Subsistence and Cultural Planning


"The cultural thing is what I am talking about. How do you incorporate the Native philosophy into your rules and regulations? How do you preserve a lifestyle? How do you keep from destroying a culture? This is really, to me, where its at ..."2
Cliff Black, 1974


As we have seen, subsistence in our region continues as a way of life that is truly the heart of our culture. This way of life has been changing since our first contact with white people. Looking back over the past 100 years we can see that a great deal of change has certainly taken place. But watching as the changes take place day by day, a little here a little there, it's almost impossible to see the changes happen.

From one day to the next it is hard to see that we depend a little more on store-bought things, that our children may be speaking a little more English, that as we earn money there is a little less time for hunting and fishing. But every once in awhile we notice that things are different than they used to be. Things aren't the same anymore. So it happens, year by year, we change a little as individuals. Generation by generation, we change somewhat as a people. Then we look back and find that a great deal of cultural change has taken place without our knowing what was happening.

If we can't see just how the change is happening, how can we decide—as the changes come, moment to moment—if we want the changes?

And often when we do make clear decisions to make a change, try something new, there is no way of telling what may come from that change until it has already taken place. A person may try a new kind of job to get more money and then after a while he finds he got some things he didn't expect. Sometimes a person will find himself frustrated in the new situation that he thought was going to be great because there were unexpected pressures on the job, maybe problems being away from home. It may happen all of a sudden Ôthat he realizes that this isn't what he expected. How did it happen? This isn't what he wanted.

We have seen villages make the same kind of discoveries about unexpected things. Maybe a village wants a road to the city so it is easier to get to town to shop and have fun. The road is built. It is easier to get to the city. But then it's discovered that the city also comes to the village. More people come to the village, maybe more sports hunters, more traffic—lots of unexpected changes. Maybe people are not happy about how things turned out. But there it is. Things have changed. How did it happen?

Changes took place before the coming of white men. But they took place slowly, gradually over much time. If fish or game began to get scarce in one area, the people could move to another area, take some time and find better places to hunt and fish. If there came to be too many people in one area for the fish and game, the people could take some time to branch off and start a new village. People did not have to worry about carefully watching change, and planning for change. Then there was time for change to take place in a natural, evolutionary way.

But in this time, changes are happening everywhere, very rapidly. It is a time of unexpected things, and of uncertainty. Unless we are willing to let the changes and the force of Western civilization just sweep us along, we must gain control of this process of change. We have to see how the changes happen. Then we have to decide if we want that change. Then we must keep that change from happening or allow that change to come just in the manner we want it to come.

We must develop a process of comprehensive planning in which the potential impacts of proposed changes are fully evaluated with respect to cultural values and conditions. This will not be easy. But it must be done. It must be done from the ground up, from the people in the villages. And it requires the cooperation of the State and Federal governments.

Creating a Cultural Planning Process

When we suggest developing "cultural planning" we do not intend to break into this process of change with some cultural masterplan which says, "This is what we want. This is the way it should be." Rather, we are looking for a flexible, ongoing method of following and having some control over the process of change. In order for village people to assert their cultural values into the process of change, we must first understand how this process works.

It is not surprising that the modern world has never really come up with a method of keeping track of and planning for a culture in transition. This may be partly the result of Western civilization not feeling it really has a culture of its own that is previous, changing and might be lost. But the Yupik people do have a culture that they live and that they feel is changing.

"Unless we are willing to let the changes and the force of Western civilization just sweep us along, we must gain control of this process of change."

Methods of focusing on and dealing with these changes simply have not yet been developed. The regional corporations have been established to manage the financial wealth of a region. The regional nonprofit organizations focus, for the most part, on health, educational, and welfare programs. The State Department of Education deals with education. The State Department of Natural Resources deals with natural resources. The State Department of Community and Regional Affairs is busy with problems of regional government, boundaries, human and economic resource development.

The Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission deals with land use planning. The Department of Interior deals with land management. The Bureau of Indian Affairs administers categorized Native programs. And so it goes with other agencies—each has its own particular area of concern. Nowhere in the system is there an institution set up to evaluate and plan cultural change. Some of these agencies express a degree of concern for cultural change and perhaps have some program that deals with a little piece of the process of cultural change. But among the agencies and institutions there is little general understanding of the cultural change that is taking place. And there is certainly no cohesive or coordinated process of dealing with cultural change as it takes place in all the many areas of our lives.

We do not want to imply that cultural change is the sole responsibility of government agencies and other organizations or that the whole question of cultural change should be handed over to some new agency. The village people have the final responsibility for what happens in their lives, to their culture. However, the actions of all agencies and organizations dealing with our region touch upon and affect our culture. So it is that each agency bears some of the responsibility for the cultural change that is taking place.

At this point in time, a process must be developed that requires each agency or organization or private enterprise that deals with our people and our region to meet their responsibility to the cultural change that is taking place. The decisions as to what change should take place or not take place should always remain with the people. But in order for the people to make intelligent decisions they must be well informed, and this is a responsibility of all agencies and organizations dealing with our region. The following are some suggestions for ways in which government agencies and private interests can work with the village people in creating a process of cultural planning.

Local and Regional Planning

Cultural planning must have the direct involvement of the people not just elected representatives or professional employees of the people, but all of the people on the local level, in the villages. It is their culture, their life, their decisions to make. Therefore, local and regional planning processes must be developed to deal with cultural change. Some ways to approach this planning include:

  1. Village councils and village corporations should develop their own methods for analyzing the cultural effects of any action they take or allow to be taken in their village. This should involve finding out as much as possible about a new activity or development in the village, and communicating to all the people the various costs and benefits of the proposed change. For example, if a village is considering a proposal to develop a tourist facility, it should not only be determined how much money might be generated, but also what problems might arise from having great numbers of strange, outside visitors in the village. If a village can set up a thorough process of screening all new developments it stands a better chance of avoiding undesirable changes.
  2. Regional government such as a first class or home rule borough, can play an important role in planning for the needs of local people. There is no reason why the region-wide planning department of a borough can't review all regional programs from the point of view of cultural impact. Once the cultural impact of an issue is defined, the regional government may either rule on a proposed activity or development or refer the issue to the people for a vote.
  3. To coordinate all State programs within a region and make them responsive to the process of cultural change, substate planning districts could be established. In our area a substate planning district might follow the boundaries of the Calista Corporation. Within this area, State programs such as highways, education, resource development and welfare would be channeled through a regional planning board. This planning board would be in a better position than some planners in Anchorage or Juneau to evaluate the cultural costs and benefits of a given program. The framework for creating substate planning districts is in legislation pending before the Alaska State Legislature.
  4. The programs of Federal agencies could be made more responsive to cultural planning in a region such as ours if the State of Alaska would utilize the substate planning district mechanism that the Federal Office of Management and Budget has already established. Instead of Federal programs, such as education and transportation, reaching the local level via central State offices, these programs would go directly to a regional planning district board which would presumably be in much closer touch with the village people than a distant State or Federal office.
  5. Both Calista and Yupiktak Bista should, as other regional profit and nonprofit corporations might do, establish routine procedures for determining the possible cultural effects of all their programs. In many cases the cultural impact of a proposed development or project may be slight. In other instances there may be extremely difficult conflicts between the potential benefits of a proposed development and the undesirable cultural change it might bring about. It will not often be possible to have the best of both worlds. Decisions will have to be made, and they had best be made on the basis of accurate analysis of all the costs and benefits involved.

Cultural Impact Statements

Environmental impact statements often ignore the people-issues of a project or development. This would be a practical way for any agency or organization on the local, regional, State, or Federal levels to assess the anticipated cultural costs of any program, project, development, or activity in a rural region such as ours. Anything to be introduced into the region would have to be analyzed from the point of view of its potential cultural impact. A statement clearly and thoroughly defining all the possible impact a new development or program might have on the culture would be prepared and distributed to the people who might be affected. Before anything new could proceed, this cultural impact statement would have to be prepared and distributed for local comments. On important issues with substantial conflicts, public hearings in the villages might be held so that the people would have a chance to voice their feelings about the anticipated changes.

The preparation of such statements might be on a voluntary basis, at the initiative of the agency, firm or other organization that proposes to introduce anything with the potential for causing substantial changes. The statements might be requested by a village or regional organization. The sure way of making certain a proper statement is prepared is, of course, to require it by law.

Defining the cultural values that might be changed will be an essential part of the cultural impact statement. The people in the villages are the ones who must define their cultural values. No experts or agency people outside the culture are qualified to say what the important cultural values and considerations are. The people are the only ones who can define their own culture. Once they have done this, then experts and agency people can assist in analyzing how this culture and its values might be changed by certain developments.

Some of the areas a cultural impact statement should cover include:

  1. Description of the proposed program or development.
  2. Where and when would the program or development be introduced?
  3. What people would be affected by it?
  4. What are the anticipated cultural effects?
  5. What are the benefits? How does it serve the people?
  6. What alternatives are there for introducing the project or development in another way in which some of the benefits would be achieved and some of the adverse cultural effects eliminated?
  7. What happens if the proposed program or development is rejected?
  8. Will the adverse effects be temporary or lasting?

Such a cultural impact statement would be useful on developments ranging from a new road or dam, a proposed oil or mining development, a new school or educational program, an employment or economic assistance project, a land use planning or management proposal. Villages and the regional corporations could adopt the use of such statements as planning tools. The State and Federal governments might pass legislation that would require cultural impact statements before any new step is taken in the rural area.

The statements would have to be evaluated by the local people who might be adversely affected. They are the ones to judge whether the analysis is complete. And they should be the ones to decide if the new program or development is introduced. By itself, a cultural impact statement would not avoid unwanted cultural changes, but it would take that essential first step of making the potential problems clear to public decision makers and to the village people.

State of Alaska Responsibility to Cultural Change

The problems of cultural change are so crucial, complicated and immediate that the State government should assist regions and local areas in developing their cultural planning ability. This might take the form of creating a Department of Cultural Affairs or simply authorizing and funding a division of the Department of Community and Regional Affairs to undertake this work.

The Future

The future remains clouded by many questions. Will people in the State and Federal Governments find the legal, administrative and legislative ways to help maintain our subsistence way of life? Will the planners, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, legislators and administrators really listen and respond to the needs of village people?

Our ancestors have left no great cities to mark their passing, no legends of conquest, no great towers or pyramids. Their monument to time is a way of life. A way of living with the land. A way of surviving. A way of relating to the world and to other people. Will this cultural identity, this way of life, survive only as a museum relic or roadside monument survives? Or will it live on with the people?

Our way of life was well developed long before Western man emerged from the forests of Europe. But will it live on to bring some of its wisdom into this new and always changing world?

Will it survive at least for the village people who, like the elders of Nightmute, simply want "to live in a way somewhat different."

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