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New USDA grant program aims to support Indigenous meat processing

Stephanie Maltarich
Debbie Coolidge of Aleknagik cuts sockeye salmon with an ulu. July 2021.

A total of $50 million in federal funding is now available to tribes across the country to support harvesting, processing and packaging Indigenous meats, like salmon, moose and caribou in Alaska. The new program is called the Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant. Applications are open until July 19.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with tribes over the past two years to find ways to support Indigenous food gathering traditions, according to Julia Hnilicka, the Alaska director for the USDA’s Rural Development program.

“It was really out of this consultation, especially as we were moving out of the pandemic, and seeing the worries that a lot of tribes have for food security and food sovereignty, that informed this program,” she said.

The grant is part of the USDA’s Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, which began in 2021. The initiative works with organizations that serve tribes to get Indigenous perspectives on how to improve federal food programs.

The grant doesn’t set limits on the amount of money tribes can apply for, but there are a few restrictions: Projects must involve Indigenous animals and meat processing activities and can’t be used to buy land, meat or animals.

Read the FAQ on the grant website

The Indigenous Animals Grant is the latest in a long line of community and government efforts to support Native food sovereignty across the country, including Alaska. In many areas, the issue became more urgent during the pandemic. For instance, leaders of the Organized Village of Kake worked to establish an emergency subsistence hunt to counter a food shortage in 2020. In other regions, like Western Alaska, families struggled with record-low salmon runs, and received donations from places like Bristol Bay.

Projects through the Indigenous Animals Grant can help expand a tribe’s capacities for working with animals. The list of examples includes building or upgrading facilities or buying and installing traditional or other equipment, like mixers, grinders, smokers or freezers.

“There is just so much flexibility within this money, it can be something from like a four wheeler to move animals, to an entire distribution center,” she said. “It really, really depends on what the tribe's needs are.”

The program doesn’t award grants based on location or population. But Hnilicka said the USDA may prioritize projects that focus on certain goals — like strengthening tribal food access or using Indigenous-informed design principles rather than projects that focus on financial gain.

Grants are available for tribes across the country, and Hnilicka said there’s a good chance tribal nations in Alaska could tap into much of what’s available.

“I do know that they are really looking for networks that can reach across the nation, but also across tribes, as well,” she said. “So there is an opportunity with these monies for tribal governments to band together and to submit co-applications.”

The program’s application assistance can help tribes decide if they would like to submit a joint application across a region, Hnilicka said.

The mid-July deadline is in the middle of summer fishing and harvesting, already a busy time in Alaska.

“It's unfortunate that the window falls during this time frame from now until July 19,” Hnilicka said. “But this could be the only time, so I really, really encourage everybody who can apply for this to do so.”

More information on the grant and how to apply can be found at the USDA’s website.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.