Looking Back to Benefit the Future

Posted by Jeff Baird, Program Associate

Margaret Schaeffer wants to make sure her community is prepared to handle challenges of the future, so she founded an organization dedicated to teaching the traditions of the past.

Schaeffer is the founder of Ilinniagvik Attautchikun Corporation (IA), a nonprofit based in Kiana, a village of about 360 people located 520 miles northwest of Anchorage near Kotzebue.

Her goal is to rebuild age-old trading relationships between villages throughout the Northwest Arctic Borough, improve health with traditional foods, and preserve language and traditional skills. Created in 2006, IA works to accomplish its mission primarily through two programs: fuel assistance and a cultural camp. With the aid of California-based SEVA Foundation, IA provides fuel to area villages that is used to support hunting trips throughout the region. Any meat harvested during these hunts is shared regionally, with a focus on providing food to village elders. Last year, IA helped distribute more than 43,000 pounds of food.

The organization’s second focus is its Camp Qalhaq, located about 12 miles outside of Kotzebue on the Noatak River. Community members throughout the region spend time at the camp between June and August learning traditional skills. Last year, about 50 people from the region attended the camp. Camp Qalhaq participants do the same types of things Schaeffer did as a child – smoke salmon, pick berries, can fish. But what’s changed over the last 30 years, and why opportunities like Camp Qalhaq are becoming increasingly important, are the numbers of barriers frustrating access to these activities in rural communities. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to buy a boat and ship it to Kotzebue. For many, that’s simply not an option. Those who do have a boat have to contend with the cost of fuel which is over $7 a gallon in Kotzebue. Public land access is another issue. The spots Schaeffer grew up on are now privately owned parcels and campers must pay a fee. Last, the climate is changing, which has affected everything from the ability to dry and preserve fish to the types of foods available for harvesting. “Elders were showing concern we were losing our cultural way of preserving and protecting our food,” she said. “In 2006, I decided I was going to do something about it.”

Schaeffer is a NANA and Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation shareholder. She has held a variety of jobs in the region, including with NANA and the Maniilaq Association and has the requisite contacts throughout the region for making the cultural camp successful.

Her vision is to turn Camp Qalhaq, which is equipped with tents, a large fish rack, a cabin/cookhouse and outhouses, into a year-round camp for teaching subsistence activities.

“This is basically about health and survival,” Schaeffer said. “Getting away from unhealthy, processed foods and back to our traditional native foods.”


Rasmuson Foundation recently awarded IA $14,500 to help purchase a boat and motor to transport people to Camp Qalhaq.

The Rasmuson Foundation invests both in individuals and well-managed 501(c)(3) organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life for Alaskans.

Learn more at rasmuson.org.

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