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Harriman Expedition Retraced


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A Panel Discussion of People, Politics and Subsistence in Alaska

Summary by Rosita Worl

During a meeting on July 26, the Harriman Scholars and staff discussed the need to highlight some of the pressing issues in Alaska. Subsistence was selected as a topic that warranted discussion with the participants of the Expedition. A subcommittee was established to frame and discuss the issue. The following summarizes the panel presentation that was moderated by Mary Dunn.


Alaska Native People today maintain that subsistence hunting and fishing are essential for their physical and cultural survival. Prior to the immigration of a Euro-American population to Alaska, its indigenous population lived solely on the resources gathered from the land. Their dependence on the land diminished through various assimilationist efforts by the United States government, missionaries and educators to change the lifestyle of Alaska Natives to resemble that of the larger, dominant society.

In the present day period, the economy of rural communities remains dependent on the harvest of fish and wildlife as well as wage employment. Such economies are described as "dual" or "mixed" economies. No community in Alaska is strictly dependent on subsistence, and most communities lack a developed capital economy to meet the needs of its residents. Subsistence resources are harvested for direct consumption by the rural populations rather than for sale in the commercial market.

During the last ten years, subsistence has become a volatile political and emotionally-charged issue in Alaska. It has become a focal point in the election of both state and federal officials. It has led to innumerable and ongoing cases in both federal and state courts. Subsistence has further created tensions among Alaskans that have been characterized as a Rural/Urban Divide.

The Social, Cultural and Economic Significance of Subsistence

Subsistence as it is practiced among the indigenous populations of Alaska is conducted as a socioeconomic system. It is practiced as a group enterprise rather than the pursuit of a single individual. In Alaska Native communities, individuals organize themselves into kin-based units to harvest, preserve, and distribute subsistence resources. Members of the group also work in wage jobs in order to earn cash to purchase fuel, equipment and clothing necessary to conduct the subsistence pursuit.

The traditional cultural values of each indigenous group dictate the relationship of the hunters and fishers to their land and wildlife. Natives conceive of animals as having spirits. They are required to conduct themselves according to the rules transmitted through the generations in order to be successful in their quest. Their cultural values also shape their sharing or distribution patterns. For example, a young hunter is required to share his first take with community members. Native foods also play a central role in many of the traditional ceremonies and rites.

Subsistence resources are vitally important in rural communities as a major food source. They are the preferred foods of Elders. Studies by the State of Alaska have verified the economic importance of subsistence foods within rural communities. The by-products of harvested wildlife are utilized for clothing and also in the production of arts and crafts that are sold to supplement one's income.

The Legal and Political Highlights of the Subsistence Issue in Alaska

Alaska State Constitution
States that fish and wildlife in their natural state are reserved for the common use of the people.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA)
Congress extinguishes aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, but directs the Secretary of Interior and State of Alaska to protect Native subsistence rights.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA)
Congress acts to protect rural subsistence fishing and hunting on all federal lands and reserved waters in Alaska. Congress extends the right to manage subsistence on all Alaskan lands and waters to the State of Alaska if it enacts a state law giving rural residents subsistence priority.

McDowell v. State of Alaska 1989
The Alaska State Supreme Court strikes down the state's statute establishing a rural subsistence priority as a violation of the Alaska Constitution. ANILCA requires the federal government to assume management of subsistence on federal lands and waters.

Constitutional Amendment Efforts
The anti-subsistence legislators and interest groups prevail in five special and four regulars sessions in preventing a constitutional amendment that complies with ANILCA to be placed before the voters despite the continuing polls that demonstrate public support for the subsistence priority.

Federal Management
The federal government assumes management of subsistence on federal lands because of the state's non-compliance with ANILCA's subsistence priority.

Katie John, et. al. v. United States
In 1994 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of Katie John, an Athabaskan Elder, and extends federal subsistence protections on all inland navigable waters reserved to the United States. Fishing provides 59% of the rural subsistence diet. Congress postpones the implementation of federal protections on inland waters for four years. The Governor of Alaska is now deciding whether he should appeal the Court's original decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.


The Issues Surrounding Subsistence

State's Rights by David Policansky
The State of Alaska together with anti-subsistence interest groups assert that the state's sovereignty is undermined with its inability to control navigable waters and to manage the resources on federal, Alaska and private lands.

The Equality Argument by Rosita Worl
The anti-subsistence forces advance the ideological argument of equality in arguing that ANILCA is based on a racial preference citing and that "rural" is a mask for "Native." They emphasize that the State constitution calls for equal access to resources, but fail to note that 97% to 98% of all fish and game harvested in Alaska are taken by commercial and sports users. They oppose a state constitutional amendment despite the fact that the Legislature adopted a constitutional amendment which gave 3,000 permit holders access to 97% of all fisheries harvested in Alaska.

The Interrelationship Between Cultural Survival and Sovereignty by Allison Eberhard
Sovereignty or the right to govern entails both territorial and cultural elements. Congress conveyed lands to corporations rather than tribes under ANCSA. Alaskan tribes, with the exception of one reservation, lacks a land base. The cultural survival of Native people is dependent on self determination and local control.

Co-Management Issues by Kathy Frost
Alaska Natives have historically been precluded from meaningful participation in the management of Alaska's resources. Models exist in Alaska that demonstrate that management regimes are enhanced when Natives play a direct role.

The Rural/Urban Divide by Eric Wohlforth
The conflicts and misunderstandings stemming from the subsistence issue have torn the political, economic and social fabric of Alaska. Competition for Alaska's natural as well as the state's fiscal resources has intensified the fissure between rural and urban Alaska and has evolved into a racial conflict.


Alaska Natives have been generally successful in maintaining the core elements of their traditional cultures even after generations of directed efforts by the dominant society to eradicate their traditions. Subsistence has become the focal point of Native Peoples' effort to retain their traditional ways. They also continue to battle for their equal status in the larger society. However, the following dismal statistics portray a society and culture in jeopardy:

  • The annual death rate of Native is five times higher than the national average.
  • The suicide rate of Native males 20 to 24 years old is more than 30 times the national suicide rate for all age groups.
  • Natives are 16% of Alaska's population, but represent 32% of the prison population.
  • The Native substance abuse mortality rate is 3.5 times the non-Native rate.

The Harriman Scholars and staff recognized that the members of the Harriman Expedition Retraced were awed to see the beauty and splendor of Alaska and to hear reports on the efforts and the challenges to protect Alaska's spectacular environment. They hosted the above panel to ensure that members of the new millennium's expedition could also learn about the stark issues confronting all Alaskans.




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

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