely relevant for informing both environment and public health policy. Nutrition studies undertaken in Nunavut communities using quantitative methodologies have provided important knowledge to generally describe country food consumption. Yet, qualitative methods employed in our study revealed “phenomena not easily measured” (Harris et al. 2009) by exploring the wide variety and preference of foods Inuit women consume, including meat, organs, skin, fat, parts of the animal (such as enjoying eating animal heads). Further, these conversations identified important gender differences in food item preference, such as whale tail for women, or saving the walrus head for men (Little et al. 2023). Although the use of qualitative methods to inform “nutrition assessment” in Inuit communities is limited (Caughey et al. 2021; Little et al. 2021), these methods have been shown to explain gendered dimensions of food intake, nutrient accumulation, and contaminant exposure (Little et al. 2019, 2023). Community interviews have informed understanding and food harvest studies of important marine foods (Rapinski et al. 2018). Community storytelling has assisted in comprehensive understandings of walrus ecology and food safety (Martinez-Levasseur et al. 2020). Further engagement of rigorous qualitative methods in human health and environment research with Inuit communities can serve to advance understanding of the human–animal–environment interface, in particular within the context of continuing threats of climate change and impacts to food and water systems (Harper et al. 2021).
Within the disciplines of public health nutrition and wildlife science, Inuit-centred research methodologies such as storytelling can—and must—support understanding of zoonotic disease risk and food-borne illness prevention, environmental contaminant exposure studies, and research aimed to promote and protect country foods as a critical element of Inuit health and well-being (Lambden et al. 2007). Nutrition interventions and community initiatives that prioritize country food as a foundational food for Inuit communities not only stand to strengthen nutritional well-being, but also may reinforce a cascade of mental health and well-being supports for women and their families. Country food is a key contributor to diet quality in Inuit communities (Kuhnlein et al. 2006, 2008; Kuhnlein and Receveur 2007; Berti et al. 2008) and is central to culture, way of life, and food preference for Inuit (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2021).
In addition to economic and food composition studies that have characterized country food as “nutritionally priceless” (Warltier et al. 2021), our work shows that country food contributions to mental health, identity, connection, satisfying hunger, healing, medicine, and overall well-being may too be considered priceless for Inuit women. Strengthening nutrition and health interventions requires an understanding of local values and meanings of culturally important foods (Nu and Bersamin 2017); understanding these phenomenon through Inuit voices, lived experience and perspective on country food serves to advance Inuit food sovereignty, culturally relevant public health and environment policy, and overall health and wellbeing for Inuit communities.

Acknowledgements

Sincere gratitude to the women who participated in these conversations about country food and who shared so generously of their time and knowledge. Thank you to Elisapee Johnson (Nunavut Embrace Life Council) for invaluable discussions related to the results and discussion. Thank you to the Nunavut Research Institute (Jamal Shirley and Aksaqtunguaq Ashoona) in Iqaluit, Nunavut for your support of this research. Thank you to Piruqatigiit Resource Centre (Jennifer Noah) in Iqaluit, Nunavut for sharing space to meet and carry out this research. Continued thanks to the Niqivut Silalu Asijiipalliajuq: Our Food and Climate Change research program team for contributions and guidance of this research, and to Kelsey Robertson for your ongoing assistance. Qujannamiik!

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Information & Authors

Information

Published In

cover image Arctic Science
Arctic Science
Volume 10Number 2June 2024
Pages: 321 - 331

History

Received: 4 July 2023
Accepted: 14 November 2023
Version of record online: 5 March 2024

Notes

The article was originally published with minor spelling errors in the abstract that are now corrected.
This paper is part of a collection entitled “Indigenous Approaches to Arctic Environmental Sciences”.
This research was licensed by the Nunavut Research Institute Scientific Research License (#0101721 N-M) and received Institutional Ethics approval by the University of Guelph and the University of Alberta.

Data Availability Statement

Data generated or analyzed during this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Key Words

  1. Inuit
  2. country food
  3. nutrition
  4. indigenous health and well-being
  5. food sovereignty
  6. one health

Authors

Affiliations

Department of Health, Government of Nunavut, Iqaluit, NU, Canada
Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Validation, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
Pitsiula Kilabuk
Department of Health, Government of Nunavut, Pangnirtung, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Theresa Koonoo
Department of Health, Government of Nunavut, Iqaluit, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Igah Sanguya
Community Health Representative, Clyde River, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Martha Jaw
Community Health Representative, Kinngait, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Jean Allen
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Iqaluit, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Michelle Doucette
Department of Health, Government of Nunavut, Iqaluit, NU, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Methodology, and Writing – review & editing.
Jan Sargeant
Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Methodology, Supervision, and Writing – review & editing.
Helle Moeller
Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, ON, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Methodology, Supervision, and Writing – review & editing.
Sherilee L. Harper
Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Project administration, Supervision, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization: AC, PK, TK, IS, MJ, JA, MD, JS, HM, SLH
Data curation: AC, PK, TK, IS, MJ, SLH
Formal analysis: AC, PK, IS, MJ, SLH
Funding acquisition: AC, SLH
Investigation: AC
Methodology: PK, TK, IS, MJ, JA, MD, JS, HM, SLH
Project administration: SLH
Validation: AC
Supervision: JS, HM, SLH
Writing – original draft: AC, SLH
Writing – review & editing: AC, PK, TK, IS, MJ, JA, MD, JS, HM, SLH

Competing Interests

The authors report no conflict of interest.

Funding Information

University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College Graduate Scholarship
This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Ontario Veterinary College Graduate Scholarship.

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