In the beginning there was no name for “subsistence”---the people just lived and respected the resources. The people knew when to harvest and when to leave it alone. The people knew not to take too much.
Then came the White men with their money and their government. And now there are no more fish, animals and resources like the old days.
The reason I keep bringing up subsistence is because the State of Alaska keeps using that term to justify its entire wildlife management program---mainly, its desperate mass killings of wild predators. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game actually has a Division of Subsistence---but the term is a political buzzword which has lost its meaning. Fish and Game uses the term subsistence to benefit commercial trophy hunting operations (see AK Voices, The Old Subsistence Switcheroo: State Transforms Unimak Trophy Hunt Into “Subsistence”---Makes Feds Look Like Real Meanies - 6/9/2010. A Rare, Clear View Of Fog-Shrouded Unimak Island: A Wildlife Management Learning Moment For Alaskans - 6/3/2010. State Fish and Game Goes Mad On Unimak Island: Last Frontier Fantasies Die Hard - 5/30/2010. Rich Man’s Hunt, Poor Man’s Hunt - Trophy Hunting Is Now “Subsistence” - 5/17/2010).
The State, distracted by it’s perceived obligation to the wildlife-killing trades, has lost awareness of it’s basic function of applying scientific methods to promote overall healthy wildlife diversity to benefit all Alaskans. Fish and Game seems unaware that Nature is, for all its untidiness, a functioning system where one thing is dependent upon the other and just about everything is interrelated. That’s why it is called, dare I say it, an “ecosystem.”
Many will say, “It’s only wolves and wilderness and few Natives---so what?” However, the things going wrong with the land in Alaska---The Great Wildlife “Spill”---are caused by the same thing that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico: Government! Government as such is not necessarily the problem---the problem is that our government is now controlled by private economic interests. Just as America’s entire energy policy is controlled by energy companies, so too are Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game---our entire State wildlife and wildlands management bureaucracy---now directly controlled by men of the commercial wildlife-killing industries.
So what is the role of true subsistence in this money-driven wildlife management system?
Is “subsistence” a real thing for Alaska Natives?
Is subsistence the way it used to be for Alaska Natives?
Is subsistence a real and valid cultural and spiritual “tradition” for Alaska Natives?
Is it possible for Natives to live a subsistence lifestyle today?
Yes---but only with great effort, awareness and concentration!
I had recommended part one of my AK Voices “Wildlife and Wildlands of Alaska” series about subsistence. But that was then and this is now. My perspective was what subsistence must have been like in the past---before the never-satisfied Industrial Tribe showed up. There is, however, a great series in the Anchorage Daily News on Chenega Bay which deals, in part, with modern Natives trying to live a real subsistence lifestyle. The series began on June 6, 2010 with the title: “Chenega: After the '64 tsunami, a decade without a home.” This series comes from the book “The Fate Of Nature” by Charles Wohlforth. From the Anchorage Daily News website:
“’The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth,’ is Anchorage author Charles Wohlforth’s new book investigating the history, science and people of Prince William Sound, and seeking lessons there about whether our human nature will allow us to save the environment. This series of five excerpts traces the story of the Native village of Chenega. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.”
The Anchorage Daily News series is available online. It describes how exposure to modern ways impedes the return of displaced Chenegans to their previous subsistence living in the wake of a village-clearing tsunami and then followed by the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill. Mr. Wohlforth’s Chenega series also makes clear---with personal stories of a few Chenegans attempting to return to a full subsistence lifestyle---that it ain’t easy and that many Natives who try it must turn back toward the White Man’s world for such un-subsistence-like things as “jobs.”
I can’t blame Alaska Native subsistence villages for leaving behind many of the skills and practices from the old subsistence ways simply in order to take advantage of the conveniences---or simply to deal with or put up with the intense pressures and changes brought by modern life. Or simply to survive. Subsistence living ain’t easy!
While I recognize the tremendous cultural and spiritual traditions Natives associate with the lifestyle we Whites call “subsistence”---and while I recognize that this cultural tradition is a living thing---I also recognize that things have changed drastically in the real subsistence world insofar as actually being able to gather enough food and materials to live free of modern conveniences and influences. Not the least of this would be the depletion of wild foods---from moose to salmon---that has occurred under Anglo, money-based “management.” Plus the need to constantly compete with an industrial society subsidized by industrial agriculture.
Ultimately, true subsistence today means, as much as possible, a freedom not only from the money economy, but from the modern conveniences and bureaucratic interferences that weaken the physical body; distract the mental awareness; and undercut the will for living with Nature. At the very least, modern living takes focus away from the required prolonged periods of observation; takes away from the acuteness of the senses; and takes away the sheer physical vitality required to live, in any real sense, off the land. Worst of all, much traditional knowledge has been lost---inadvertently or deliberately destroyed by modern cultural and political influences. Now, indigenous cultures everywhere are seeking out knowledge from their elders---who were once scorned, reviled and repressed by the modern invasion.
In some ways---mostly in the area of guns and motors---modern civilization has made aspects of subsistence living easier. But subsistence has a different meaning for Natives---it is not the Wasilla freezer full of salmon, halibut, moose meat, caribou meat, ptarmigan breasts and berries. In the Chenega series one learns that these coastal subsistence people use up to seventy different food sources; each harvested in its season; each preserved by various methods; and with the renewable utilization of each resource being dependent upon intimate knowledge and the full focus of daily attention on Nature and not on civilization. Natives, in the traditional way, were keenly aware of when to hunt and gather and when not to do so because it would interfere with the reproduction and replenishment of the food source. In other words, you have to be really knowledgeable, really conservative, really self-controlled, really intelligent, really smart, really observant, really focused on Nature and really aware of your interactions with Nature.
I keep discussing the Unimak Island situation (and will make brief reference here to the somewhat similar Chignik village situation) because it continues to provide insight about all that has gone wrong with the State’s mismanagement of Nature everywhere in Alaska. Again, the similarity to the Gulf Oil Spill is that the regulating agencies don’t have an accurate game count---they haven’t got a clue how much wildlife has been “spilled;” and they can’t recall the events leading up to the “Spill” because the truth would embarrass both the commercial extraction interests and the regulating, government agencies they control.
In my observation, the subsistence people of False Pass on Unimak Island and the subsistence people of Chignik got so distracted by modern life that they failed to deal with hungry wolves that were creeping closer to their villages. In Chignik, a remarkably careless lady teacher was killed by wolves.
omebody forgot to warn her with a sufficient sense of urgency. Somebody forgot to tell her to leave her stupid IPOD at home.
In False Pass, parents now rightfully worry about their kids because scrawny, hungry wolves are lurking. This is what comes from living only a part-time subsistence lifestyle. The attention is on the incoming plane with its mail and groceries---and worrying about the fuel barges and the delivery of construction materials.
The people are thinking about getting Post Office jobs and qualifying for government programs. This leaves less time to think about subsistence conditions. The subsistence users have also failed to speak out against the State’s mismanagement.
For the State’s Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game to allow trophy hunting of the very finest caribou bulls on Unimak Island---to the point of skewing the bull to cow ration to unprecedented imbalances---was gross incompetence. The State’s failure to stop this killing in time showed it didn’t know or didn’t care what would happen when too many bulls were taken---and I suspect a similar weakening of the moose herds has already occurred after decades of gimmicky bull moose hunts.
Fish and Game should have known early on that the caribou on Unimak Island were in trouble---Fish and Game is supposed to be comprised of “professionals” and “experts.” This is what they are paid to do! And this is relatively easy science---on an isolated island in a naturally-controlled study setting! The State should have known long ago---before this became an “emergency situation!” However, since Fish and Game doesn’t do science anymore, laymen like myself must now guess at the damage caused to the Unimak caribou herd by killing so many prime bulls for trophies and allowing the situation to fester in neglect until it suddenly popped into our attention as yet another, full-blown “emergency.”
The subsistence people should have known as well. Were the subsistence hunters and trappers of False Pass so distracted dealing with their modern lifestyles that they failed to put up a fuss when trophy hunters came onto their subsistence island and took out all the trophy bulls, leaving only a few aged bulls? It would appear that the subsistence people of False Pass have not been keeping up with their own subsistence awareness in their own subsistence area. How else could they miss the fact that caribou numbers were dwindling, that wolves were beginning to starve, and that the hungry wolves were moving in on the village? Maybe they knew but just didn’t say very much because The Great White Father doesn’t listen to his indigenous “children.”
Furthermore, it appears that the subsistence people have not been keeping up with their own subsistence skills such as trapping wolves. Sure it takes knowledge, time and energy to trap wolves---especially when you don’t have commercial guiding businesses to supplement the activity and pay for aircraft and other technology to strafe them from the air. Nevertheless, if the word subsistence is to have any meaning it must apply to the entire lifestyle---not just something you do when your employment situation permits...when fire-fighting season is over.
Now the subsistence users are asking the State to do their traditional jobs of keeping the wolves at bay instead of dealing with it themselves as they once would have done. I realize that the money-driven, governmental and other agencies have insinuated themselves into traditional Native affairs. But instead of leaving it to the bumbling agencies, now would be a good time for some good old-fashioned, traditional, Native, elder-knowledge. Fish and Game is inadequate to the task of proper management because it has become so political and business-oriented it has lost awareness of the wildlife situation in the subsistence areas. Furthermore, as even non-Natives must know---any help from the State always comes with strings attached. So, we need the knowledge of indigenous people now more than ever. Real subsistence users are supposed to know better---but they must break free of the narrow, modern, civilized view of Nature that has been thrust upon them.
So, what were the subsistence users doing when the State allowed the caribou bulls to be hunted out? Why didn’t they speak up? What were they doing while the wolves crept close to their villages? Could it be they didn’t even notice? What distracted them from actually behaving like real subsistence people with a real awareness of the Nature around them? And now, most ignominiously, what leads so-called subsistence users (their leaders anyway) to ask the State’s functionally incompetent Fish and Game agency and Board of Game to help out by shooting wolves from helicopters? The State has done nothing right---how can they be expected to properly administer predator killing? Well, maybe that’s one thing they can do with passing competence---albeit at tremendous financial cost and with great carelessness and unknown consequences. It is, after all, the only “science” they seem to know. And now---since the situation has deteriorated so badly---perhaps shooting wolves from helicopters is the last, best resort to “save“ the village.
However, since the non-Native Tribe seems unable to ask the obvious, scientific questions whenever the cry goes out for “controlling” predators, it would seem prudent for knowledgeable Natives to ask about the Human actions or inactions that always seem to lead up to these recurring “emergency” situations. It appears that State agency mismanagement, neglect and overhunting has preceded each of these urgent crises statewide. The true subsistence users must speak out more---not just for themselves but for those Alaskans who are tired of seeing our wild animals depleted in the name of phony “science,“ phony “subsistence“ and the hypocritical farce of “abundance-based“ management.
Wolf Song of Alaska
P.O. Box 770950
Eagle River AK 99577-0950
Phone: (907) 622-9653
Fax: (907) 622-9654
Web Site: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org
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