For thousands of years, before the arrival of the Americans and the Russians, before the invention of currency, the natives of Alaska spent their days hunting and fishing as a way to live and to survive. Alaskan locals and natives have for long sustained a way of life based on subsistence hunting and fishing. It is fundamental to the cultural traditions and values of many groups. Alaskan natives define subsistence uses as part of who they are. It is a part of their lives, themselves, and their beliefs. They have a very strong bond with nature, believing that they are connected to animals and fish. Subsistence hunting and fishing reaffirms who they are, and what their role in the great circle of life is. The food that they consume is not only physical; more importantly, it is spiritual.
Besides these factors, subsistence hunting and fishing is also crucial to the economic stability and nutrition of many Alaskans living in rural areas. Subsistence hunting includes not only hunting caribou, moose, Dall sheep, beavers, bears and mountain goats, but also whales, sea lions, seals and walruses. Over the years, the technology and wisdom to fish and hunt improved dramatically, allowing many Alaskans to collect enough food for an entire year and trade with other people.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, subsistence use is defined as ‘noncommercial, customary and traditional uses’. This includes “direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation, for the making and selling of handcraft articles out of nonedible by-products of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption, and for the customary trade, barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption”. In order to practice subsistence hunting, a hunting license is required under the regulations of the state of Alaska, as well as a harvest tag.
The cultural groups that process and harvest wild resources for subsistence uses such as food and raw materials include the Haida, Tlingit, Yupik, Aleut, Alutiiq, Tsimshian, Inupiat, Athabascan and Euro-American groups. Subsistence hunting and fishing has for many centuries now been a part of their traditions, and the state of Alaska responded to this in 1978 by passing the state’s first substance statute, which defined subsistence as the lead use of the state’s wildlife and fishing resources.
An effort was also created by the state to offer the opportunity to Alaskans living in rural regions to lead a subsistence way of life on Federal public waters and lands while still managing a healthy population of wildlife and fish. This effort is called the Federal Subsistence Management Program. In rural Alaska, residents harvest approximately 18,000 tons of food each year (56% of this harvest consists of fish alone), which comes up to approximately 295 pounds per person.
Alaska is the only state in the entire United States that is characterized by such a large reliance on wild foods. Their dependence on it is economic, social but mostly cultural. For thousands of years, Alaskan natives have relied on the harvesting of wild foods to survive, and have passed this tradition on through generations. Today, it is not only the natives that rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, but also non-native Alaskans who have settled in the rural regions.
Unfortunately, this way of life has been criticized by many conservationists and environmentalists across the globe. Many of these critics do not acknowledge the fact that in the rural regions of Alaska, jobs are extremely rare and the cost of buying groceries can be exorbitant. The cost of living in the United States is based on an average of 100. When comparing it to other places, any number less than 100 means it is cheaper than the average in the United States, and any number higher than 100 means it is more expensive than the average in the United States.
In Alaska, the average cost of living is 131.80. The cost of groceries sums up to 136.4, the cost of health and housing to 141, the cost of transportation to 115 and the cost of utilities sums up to 165. An estimate was made by the State Division of Subsistence that replacing the food from the wild at a rate of 5 dollars per pound would cost approximately 267 million dollars. With most foods imported to the state of Alaska and the excessive prices related to imports, as well as the scarcity of jobs (especially in the rural regions), it comes to no surprise that many prefer to opt for subsistence fishing and hunting.
I am an environmentalist and conservationist myself, but after having been to Alaska, experienced the expensive cost of life (and I’m saying this living in Chicago which is really expensive as well) and having taken the time to talk with some locals, I now fully understand and agree with subsistence methods of living. Honestly, I wish more people in the world would live this way – I don’t eat meat myself but I’d much rather hunt and consume my own food than to buy mass-processed meats (which is also one of the largest contributors to global warming, and don’t even get me started on the amount of killed animals that goes to waste because of mass production).
I found one article particularly interesting. That of a teenage boy in Gambell, Alaska, who received hundreds of death threats and negative emails from conservationists and environmentalists around the world because he hunted a whale for his family and villagers to eat. Gambell is a small village on an island between Alaska and Russia, with extremely rough weather, very little access to and from the island, and where supplies, services and resources are characterized by insanely inflated prices (because everything has to be flown to the town). So like in many other parts of rural Alaska, locals have used subsistence hunting and fishing for generations as a way to support themselves. Most of their hunting consists of whales, walruses, seals and birds, and they also fish for halibut and salmon. When the weather is a little more pleasant (for maybe three months out of the year), they add wild berries and greens to their meals.
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission set a whaling hunting quota to 50 animals per year, which produces approximately 600 to 1000 tons of food. So the Native groups in Gambell and its surroundings hunt only a few whales a year; enough to stock up and sustain themselves for an entire year. This is an absolute necessity; the average household income in this town is 5000-1000$ below the federal poverty level. In Gambell, food bought in stores is easily three times more expensive than in Anchorage (where items are already easily twice the price as in the rest of the United States). Shelves in Gambell are often empty. A bag of Doritos costs $11 and an ounce of water is more expensive than a soda. Without subsistence hunting, nobody would be able to survive there.
To conclude, it is necessary to put this practice into a larger perspective. Subsistence hunting is a global practice used by thousands around our planet, living in very remote locations. Conservationist critics do not take this matter as well as the extremely inflated prices that come with importing food from outside into consideration. We can learn from the Alaskans. Today, we rely on mass produced meats and fish, which is ecologically and ethically disastrous for our planet. Who knows for how much longer we can continue with these unsustainable practices?
Understanding the Alaskans also brings us one step closer to understanding methods of simple living; methods we have all long yet forgotten. As we scroll through the aisles of industrialized packaged foods filled with chemicals and conservatives, these methods seem to be practices of a distant past. Living in an industrialized world dominated by technology, we may not be aware that a large percentage of the population still uses subsistence hunting and farming in various parts of the world. As society runs out of renewable and clean resources, would it be time for us to get back to our roots?