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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

When her granddaughter’s COVID-19 test results came back negative, Rosita Worl decided it was time to celebrate.

The Tlingit woman took out the last of her precious stash of herring roe, or caviar-like fish eggs.

“It just becomes part of you as a family, you know? You don't eat it by yourself.”

Worl is among countless Alaska Natives who observe subsistence gathering and sharing practices, essential and deeply significant traditions that date back thousands of years.

Now, a coalition of tribes says laws that were meant to protect these aboriginal rights have failed.

On the anniversary of a landmark law, several tribes say Congress has fallen short in protecting subsistence, a right that is preserved for many U.S. tribes through treaties and decades of case law. If Deb Haaland is sworn in as Interior secretary, one of the issues Alaska Natives will want to bring up is subsistence. 

In parts of the state, wildlife is abundant enough that people can make food gathered from nature their dietary mainstay.

Subsistence is critical to rural Alaska economies. Some 90 percent of the state is not accessible by road, and food shipped in by boat or plane is unaffordable for many. Most Alaska villages are situated on sites that are advantageous for food gathering, reflecting the importance of food from nature.

Yet, subsistence users take just 1 percent of the fish and game harvested in Alaska, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. Even less goes to sports users. The bulk of the take goes to commercial users.

Subsistence is also key to Native cultures. Thousands of years of harvesting food from nature put the practice at the center of family and community gatherings and rituals. It’s important in building a sense of community, fostering a sense of well-being and strengthening the ties among people.

Inupiaq mother Kelsi Ivanoff and daughter Harlow Ralphie, with Dolly Varden trout, whitefish and grayling caught ice fishing in the Unalakleet River a few miles upriver from Unalakleet, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ivanoff)

More than food

Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, says for Alaska Natives, the harvesting and sharing of food is much more than a meal on the table. It’s a way of life that is interwoven with the history, culture and traditions of the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangan, Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimpshian peoples.

Worl has spent about 40 years involved in subsistence, initially in anthropological research, then as an advocate.

“I have always said from all of my work that subsistence hunting and fishing are really the basis, the underlying basis of Native culture. It's the underlying basis in terms of it outlining and demonstrating in reality our relationship with wildlife or animals and fish, and our relationship to the environment.”

In addition, she noted, when Alaska Natives harvest, it’s not just for themselves but for their communities. “People look at subsistence as an individual activity, but it's part of a system and it’s for the group.”

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Worl says Native cultures share certain values: respect for animals, appreciation to the animal giving itself in the harvest and wide distribution to clan, family and community.

Then there are ceremonial activities.

“For example, I know that the Athabascans take moose, and they are required to use it in their potlatch ceremonies,” Worl said. “It’s part of their religion to utilize the moose and then also to feed ancestors.”

Her own people, the Tlingit, have similar ceremonies at koo.eex, or potlatches. They also show their spiritual relationship with animals through their clan crests.

Worl says non-Natives who harvest fish and game as a big part of their diet, for the most part, “don't have the spiritual dimensions.”

“It's not group-oriented,” she said. “We try to say customary and traditional subsistence. Customary and traditional. Some people have been trying to use that term to make that distinction between Native and non-Native hunting and fishing.”

Subsistence - A modern-day fish camp on the Yukon River. NPS/Josh Spice Image 12-14-20 at 6.03 PM.jpg

Totally unique and worth preserving’

Steve Ivanoff, Inupiaq, lives in Unalakleet, a village of about 600 people 400 miles northwest of Anchorage. He’s a transportation planner for the regional Native nonprofit and a commercial and subsistence fisherman and crabber. He also serves on several local, state and national boards.

He says some 90 percent of the protein in people’s diets in Unalakleet is from wildlife. “Our culture that we have is totally unique and worth preserving.”

Ivanoff says food gathering is a year-around endeavor, and the village has probably a couple of hundred people who hunt, fish and gather food from nature. They fish for trout, grayling, smelt and salmon. They hunt for caribou, moose and waterfowl, and gather berries and greens.

He said the food is shared with anyone who can’t get it on their own, starting with neighbors and family then going on to the elderly and handicapped. “I would say 70 to 80 percent of a moose we catch each year is shared because we cut it into small pieces and share with everybody.”

His payoff? “Sometimes baked goods. We appreciate that, but we don't expect nothing in return. We just feel fortunate that we have the health and the ability and the resources to go and harvest the product.”

Ivanoff says because they are out and about so much, locals have detailed knowledge of the wildlife, which makes them best suited to make management decisions about them. They also watch to ensure animal populations will be there for future generations.

“The beauty of our community, it's not just harvest, harvest, harvest,” he says. They saw moose and King salmon numbers dipping and took a 3-year break from hunting moose and skipped some fishing openers to replenish populations.

Ivanoff added teaching youth is another way of investing in the future. “There's a lot of students that hunt waterfowl in the springtime and fall-time, students where they get the subsistence leave from school just as we do from our jobs,” he says.

“Subsistence is absolutely critical to our survival. Without it, we don't exist out here.”

These Inupiat whalers, shown in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, in Northwest Alaska, in 2010 are following the tradition of wearing white as camouflage on the coastal ice. (Photo by Stephanie Aguvluk, Associated Press, File)

So what about that lands act?

Dec. 2 was the 40th Anniversary of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which put more than 230 million acres, or about 60 percent of the state, into conservation units such as parks and preserves, wildlife refuges and national monuments. It doubled the amount of land in the national park system.

The 1980 Alaska lands act also protected customary and traditional uses of fish and wildlife for food and other noncommercial uses. It made subsistence the priority use on federal lands in Alaska.

However, a coalition of tribes, Alaska Tribal Unity, is calling for an overhaul and replacement of the lands act and access to traditional lands and waters, along with self-governance of subsistence in Alaska.

“Alaska Native Peoples are standing together to recognize the failure of the Act to provide for Alaska Native ways of life, and the inherent systemic racism and Indigenous erasure of the act as traditional territories were claimed as federal conservation units,” the group said in a statement.

One issue Natives have identified is that the lands act authorized subsistence for rural residents, not just Alaska Natives.

What’s more, Alaska’s Constitution includes provisions for equal access to use of wildlife. Attempts to amend it to include a Native subsistence priority have failed. Now, fish and wildlife numbers are diminishing, and Natives believe because of the cultural significance of subsistence, they need and deserve that priority.

Chief PJ Simon, Athabascan, of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, says Congress promised in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 “to take any action necessary to protect the hunting and fishing needs of Native people.”

That promise wasn’t kept, says statewide Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka, Chugach Eskimo. “The fundamental human right for Alaska Native people to subsist and maintain their cultures must be strengthened by federal law.”

“Native peoples have borne the brunt of (the lands act’s) oppressive and assimilationist impact,” says President Liz La quen náay Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida, of First Alaskans Institute.

Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson says Alaska Natives are criminalized when they practice their traditional ways of life.

“We are harassed and fined,” he said. “Our communities rely on the wild foods for our health and well-being. Denying us our traditional way of life is killing our peoples. It’s as simple as that.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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