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Alaska: the progress of subsistence

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Subsistence (meaning homestead or village production) is the Indian social safety net. The technocratic classes of people who plan development around the world largely don't believe in subsistence; they judge it to be a backward state of human existence. Yet, for many Native peoples, whether hunters and fishing people from Alaska or corn farmers in Meso-America, living from the land, directly, this is both a right and a responsibility, and something not easily given up.

The logic is that the 'whiteman's economy,' also known as 'modernity' is fine, while it works, but in the thinking of many elders, the industrial economy, while robust is also fragile. It has its ups and downs. Education and professional employment is good, but what comes from the earth ? a family should know how to count on that as well. This has been one strong old teaching. And, of course, in many places subsistence is simply what there is. Native families depend on it.

The issue of Native subsistence has been gaining strength again in Alaska. The Alaska Federation of Natives is solidly behind a resolution to seek better legal protection for Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. These were hampered by a piece of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that signaled the extinguishing of such rights.

In the words of Art Lake, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, 'To us, it is very significant. There was never any intention of our people to give up our hunting and fishing rights.'

Apparent understandings that Native hunting and fishing rights would be protected after ANCSA have not manifested in reality. Mostly what Alaska Natives have retained in the way of subsistence rights is Title 8 of ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), mandating subsistence priority to 'rural' residents.

But this act is controversial in itself. It feeds an anti-rural sentiment among sportsmen and natural resource use advocates. The Alaska Constitution, many charge, is in conflict with any kind of 'preference' on hunting and fishing. The Alaska Legislature has thus far refused to budge on the issue.

The new AFN resolution is controversial and not all Natives are happy with it. It may pit urban Natives, who are among occasional or sports hunters, against rural Native residents. Tribes that run sports fishing and hunting operations, or which license their own members, are also not happy with it, as it requests longer seasons of prohibition for sports fishing.

Recently as well, the determination by Gov. Tony Knowles to not appeal the Katie John decision provided a solid overall victory to Native litigation. Katie John is an Athabascan elder who sued to be able to subsistence fish on the Copper River. The decision in her case gave the federal government oversight to most waters and waterways following a similar move on Alaska federal lands. It is a landmark.

Gov. Knowles convened a panel on the question that has recommended more accommodating changes, recognizing Native rural subsistence under a layered package that Natives continue to study. It strengthens the process of inviting co-management arrangements and recommending that Alaska Natives be included on the regional councils set up to help direct local harvests, along with sportsmen and other users of the resources.

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Gov. Knowles has now proposed a rural priority, coupled to a secondary entitlement to urban dwellers, both Native and non-Native, who can prove a history of subsistence. Nevertheless, the constitutional amendment takes note of 'the subsistence tradition of the indigenous people of Alaska.' The measure, which would amend the state constitution, is before the state's Legislature. Upon its approval, not an easy achievement, it would go to the voters in a statewide referendum sometime next year.

There are obstacles galore and the issue is complex, both between Natives and other state constituencies and among Native constituencies themselves, which must work to resolve co-management and allocation issues. But most of all the momentum on subsistence is welcome. It results in a better understanding of its economic and cultural importance for Native peoples and this is a turn for the better.

Throughout the Western Hemisphere for American Natives and indeed throughout the world for many Indigenous peoples, the direct use of natural resources is a crucial piece of strength in their land-based identity. The understanding of Indigenous geography and its productive bounties, based on practical knowledge attached to spiritual connection remains the essential piece of the Native equation.

Wherever hunting and fishing, home gardening and local agriculture markets are feasible, wherever people use meadows and forest to gather and propagate medicines, wherever the elders still remind the young families on survival and food security measures, people will benefit from a greater societal respect for that range of activities.

Many homesteading techniques of Indigenous peoples are now studied in research centers. The empirical observational talents of hunting and fishing peoples are incorporated in scientific research. The deep thinking on ecosystems by Native cultures is supremely valuable along these lines as well.

The modern science of 'Permaculture,' a calibrated sustainable homestead methodology, stems from Native principles. There are a good variety of co-management models to study. NASA and other scientific institutions openly seek the knowledge of Native peoples.

And it goes both ways: not all subsistence practices are able to keep up with changing environments, so there is an obvious need for scientific methods as well. Subsistence use and better options for natural resource management, including the training of Native managers, should go together.

For more than 15 years, the heroine elder, Katie John, 85, has resisted Alaska's legal maneuvering against her case. But in projecting the value of her cause, Katie John was vindicated and has rightfully become a symbol of what subsistence means to Native Alaskans. Indeed, Native people in general have gained a great visible representative in the grandmother who fought all the way for her rights.

Alaska Native subsistence rights need to be protected. All efforts at sustaining the land-based economies of our peoples are welcome in these complex times.