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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
Elder

History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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Alaska Native Subsistence Today


"Subsistence' is the word used to describe a traditional way of life among many Alaska Natives. In a physical sense, it refers to the practice of relying on the surrounding environment as a source of food and materials for daily living. Hunting and fishing yield the animal flesh, skin, and bone that have been year-round mainstays in the Alaskan diet and tribal life. Gathering yields the berries, wild roots, seaweed and other vegetable resources. This is a deeply-rooted tradition -- today's subsistence practices would be familiar to the coastal people visited by Harriman a century ago. As George Grinnell wrote of the Yakutat Natives: "The changing seasons give them their seal, their salmon and their berries, their fish, their fowl and their deer, ...they fish, they hunt, they feast, they dance."

Drawing of men in boat

Seal hunting in Glacier Bay in 1899.
Click image for a larger view.


In Alaska today, subsistence continues to be an important practice. Local foods, from sources close at hand, are often cheaper and healthier than foods brought in from elsewhere. What's more, subsistence is seen as a meaningful cultural practice, a way of living in the world, of bringing children into the community, of honoring the elders in the group. Some Tlingits, Aleuts and Eskimos believe that to practice subsistence is to face the world on one's own terms, not on terms defined by outside cultures.

Alutiiq leader Perry Eaton told the Harriman film crew in 1999, "most Americans think of hunting as a sport. For me it's an obligation, the sharing obligation. I don't keep everything I harvest, there is a distribution responsibility. The harvest culture makes demands on everyone in the community who participates."

Subsistence does make demands, even on the youngest in the community. Children as young as five are given small jobs at the fishing and hunting camps, gathering sites and during the seal harvests. They babysit the infants or carry food to the workers. Gradually, other jobs are added. A ten-year-old can pick berries, skin a fish, or help herd the small group of bachelor seals that will be harvested for seal meat. By their teens, they are ready for the major jobs -- they can carry out all the tasks of the harvest. It then becomes their duty to teach the next generation about this traditional work.

The harvest honors adults and elders in the community. The oldest members are consulted about the proper timing of a whale or walrus hunt, and about the richest areas to harvest berries and seaweed. "I get to look forward to being an elder," explains Perry Eaton. "I will have the right to be listened to, in the way that I now listen very seriously to my elders."

Subsistence and Political Change

In modern times, subsistence has become a political issue, one that affects everyone in the state. Beginning in 1978, Alaska created laws to protect subsistence practices. One law provided that people who use the land for subsistence should have priority over commercial users of the resource: if salmon or seals or berries become scarce, the needs of the subsistence community should come first. This means that a hunting ground can be closed to sport hunting, or a river closed off to commercial fishermen.

Non-subsistence hunters and fishermen protested that they would lose money and quite possibly their livelihoods. Native Alaskans who lived in cities also protested, since the law was seen as protection for rural residents only. In 1982, a coalition of those opposing the law drafted "Ballot Measure 7," a measure that would take away subsistence priorities. It was defeated at the polls, but this did not end the debate. In 1989, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the priority given to rural hunters violated the state constitution. The federal government stepped in to take over management of subsistence hunting on federal land. To this day, there is no final decision on how the animals and other resources should be shared in Alaska.

In 1999, film director Larry Hott interviewed Robbie Melodivov as he prepared to lead the seal harvest there. "The subsistence fur seal harvest is all about carrying on the culture within our community," Melodivov said. "We pass it on to the generations that are coming up. And it's my job to teach the young people, to put it in their hearts to participate in the harvest, to continue to eat our cultural foods and to carry these practices on for generations to come."

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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