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Subsistence and Sport Hunters: Individual Rights and Cultural Traditions

What is the difference between indigenous subsistence and sports hunting? This issue has been a legal and political debate in Alaska since 1971.

What is the difference between indigenous subsistence hunters and sports hunters? This issue has been part of a legal and political debate in Alaska since 1971. On January 3, 1959, Alaska became a state. The Alaska Statehood Act provided the state government with 103.3 million acres of land from a total of about 424 million acres total. About 25 percent of the Alaska land base was left in federal government hands through the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

When the state government of Alaska began to survey land to claim its 103 million acres to promote economic development, the surveyors ran into Alaska Native communities that continued to claim land and were engaged in subsistence activities. During the early 1960s, Alaska Natives formed a statewide movement to prevent the state of Alaska from claiming their land. Alaska Natives filed land claims in court for over 350 million acres, and Secretary of Interior Morris K. Udall called for a moratorium on land claims in Alaska.

In the late 1960s, oil was discovered in the Bering Sea off the North Slope of Alaska. Oil companies, led by Atlantic Richfield, wanted to pump the oil and build a pipeline to southern Alaska to ship the oil to refineries in the lower 48 states. The oil companies put pressure on President Richard Nixon, and Congress to make a deal with the Alaska Natives, who protested the oil drilling and pipeline construction through their lands. The result of the debates was passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Alaska Natives retained about 44 million acres, while the rest of the land passed to federal, state, and private land interests.

One of the issues that arose during the negotiations of the act was the management of Alaska Native subsistence rights to land. The topic proved too difficult to settle quickly, and so negotiations over subsistence rights were deferred to later committees and commissions. Since 1971 to the present, the protection of Alaska Native subsistence rights have not been settled. In effect Indigenous Peoples in Alaska were barred subsistence hunting and gathering on federal, state, and private lands that were not in indigenous control. Alaska Natives found that the 44 million acres spread across the state were too small and not configured properly to sustain their subsistence needs.

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Many Alaska Natives continued to hunt, trap, and gather on lands they had traditionally held, and according to the appropriate seasons for gathering subsistence foods. Whenever Alaska Natives were caught engaging in subsistence activities on federal, state or private lands, they were often arrested, and in many cases their hunting rifles confiscated. Alaska urban hunters argued that indigenous hunters were gaining fishing and hunting privileges over seasonal sport hunters. The sport hunters argued that the methods of continual subsistence hunting put pressures on Alaska animal and fish resources. The sport hunters demanded that the state of Alaska curb subsistence activities that did not conform to hunting and fishing regulations that applied for all Alaska citizens. As a result, many Alaska Native subsistence hunters were forced to risk arrest, or to find others ways to gather food in rural and isolated villages.

Sport fisherman wanted to protect the environment from over exploitation, and assumed that subsistence hunters and gathers would over exploit their ecological areas. Sport hunters saw Alaska Native insistence on subsistence economy as a special right within American democracy and economy, rather than a sustainable way of living within a balanced give and take of a shared ecological environment. While Alaska Natives continue to argue for their subsistence rights and cultural traditions, sport hunters use American law and understandings of individual rights and equality to prevent the exercise of subsistence economy.