Elizabeth Watanabe

Using Traditional Alaskan Native Food

HPIM0032 Elizabeth “Libby” Watanabe, MPA, RD, LD, Alaska Native (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimpshian) is the former Chief Dietitian with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), one of the oldest and largest Native-managed health organizations in the United States. Libby worked as the Chief Dietitian for 7 years. Recently she was promoted to the new health systems analyst position with SEARHC in Juneau, Alaska.

Watanabe says, “As the former Chief Dietitian, I planned and administered the medical and hospital nutrition services departments and supervised a large food service staff as well as two clinical dietitians. Collectively we provided the food service and medical nutrition therapy for ambulatory and hospitalized patients from throughout Southeast Alaska. As an Alaskan Native manager, I tried to incorporate Alaskan Native cultural practices, such as Native foods, into all of our department processes and literature. In this way, we validated our cultural belief system that has been in existence since time immemorial with proven scientific knowledge about how nutritious and healthy our Alaskan Native foods are.”

Watanabe and her colleagues use traditional foods in the hospital kitchen food service and catering program. They also incorporated Alaskan Native foods and values into the patient education materials that they created or revised. Salmon, halibut, other seafood, deer and berries are among the key southeast Alaska Native foods.

HPIM0916 Watanabe and her son, Justin, are enjoying Tlingit Delight – a mixed blueberry dessert.

Journey into Dietetics

“I was raised in a large family of 7 children and became interested in dietetics because my family always worked year round to hunt, gather and fish for our Alaskan Native foods,” says Watanabe. “My mom, Gerry Williams, is an expert at Alaskan Native food gathering and preservation. She shared her enthusiasm and interest in that with me. After I began working in the Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital kitchen as a dishwasher, Alfreada (Holloway) Westfield, the former Chief Dietitian there, took me under her wing and said, ‘You're going to be a dietitian.’ And so my nutrition career path was born.”

Watanabe initially took distance education classes from the Pennsylvania State University to earn an Associate of Science degree in the Dietetic Technician program. Later, she and her husband, Clint Watanabe, who is Native Hawaiian and Japanese, moved to Hawai’i where Libby transferred to the University of Hawai'i and completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Food Service and Human Nutrition. More recently she earned a Master of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Rural Development from the University of Alaska-Southeast.

“The biggest challenge that I faced when we moved to Hawai'i was the culture shock of attending a university whose on-campus population far exceeded the population of my home town of Sitka, Alaska,” Watanabe remembers. “It took quite some time to get used to that, but since my husband's family lives in Hawai'i, that helped bridge the culture shock to create a smoother transition to university life there. Another huge challenge was meeting college and family expenses. When we had our son, Justin, his childcare expenses were almost equal to our university tuition expenses. To make ends meet, Clint, who also was working on a degree at the University of Hawai’i, and I took out student loans in addition to the scholarships that we received.”

(Clint is an allied healthcare professional currently serving as a Family Advocate Specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard.)

Advice for Prospective Native Dietitians

“Apply for as many scholarships as you can to limit or prevent the need to take out student loans, which are difficult to pay back!” suggests Watanabe. “In high school, focus on math, science and chemistry, especially organic chemistry. Most universities require these courses. Taking these courses in high school will go far towards enabling you to complete them successfully in college. Additionally, if you're interested in nutrition, go for it! There is no greater joy than working hard to accomplish your educational goal and then returning to your hometown to serve your people. Native people have a great respect for that, and it's worth all the effort that it takes to get there.”
cover_lg This article was originally published in the Summer, 2009 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is William Rabbit, Cherokee.)