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  • More Than the Grocery Store: Foraging in Alaska with Tlingit Chef Robert Kinneen

    A man wearing a red bandana and a black apron that reads

    Chef Robert Kinneen prepares a bison flank steak at the Festival's Foodways pavilion. On his apron, he proudly supports the Indigenous Food Lab, a branch of the organization NATIFS, where he works to create menu items using Native ingredients.

    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “I’ve probably learned more about food in the past two and a half years than I have in the past ten years as a chef,” Robert Kinneen reflects.

    Foraging in an Alaskan forest near Fairbanks is now part of his duties as outreach director for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, or NATIFS, a Minnesota nonprofit he joined in 2021. In this forest, spruce tips, which provide a citrusy bite of flavor, wave an arm’s length away. Crowberries, dark and inky, await in the bushes for jelly. Kinneen catches fresh salmon in an icy Alaskan river and dries cedar to season the fish.

    “I love cooking with cedar,” he says. “It opens up into your nose, and the perfume is amazing.”

    At the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Indigenous Voices of the Americas program, Kinneen demonstrated his multifaceted cooking skills daily. As the crowd watched from under the shaded awning, he blended spruce tips and seaweed with spices and sunflower oil to create a bright, briny sauce, while in another pan, he seared salmon to perfection.

    Born in Petersburg, Alaska, a coastal fishing town rimmed with white-capped mountains on Mitkof Island, Kinneen trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He is an expert in European cuisine and handmade pasta, but now he cooks with ingredients you won’t find on an Italian menu.

    His foraged dishes contain only a few of the foods regional to Alaska and used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. Fighting the misconception that Alaska is a food desert, Kinneen, who is Tlingit, responds to a clear need for Indigenous recipes in popular American cuisine.

    A bison flank steak sitting in a white bowl with a vibrant green sauce on top.
    The final result of chef Robert Kinneen’s Foodways demonstration on the final day of the Festival. He prepared a bison flank steak with tepary bean salad and juniper-epazote sauce.
    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In Alaska, ninety-six percent of food is imported, he claims. Yet his hometown contains 10,000 years of history, evident in the figurative petroglyphs that silently line its shore, and the 2,500-year-old carbon-dated Native fish traps still resting in its mud flats.

    “There’s more to a story than what’s on a shelf in a grocery store. People from Utqiaġvik to Ketchikan have not only been living but prospering for thousands of years.”

    However, Kinneen did not grow up with knowledge of his people’s Indigenous foodways.

    Instead, he searched for ways to connect with his community through popular culture, but inspiration didn’t strike until 2009, when he watched in rapt attention as Indigenous skateboarders swept up and down a half-pipe skate ramp. But he and the performers were not at a skatepark; they were inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. During the exhibition Ramp It Up, Jim Murphy, a Lenape skateboarder, wrote positive messages for youth on the bottoms of skateboards.

    After witnessing this fusion of popular culture and traditional Native communities, Kinneen searched for ways to replicate it through his personal passion for food.

    A colorful, painted half-pipe sits inside the Museum of the American Indian. Around and on top of the half-pipe are Native skateboarders, getting ready to show off their tricks.
    Native skaters hit the half-pipe at the Potomac Atrium inside the National Museum of the American Indian to celebrate the Ramp It Up exhibition, which celebrated the cultural impact the sport has in Native communities.
    Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

    “[The exhibition] drew parallels between the food service industry and culture,” Kinneen reflects. “I might not be the most traditional, but I’ve always supported my community. [The exhibition] held a special place for me, identifying and coming to terms with my Indigeneity.”

    His cookbook Fresh Alaska was a creative way to ease himself and others into using Alaska Native ingredients by mixing them into familiar dishes: think moose curry, or muktuk (whale blubber) sushi.

    “When you go into rural areas, they ask you, ‘Do you like whale blubber?’ And I hope you do, because it’s the size of a baby’s head! So how can you approach [Indigenous food] in a way where you can digest it mentally and physically?”

    Kinneen hopes everyone will fall in love with Indigenous food and enjoy eating foods from their home environment, not just their grocery store. Today he lives in North Carolina, works full-time with NATIFS, and mentors his communities in Alaska and in the self-empowering nature of Indigenous cooking. His advice is simple: pay attention.

    “First and foremost is acclimating to your environment. As a little kid, I was brought out to the road to pick berries. That’s not sitting in front of the TV watching something. It’s active. You’re engaging with the community.”

    Alaska Native communities have the advantage of pre-contact Indigenous lifestyles existing within living memory. The dialogue around Indigenous heritage and pre-contact foods in Alaska is still fresh, giving Kinneen more access to traditional knowledge. His concern now is how to preserve this culture.

    “As Indigenous people, we have to drive this narrative, [or] things are appreciated and then appropriated.”

    Preservation, coupled with innovation, fuel Kinneen’s passion to create access to Indigenous foodways across the United States. At NATIFS, he and Sioux chef Sean Sherman work together in the Indigenous Food Lab, a kitchen and educational center, to create new menu items. The lab also has a market area with sixteen contracted Indigenous food vendors. Kinneen builds resources in many ways, from creating recipes with ancestral foods, to assembling information for shopping locally, to learning more about Native ingredients.

    A man wearing a black apron and a red bandana holds up a spruce tip.
    Chef Robert Kinneen holds up a spruce tip, a Native ingredient used in his pan-seared salmon with kombu and foraged vinaigrette recipe, at a Foodways demonstration at the 2024 Festival. Focusing on foraged ingredients, Kinneen's cooking connects back to his Tlingit roots.
    Photo by Mark Roth, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Recently, he has come full circle to his culinary beginnings. His current food interest is corn, allowing him to repurpose his love for kneading pasta dough. Hominy, pozole, tamales, and arepas: he is eager to handle it all.

    “Food is so multisensory. I’m very tactile, and with masa, the pliability is different [from pasta]. It’s exciting to feel so insecure working with something. That’s what I love about food: there’s always another facet to learn.”

    Eowyn Stewart is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a recent graduate with an English major and a minor in art history, and she is interested in creative writing and anthropology.

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