wooden walkway through low plant with snowy mountains in the distance
Southern Greenland where a cross-disciplinary project on fermented foods is centered. (Daniel Lyberth Hauptmann)

Inuit Foodways Connect Colleges and Continent

National Science Foundation Funds Study of Fermented Foods in Greenland

pink colored meat and knife
Iginneq (seal fat) is the main fermented food of southern Greenland.

Connections that UC Davis scholars built across campus and continents have led to a $298,000 National Science Foundation award to engage with Inuit fermenters in Greenland and support them in identifying the challenges and opportunities for creating a resurgence in Inuit fermented foods. Their research is part of Navigating the New Arctic,” one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas.

The project is co-directed by Jessica Bissett Perea, associate professor of Native American studies in the College of Letters and Science, and Maria Marco, professor of food science and technology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in collaboration with Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann, an assistant professor at the University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik, and Stephanie Maroney (Ph.D., cultural studies, ’18), Mellon Public Scholars Program manager at the UC Davis Humanities Institute. 

The team of four will travel to southern Greenland next fall to identify critical research needs as it pertains to food security and to reverse negative narratives about Inuit fermented foods. The main fermented food of the Inuit from the area is iginneq (seal fat). 

“Our project explicitly refuses extractive research models and instead centers on conversations with Greenlandic communities about how to support and generate Inuit-led projects grounded in Inuit knowledges,” said Perea, who is Denaʼina from Alaska. “In these times, research has to be done differently than in the past, and part of that is respecting Indigenous people’s lived experiences and expertise. There is a growing awareness in academia regarding the need to promote equity in research and we hope ‘Navigating the New Arctic’ is part of that.”

Marco added, “We’re not going in as experts, but to listen to the community.”

While this is a planning grant, it could pave the way for deeper collaborations with Inuit communities in Greenland, the University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik, and additional support from the NSF, team members said.

Building a cross-disciplinary collaborative

The research and ensuing award developed through multiple channels and connections.

In 2019, Hauptmann, a microbiologist whose work has been widely covered in both scientific and popular media, was looking for an institution to do a postdoctoral fellowship where she could learn more about fermentation. “After finishing my Ph.D. in microbial ecology of snow and ice environments, I wanted to work with something closer to my community,” said Hauptmann, who is Inuk from southern Greenland. “When I moved back to Greenland, I started looking at our food, and then at fermented food, because that’s where the microbes are.”

Hauptmann reached out to Marco, an expert on fermentation, to discuss using a Carlsberg Foundation postdoctoral fellowship to work with Marco. Making and consuming fermented foods like kimchi and kombucha have become popular in recent years, and grew even more so during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“Fermented foods have been labeled a ‘superfood,’” Marco said.

image of woman with light skin and medium dark hair taken outdoors
Jessica Bissett Perea

Hands-on class for students

In early 2020, Marco began searching for a UC Davis colleague to team up with for Science, Humanities and Arts: Process and Engagement (SHAPE), made possible through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award that funds and supports classes taught jointly by science and humanities faculty. She found Perea, a musicologist, and the two developed the class “Radical Story: Performing Relational Approaches to Inuit Food Fermentation and Food Security.”

photo of woman with blond hair in blue blouse taken outside
Maria Marco

Marco also connected to Maroney through fermentation workshops that Maroney was leading at the Yolo County Library. Her expertise with community-engaged research and food fermentation practices made her a perfect addition to the team. Once the four came together, they launched the UC Davis Humanities Institute-funded research cluster, Radical and Relational Approaches to Fermentation and Food Sovereignty. The team collaborated with the UC Davis Feminist Research Institute to submit the NSF grant application.

This fall, the four are co-teaching the “Radical Storywork” course, which has students making sauerkraut and culturing microbes on petri dishes; visiting sites that acknowledge the UC Davis campus is on Patwin lands; and making music and drums with visiting artists-in-residence Pamyua, an Inuit performance group. (A residency and performance at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts are part of SHAPE.)

“What initially brought us together was the SHAPE course and serendipity,” Perea said. “I had no previous scientific understanding about fermented foods, but I did grow up with it. You can’t go to a Native event without food and music.”

“For people in different areas, but with common interests, to find each other and the kind of space and support we have isn’t easy,” Maroney said.

Added Marco, “UC Davis brings a transdisciplinary approach to projects like this. It’s something unique that UC Davis does very well.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science

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