“I’ve always wanted to make an impact with my own people,” says Chef Francis, especially with food.
Chef Rich Francis is heading to Aklavik this week in an effort to re-introduce muskox meat to the community through a two-day workshop.
He plans on using the animal “from nose to tail” and making tacos out of the head.
Francis is of Gwich’in and Mohawk descent and he’s planning to elevate traditional foods, such as the muskox, by incorporating elements from other cultures.
“A lot of what I do, you can’t find it in a book,” he says. “It’s always been the Elders who have taught me the pre-colonial stuff.”
He wants to challenge and ultimately re-train people on what they think Indigenous food really is.
When asked what makes a food Indigenous, he replied “anything from Turtle Island.”
“I love international flavours and I’ve found in my experience that the best way to eat Indigenous is also to utilize other cultures as inspiration,” he says.
He wants to break away from the classic meat and potatoes concept of a meal, but fears some resistance and criticism from residents.
He calls it the colonial palate.
“The five white gifts that were given to us (are) flour, salt, sugar, lard and milk,” he says, “those things really interfered with our traditional hunter-gatherer diets.”
Obesity, food security and food access, he notes, plague many northern communities today.
He hopes participants come into the workshop with an open mind, willing to try something new.
“You might like it, it’s fun, it’s creative, and it gets us outside of our comfort zone.”
Despite the elements, one of the skills he plans on teaching members is called barbacoa – essentially cooking meat from a hole dug in the ground, covered with foliage.
But the residents of Aklavik aren’t the only ones in for a new lesson on the impacts of food culture.
Being in his home region again after three years, he says, “this is my learning time. I hope to bring something back with me and have that reflected in my own work.”
“I think that Indigenous people have a lot to contribute by utilizing our voices and our lenses,” he said.
Mastering the muskox
In partnership with the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, dedicated masters’ students, Jessica Norris and Kate Curtis, are studying what’s bringing muskox back to the region, in addition to developing a way to monitor them.
The pair have been working collaboratively for about a year and working closely with local experts on all things muskox.
The muskox program began in April when the students and a local harvester got to explore the Beaufort Delta region and study the effects of re-integrating muskox back into the communities.
The species, Norris admits wasn’t her main reason for her research rather, “one of the most important parts was to be in the ISR (Inuvialuit Settlement Region) and to give back to the communities,” she says.
“I’ve been disconnected in that way. So, it’s been really cool. Just to be up there to see people see family meet new family that I haven’t met before.”
The pair say aside from their research, a big part of the experience was learning from community knowledge holders and implementing that into their reports.
Especially for Curtis as this was her first time experiencing the NWT.
“Something that’s on my mind as an outsider and settler is how I use my positionality to affect the research that I put out and the people that I’m working with,” she says.
Michelle Gruben works with the AHTC and helped lead this program.
“We’ve heard people in Sachs Harbor love the muskox meat. They would prefer that over caribou meat,” she says, “And we just want to know more about working with the muskox.”
The muskox cooking workshop is set to take place from Nov. 19 and 20 at the Aklavik Curling Rink.