"Our area is not an economically developed area. We depend on the sea for our food and clothing. There is much sharing in the catches, as we realize the needs of our brothers and they realize our needs. It is not joyful to see our children and grandchildren hungry. . . If the law prohibits hunting of sea mammals at any time, the people will listen to the hunger of their families and hunt even against the law. . . Everyone of us is Eskimo around here. We all have to eat our own native food, and there is no question about it. We cannot possibly go without .... . Please try to fathom our great desire to survive in a way somewhat different from yours. and thus see why the hunters will continue to go out."
The elders of Nightmute, 1973

Manhattan Island is named for a tribe of Indians that once hunted and fished there. Across the continent one finds places like Sioux City, Oglala, Pueblo, Cheyenne and Seattle named for the Native Americans who were once there, living from the land. Their leaders once spoke, as the elders of the village of Nightmute on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are speaking now, of the need to continue their ways of hunting and fishing. But one by one, each in their turn, Native American tribes and nations have lost their way of life.

Some tribes have been reduced to shattered remnants by open warfare of the U.S. Government. Others have been broken and scattered by the unofficial warfare of broken treaties. Some have been seduced away from the life of their people by well intended programs to "save the Indians." Today it is unthinkable that the Federal and State governments would have a policy to extinguish Native American cultures, yet this continues to be the effect of many educational, transportation, economic development, job training, land management, and fish and game policies and programs. One way or another, in every instance, the tie of Native American people to the land has been broken and their way of life destroyed.

Over long stretches of unrecorded time, Native Americans established balances with other life of the earth. They survived over the centuries by living in balance with the fish and birds and animals—in balance with the subsistence resources of the natural world. In no more than a fleeting moment in time, this balance has been torn apart wherever Europeans settled and civilized North America. When the balance, or circle of life as it has been called, is broken, birds and fish and animals begin disappearing from the land. When they are gone, so are the people who depended upon them.

When some resources are depleted. substitutes can be found. In an energy crisis the nation searches for alternative sources of energy. Modern man goes from wood to coal to oil to gas to shale to geothermal to nuclear power in order to keep the wheels of civilization turning. But the Yupik culture, like other Native American cultures, depends upon a subsistence resource base for which there are no alternatives. The relationships are really very simple. If the fish and seal and beaver and birds were to disappear, we could no longer hunt and fish. Our culture would die. Our way of life and our people would disappear.

All precedents predict this will happen to us. In fact, the State and Federal governments are actually, if unwittingly, planning for our cultural extermination by continuing to settle Alaska with the same basic attitudes, policies and practices with which the rest of North America was developed. As former Alaska Attorney General John Havelock acknowledged in 1974 "I think the beginning point of a discussion of (subsistence) is the recognition that whatever we have isn't working.... The inevitable conclusion of letting the status quo continue is the total depletion of the resources and the destruction of the subsistence economy. "2

The fate of the Yupik people and other Native groups in Alaska appears to be the same as the Sioux, Apache, Pima and other North American tribes. But we don't believe it has to be this way. The time has come when our culture has reached its critical turning point. Perhaps the course is set, but we want to believe we still have options for the way in which we survive in the future.

What possible options are there? As individuals and as a people we seem to have three basic choices, three directions in which to move:

  1. We would return to our original ways. We would renounce the cash economy and with it the concepts of competition and property ownership. In short, we would turn completely from the modern world and subsist from the land by hunting and fishing.
  2. We would move steadily away from our culture until we have completely adopted Western civilization. We would seek to be assimilated and become a regular part of a dominant culture. We would live by the rules of a cash economy. In short, we would cease to be Eskimos and become modern Americans.
  3. We would develop a combination or balance of the two cultures. We would live partly by cash and partly by subsistence hunting and fishing. We would seek to find some workable mixing of the values and ways of relating in the Eskimo world with those of the Western world. To one degree or another, we would remain essentially Eskimos who have taken advantage of some of the better things of the modern world or we would become essentially modern men who have retained some traces of our Eskimo heritage.

"Each of us is caught, in his own way, between two worlds."

The first option of completely returning to the past is closed, at least for the foreseeable future. Our people have come to want and depend upon many modern things. We would not want to stop traveling by plane, motorboats, and snow-machines—these ways of traveling have become a part of our way of life. We would not trade our guns for harpoons. We would not want to live just as our ancestors did. Moreover, the conditions of the world today prohibit a complete return to the old ways.

The second option, leaving our culture in order to adopt the Western way of life, is hardly more desirable, but probably more possible than the first. Even though the trend is toward the dominant culture and some of our younger people are taking up the values and ways of the white culture, there are still many things distinctly Eskimo that we truly value. There are ways in which we live that we don't wish to change.

"The only time I really feel I am myself is when I am hunting. Every year I must return to the tundra if only a few days. I have to do this."

The third option, to find some meaningful combination of the two cultures, is the most realistic approach. It is, in fact, the transitional state we find ourselves in today. Each of us is caught in his own way between two worlds. And as each of us grows up we tend to turn more to one world or the other. But always our lives depend upon things in both worlds. The man who lives by hunting and fishing in the area of his village, nevertheless depends on some cash to buy ammunition, fishing gear, gas for his boat, some clothing, some furnishing for his house. On the other hand, people who have become most adapted to Western ways of living and who may be pursuing professional careers far from their village still need their ties to the land and the people. As one young person working away from his home in Chevak puts it, "The only time I really feel I am myself is when I am hunting. Every year I must return to the tundra if for only a few days. I have to do this."

It may seem obvious that our present way of life is a combination of two cultures. It may seem unnecessary to discuss the first two options—of returning to our original ways or becoming completely assimilated. However, virtually all planning and policy-making related to our region is done, knowingly or unknowingly, in the context of the first two extreme options.

When the future of our subsistence way of life is considered in terms of either hunting and fishing or the cash economy, planning and decision making is, naturally, done on the basis of Western civilization's cash economy. Since the thought of returning to ancestral ways and living 100 per cent from hunting and fishing is quickly discarded as impractical, it is assumed that we are in the process of acculturation which will eventually make us completely westernized. Today, public policy decisions are almost invariably made on the assumption that we are going to be drawn into the mainstream and one day—perhaps after a generation or so—become like everyone else. This assumption is made despite the fact that in the foreseeable future our region doesn't have the resources to support a strictly cash economy. And it is made despite the intention of most Yupik people to continue their hunting and fishing way of life.

Does a choice have to be made between the two cultures? Does it have to be one or the other? Does one way of life have to die, so that another can live?

Up the Yukon River from our region, Jimmy Huntington, an Athabascan Indian, State legislator and author of On the Edge of Nowhere, has put the problem and challenge clearly.

"Alaska is unique, here the subsistence and the cash economy are in open conflict with the unique subsistence values of the Indian, Eskimo and Aleut populations.
"Subsistence values are still vital to over 50,000 Alaskan Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts as they have been for countless thousands of years and as they will be for hundreds of years in the future. Unwise expansion of the western country denies these subsistence values. At the present rate, the Indian, Eskimo and Aleut culture soon will be destroyed.
"It must be stopped. Only in Alaska, in the North American history, does the opportunity exist to protect the basic human subsistence rights of all citizens.
"We believe that the Western and traditional Alaskan values can and must live side by side. But just as the Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts have no right to destroy the cultural values of the white man, neither do the white men have the right to destroy the cultural values and life style of the Indian, Eskimo and Aleut."2

"No one purposely, consciously intends to destroy our culture."

There should be room in Alaska for both Western and Native cultures to exist. And within a region such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta it should be possible for the values and ways of the two cultures to exist and interact. No one purposely, consciously intends to destroy our culture. Yet Western customs, Western laws, Western institutions—the entire system of Western civilization continues to erode our way of life.

It was a similar need to live the way they wanted to live that brought some of the first pilgrims to North America. The colonists founded the United States on the principle of a person's right to maintain his identity; his freedom of speech and religion; his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness—in his own ways.

Relating this principle to the subsistence way of life, Attorney Robert Goldberg once said:

"It seems to me that through the years, if the United States has stood for anything, it is the right of cultures to express themselves as they wish, absent some very compelling State interest to the contrary. My own view is that, far from being the great melting pot, The United States if anything, has allowed many diverse cultures to maintain their cultural identity.
"It seems to me that this is a right that is fundamental, so fundamental that it was one that was not enumerated in the Constitution but was reserved to the people.

If the Native culture is not to be consumed by the white culture that has become dominant in Alaska, some very fundamental changes in public policy and programs will have to be made.

Before any meaningful changes can be made, public policy makers must focus their attention on the foundation of our culture—subsistence hunting and fishing. The perpetuation of subsistence resources and activities must become a top priority of all Federal, State and local government planning relating to our region. Even though everyone may like the idea of subsistence hunting and fishing and the Yupik culture continuing, history shows us that it will be extremely difficult to bring about the necessary changes in time to protect our subsistence way of life.

The problems are numerous and complicated, but there is the basic ground work from which a workable set of policies and programs could be built. Building this structure requires close cooperation between the Federal and State governments and regional organizations. Although the Federal government has many conflicting interests, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act's committee report directs the Secretary of Interior to use whatever powers he has existing in order to protect the Natives in their present life style of subsistence hunting. This would seem to be a mandate and authorization for the Secretary of Interior to take whatever steps may be necessary to provide for the continuance of subsistence hunting and fishing.

Likewise, the Alaska State government which has many conflicting interests of its own, has a constitutional mandate to protect renewable resources such as subsistence resources and also establish preference among users of these resources.

"Far from being the great melting pot...the United States, if anything, has allowed many diverse cultures to maintain their cultural identity."

On the regional level, the village and regional corporations are owners of a very significant portion of the rural resources. In as much as these are organizations of local Native people, it could be expected that they will be able to play a very constructive role in planning and managing resources in ways which support our way of life. Likewise, the formation of local government, such as a borough, would involve local people in the planning decisions that affect their lives.

How do we use these tools of planning, development, fish and game laws, education, etc. to make certain that the hunters will always be able to hunt? How can options be kept open so people can choose between living the Yupik and Western ways of life? How can new ways of living be molded from both cultures? How can conflicts between natural resource development and renewable subsistence resources be minimized? How can a web of subsistence-oriented policies and programs be woven from cooperative efforts of the Native organizations, and local, State and Federal governments? How can policies in areas of land use planning, fish and game regulations, transportation, population planning, economic development, and education relate to the subsistence way of life?

To consider these questions requires reappraising all the policies and programs affecting people in our region. This is a process that takes some time, and it is taking place every day as people are questioning the rules, policies and programs that structure life on the Delta.

In this report we want to begin exploring the policies that are most directly related to subsistence living. We want to suggest some new approaches to subsistence issues. We see some things that must be done, some things that must be changed. Where we don't have answers and solutions, we at least want to raise the questions that must be asked.

Return to Does One Way of Life Have to Die So Another Can Live?