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Native Pathways to Education
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The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs

Arctic Atolls

© Patrick J. Dubbs


This brief, exploratory paper addresses the threatened future of the small, rural, primarily Native communities of Village Alaska. As I have indicated elsewhere (Dubbs 1988), I believe these communities must be preserved, for they represent the irreplaceable loci of diverse and long-standing indigenous cultural traditions whose existence enriches us all and provides us with much needed alternatives to today's self-consuming industrial pattern (see Griffiths and Young 1989 for a more detailed treatment of the 'future model' argument).

Viability of Village Alaska

There are approximately 144 small rural Native communities in what I refer to as Village Alaska---an arbitrary area that encompasses seven rural ANCSA corporate regions of mainland Alaska (see Figure One). In 1986, the 34,506 people in these small communities accounted for 65.5% of the population of Village Alaska, but they were only 6.3% of the total State population of 547,800. The average size of these communities was 240 and slightly more than half (51.4%) had a population less than 200. In recent months, there has been heightened attention paid to the viability of these communities from a variety of quarters. As federal and state budgets shrink, as political power becomes more centralized in Alaska’s westernized urban areas, and as a new , pro-development political administration takes control of the Alaska’s state government, the status of these communities will come under increasing scrutiny and/or threat.

The concern with the viability of these remote communities is not just a recent phenomenon. As "different" communities, their viability always has been questioned by outsiders more comfortable with small town America [and no little effort has been made to change these Alaska communities into this outside model]. As far back as the 1950’s, Diamond Jenness, that formidable chronicler of the post WWII Arctic situation, clearly believed the depressed economy of the 50’s warranted the abandonment of the "poverty-stricken" villages for the greener urban pastures which hold . . . great promise for the future, and may well point the way to their salvation as a race" (Jenness 1962:46). In spite of the structure and terms of the Federal Government’s 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (P.L. 92-203), which clearly suggest that its architects felt rural Native villages needed a dose of western capitalism if they were to endure, the specter of disintegration was once again raised in the late 1970’s. This time, however, it was not an outside academic raising the issue but the State of Alaska which was providing a significant portion of its new found oil wealth to provide most Native communities with the modicum of services that one comes to expect in most American small towns. This concern led the State of Alaska to establish, in 1980, a Rural Development Council whose charge, in part, was to determine "How far should the state go toward guaranteeing the survival of rural Alaska?" (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, November 20, 1980: 2).

More recently, three reasonably well known efforts issued in 1989 have once again raised questions about the future of rural villages. The research oriented report of the National Research Council’s Committee on Arctic Social Science, , identifies "community viability" as one of the " . . . three themes that should be given highest priority in developing new coordinated programs of multidisciplinary social science research on the Arctic (National Research Council 1989:12-13). The remaining two themes, "human/environment relationships" and "rapid social change" also have an obvious tie into the future of rural villages.

The second report, , attempts to document " . . . a social, cultural and economic crisis in Native villages . . ." (Alaska Federation of Natives 1989:1) which threatens their future existence as well as their ability to prevent the "accelerated disintegration" of their past or traditional culture.

Finally, Franklyn Griffiths and Oran Young’s co-chair impressions of the 1989 sessions of the Working Group on Arctic International Relations, while not specific to Alaska, raises the issue of the " . . . direct threats and subtle forces that beset the small communities of the Arctic . . . [and which] . . . put the survival of these communities at risk" (Griffiths and Young 1989:17).

While this concern spans at least three decades and has been generated by a wide variety of individuals, its fundamental basis is remarkably consistent--it is believed that the small rural villages do not have a viable economic base and, thus, exist as dependent, parasitic or maintained entities. Although there is no need to duplicate the numerous, detailed studies of rural Alaskan economies (Langdon 1986; Impact Assessment Inc. 1988; et. al.), this argument needs to be briefly clarified because of its centrality to this paper. There also is a folkloric acceptance of this argument by most non-Native Alaskans and it often becomes an implicit, if not explicit, part of public policy discussions throughout Alaska. For example, the newly elected lieutenant governor of Alaska recently stated "The state will be more compassionate to people in unorganized boroughs, but if they want something they will have to put a formula together [to pay for it]. The days of free lunches are over" (Fairbanks Daily News Miner, December 16, 1990: A-3).

While there were indeed some year-round Native communities prior to contact with Euroamericans, it was not until the extensions of Euroamerican society were established , specifically the school, mission and/or trading post, that one began to see widespread, permanent, year round communities which served as a magnet for Native individuals and families (Jenness 1962:40). With this Euroamerican societal extension came the cash economy which has predominated ever since---even though the subsistence way of life has continued to endure as the real foundation for these communities. While this seems to be an apparent contradiction, it is not. Subsistence, in all its many facets and in the sense of it being a dynamic local sustenance system which symbolizes " . . . unique hunting and fishing rights as well as the complex web of cultural practices, social relationships, and economic rewards associated with these rights" ( Case 1989: 1009), continues to provide direction and focus for life in most small, rural communities. As a dynamic and adaptive social system, the Native subsistence system has gradually evolved over time and has added the need for cash resources and western capital equipment to its total resource need. Often, it allows for behaviors that meet a multiplicity of non-conflicting resource needs, e.g., salmon fishing both for human sustenance and cash from the sale of roe. However, it is this same cash/sustenance axis of the village subsistence system that appears to be the element that has been deemed to be non-viable or, at least, seriously threatened.

The sustenance issue or the capacity of the local ecosystem to physically sustain a certain population size, has been something Native communities have had to deal with from time immemorial. In general, the historic solutions ranged from migration, to utilizing ‘emergency’ or different environmental resources, to going hungry. During the early contact period, it was " . . . the local ecological conditions-the food resources in the immediate neighborhood-that rigidly restricted the number of inhabitants any settlement could sustain" (Jenness 1962:40). However, Weeden’s (1985) more culturally-defined conceptualization of carrying-capacity seems to offer a better approach to the current sustenance issue in that he sees the local resource base as one that expands and contracts over time as much because of internal and external changing cultural usage as because of its physical limitations or excesses. It is the effect of these external cultural patterns on local Arctic ecosystems and the communities therein that are of particular concern to Griffiths and Young (1989). Such practices as industrial systems which pollute northern environments, mineral extractive efforts which dislocate northern individuals and destroy their ecosystems, and hydroelectric systems which flood or alter northern land areas all have a bearing on the viability of small communities. The sustenance area is undeniably of critical concern to the viability of subsistence systems--particularly ones that are characterized by rapidly growing populations such as those found throughout Village Alaska---and much more research on the alternative carrying-capacities of local ecosystems in Village Alaska needs to be done in collaboration with the local inhabitants of these ecosystems.

The cash dimension is an insidious one that has grown, virtually unabated, since its inception. For most analysts, it is the lack of steady, predictable, local cash-generating opportunities---preferably privately owned and operated---that represents the fundamental weakness of the small rural communities. Indeed, one can easily argue that the underlying goal of most, if not all, developmental programs, training endeavors, and infrastructure expansions in rural Alaska has been to establish conditions favorable to the creation of local cash generating opportunities. Yet, anyone familiar with Village Alaska is hard pressed not to agree with the Alaska Federation of Natives' recent conclusion that:

Over the past two decades, the federal and state governments have invested millions of dollars in rural Alaska. Although important improvements have been made (e.g., public works and improved delivery of government services) the investment has not established an economic base sufficient to enable Natives living in rural villages to build an economically self-sustaining future . . . (1989: 1).

While the specifics of community economic systems vary throughout Village Alaska, the type of economic base that does exist throughout Village Alaska is aptly described by the Impact Assessment team ". . . as a single economy characterized by shifting uses of a common set of money, labor, and natural resources . . . [spread across three, sometimes overlapping] economic domains of subsistence, commerce and the public [government] sector" (Impact Assessment Inc. 1989:1-2). These domains provide for both the sustenance and cash needs of rural residents through the production and consumption of local resources (subsistence), private sector wages, corporate dividends and export production (commerce) and, public sector employment and transfer payments (government). Because of an underdeveloped market or commercial domain, the bulk of the cash received in small rural Villages is through the government domain and thus, the perception of dependency, maintenance or parasitism. For example, recent research in Gambell and Alakanuk reveals that the government domain contributed 70% of the average household income in Alakanuk and 90% in Gambell (Impact Assessment Inc. 1989:259).

Given the pervasiveness of the argument that villages are ‘deficient’ entities and, for the moment at least, assuming it is valid, one is compelled to ask---Why has the basic economy of Village Alaska not developed into a viable, self-sustaining system? This question probably cannot be exhaustively answered without an extensive historical analysis of "economic development" in rural Alaska, but, the following, in no order of priority, seem to be the most common explanations for this perilous situation:

  1. The economic system is adequate for a very limited set of needs, but is outstripped by the needs of a rapidly growing population in rural Alaska--the entire Native population of the State grew at a rate of 2.6% per year during the 70-80 decade and the rate increased to 3.2% for the 80-87 period.
  2. The economic system is adequate for a very limited set of needs, but is outstripped by the need for the " . . . accouterments of the American mass culture [which] are omnipresent, non-negotiable elements of contemporary village life [arising from increased]. . . consumer demand generated through education, television and other media, . . . " (Alaska Federation of Natives 1989: 36).
  3. The resource base of most communities is so modest that it " . . . cannot support a large indigenous population nor has it yet attracted any influx of labor or private investment to develop transportation and other industrial infrastructure" (Impact Assessment Inc. 1989: 13).
  4. The overall locational characteristics of rural small villages are not conducive to any type of significant private sector development. The reports of both the National Research Council and the Alaska Federation of Natives were clearly concerned with this situation:
    Communities in the Arctic tend to be small, to be located in places unconnected by road systems, and to have little conventional industrial basis for local taxation (National Research Council 1989: 23), and
    In western Alaska, as each decade succeeds the last, the idea that private sector economic development is merely a matter of time and capital becomes increasingly implausible. Villages in the region are remote from markets; lack arable land, timber, energy and mineral resources; are saddled with high labor, energy, transportation, and communication costs and must contend with a dearth of local markets and a scarcity of investment capital (Alaska Federation of Natives 1989:47).
  5. Whatever self-sustaining potential that did exist, has been constantly sapped by the forces of the northern colonial economy by which the internal economic system and accompanying economic activities in rural Alaska were structured by external entities to meet the developmental and/or economic needs of these entities without any regard to the long-term developmental and/or economic effects on rural Alaska. The outward-orientation of the fur, fishing, gold, mineral and other natural resource industries did not encourage or support the standard 'staples theory of growth' strategy and thus, local economies were underdeveloped.

These types of explanations obviously resonate with those given for why many Third World countries became and/or remain underdeveloped and indeed, to me, it seems more profitable to view the historical development of rural Alaska as analogous to the development of a Third World region rather than as the development of a slice of rural America or even the development of American Indian reservations. In fact, myself and many others commenting on indigenous circumstances in the Arctic, have found it analytically productive to view situations like that of contemporary rural Alaska as constituting a Fourth World situation. This type of perspective suggests that a

. . . Fourth World is created by a set of historical relationships between two distinct populations---an invading and/or settled colonizing industrial state and a resident indigenous or tribal population still occupying its traditional land base. While these relationships are initiated within a traditional colonization framework, they are maintained by an internal colonization dynamic through which the indigenous population loses its "sovereignty and . . . [becomes] subordinate to the wider society and the state over which they do not exercise any control (Stavenhagen:4)." It is a situation in which dependence and dominance characterize interrelationships or exchanges between the rural tribal population and the larger external system (Dubbs 1988:5).

If this Fourth World context cannot be altered, I believe there is little chance that the small, rural communities will be able to sustain themselves into the future. This is especially true because most of these communities are also beset by a whole range of self-destructive behaviors which might well be reactive consequences to this type of situation and which, even if the economic question were resolved, might be of such force as to destroy the community from within. Griffiths and Young (1989:18) refer to these as "corrosive forces [ranging] . . . from PCBs in mothers’ milk through the effects of television to alarmingly high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and other social pathologies . . . ‘ while the Alaska Federation of Natives (1989: 6) suggests they are suicide, homicide, accidental deaths and injuries, crimes and child abuse stemming from an "alcohol plague. " The embryonic argument in the remainder of this paper is directed toward the alteration of this Fourth World context in rural Alaska.

Small State Theory and Rural Alaska

As near as I can tell, there really is not a theory of small states in the sense of there being a set of propositions which account for the structure and functioning of such entities, and I do not purport to construct such a theory here. What exists is a body of somewhat unconnected literature that focuses "smallness", even though there is no apparent agreement on how this should be defined (Dommen 1985; Shand: 3-12), e.g., "small nations" (Kuznets 1960), "small countries" (Demas 1965), "small territories" (Benedict 1967),

"minute territories" (de Smith 1970), "mini-nations" (Corkran 1976), "mini states" (Khatkhate and Short 1980), "very small states" (Conroy 1982), "small economies" (Jalan 1982), "microstates" (Dommen and Hein 1985), "micro-economies" (Bertram 1986), "small developing state" (Gayle 1986), "small states" (Abbott 1975), or "smaller developing nations" (Looney 1988). Many of these types of treatments are further restricted to "islands states" but, as Selwyn suggests, it is not so much a question of islandness as it is of smallness, as island characteristics " . . . could be paralleled in small, remote mainland countries, or indeed in peripheral regions of many larger countries" (1980:950). Because of parallels between small, rural Alaskan communities and small states, particularly island states, it seems that there might be productive insights that can be gained from a selective examination of this literature which could provide ways to alter the debilitating dependent and dominated situation that exists in rural Alaska today.

It appears the initial contemporary interest in questions of size and development can be traced to the 1957 Conference of the International Economic Association and the subsequent publication of the proceedings as the (Robinson 1960). Subsequent work has expanded on the scope of inquiry suggested by this conference and has more clearly developed the notion that small states are not simply down-sized large states (Fernando 1986:111) but represent qualitatively as well as quantitatively different units and therefore

". . . wide generalizations about the [large state] development process might be of limited value"(Selwyn 1978:2). However, much of this work still seems to revolve around the basic questions originally raised in the conference and in Kuznets (1960) seminal paper, "The Economic Growth of Small Nations" which was published as part of the proceedings. Specifically, there has been a consistent concern with the economic effect of smallness, generally confined to population, geographic area, and/or natural resource endowments, on (a) the diversity of the economic structure, particularly productive specialization,

(b) economic stability in the face of internal, external or natural fluctuations,

(c) economic development, especially the growth of the domestic market, and/or (d) reliance on international trade to compensate for size limitations (e.g., see Khalaf 1971:1-2). These general questions can then be used to generate a mosaic of assumed properties for the small state and/or its economy. Selwyn (1978:7-8), for example, describes the major distinguishing general characteristics of a small country, characteristics which seem to also apply to most small rural Alaskan communities, as:

  1. Small countries tend to be more dependent on foreign trade than larger countries, and have less influence on the terms on which that trade is carried on.
  2. A country which is small in area may have a narrow range of resources and hence a specialized economy.
  3. A small country may be heavily dependent on one large foreign company.
  4. A small country may depend on external institutions.
  5. A small country may have a narrow range of local skills and specific difficulty in matching skills with jobs.
  6. There may be diseconomies of scale in the provision of infrastructure services, and it may be impossible to provide some services at all.
  7. Import substitution industries may face special difficulties in country with a small GNP.

Diggines (1985:193-194) offers another set of problem-oriented "smallness" characteristics, many of which also seem to apply to many small rural Alaskan communities:

  1. limited economic resources and prospects;
  2. lack of opportunity even for their limited pool of human talent;
  3. very restricted educational opportunities and facilities;
  4. vulnerability to political domination by one or a few unscrupulous individuals;
  5. vulnerability to domination by multi-national corporations and financial institutions;
  6. (usually) excessive dependence on one crop, service, or other form of economic activity;
  7. inability to influence international events which may closely affect their interests, intensified by an inability to provide or afford adequate overseas representation, either in international bodies or bilaterally with other states;
  8. consequent isolation from each other and from the outside world in general;
  9. increasingly restricted opportunities for emigration;
  10. vulnerability to natural disasters; and
  11. lack, or poor quality, of their own press, radio and television services.

More specifically, Coulson (1982:232-233) advances twelve properties of the small state economy which, with some adjustments for the Arctic context, also mirror the many characteristics of the economy of Village Alaska:

  1. high import dependence;
  2. an export sector largely dependent on agriculture, agricultural processing, and tourism;
  3. a number of import substitution industries, but a relatively small resource base and internal market so that a strategy of self- reliance (import-substitution) cannot be more than partial;
  4. flourishing small-scale and informal sectors;
  5. quantities of goods traded too small to affect world prices of either imported or exported goods;
  6. a high proportion of government revenue being raised from tariffs on imports, leading to considerable differences between world and domestic prices;
  7. frequent foreign exchange shortages, caused by pressure to raise both consumption and investment (government and private) faster than it is possible to raise the value of exports;
  8. a large part of the investment budget financed from government- to-government credits at low or zero rates of interest (i.e., foreign ‘aid’), tied to particular projects, and so requiring some kind of project planning;
  9. the possibility that the economy is (or could be) dominated by a few projects whose expenditures are large in relation to GDP or which affect other sectors by using a large fraction of the available resources of unskilled labor, skilled labor, experienced managers, good quality land, or available investment funds;
  10. the likelihood that linkages may be particularly important, because if value-added is to be retained locally, projects will have to be inter-related;
  11. conversely, if high-cost investments are undertaken, then these same linkages may mean that many parts of the economy are adversely affected; and
  12. a shortage of experienced staff with technical and managerial skills (including project appraisal).

In an attempt to examine these properties in the context of the small island state, Selwyn (1978:8) correctly points out that there may be additional problems or an intensification of these properties depending on the degree of integration of the island state with the larger system, a context which immediately suggests analytical parallels to small rural Alaskan communities that allow for the "Arctic Atoll" metaphor. Integration, in this sense, is concerned with both the remoteness or peripheralness of the geographic location in relation to the nearest development core (center of the modern industrial economy, source of most exports, primary labor market, etc.), and its related reliance on external, usually costly linkages (transportation, communication, administration, etc.). For Selwyn, the concept of dependence is a ubiquitous component of many of the characteristics of unintegrated small countries and their economies, i.e., " . . . a condition where outside circumstances and decisions have a far greater impact on the internal system than do internal circumstances and decisions on the external system" (1978:8). For example, the three common island economic systems found singly or in some type of combination---plantation or export crop; mineral export; and tourism---all tend to be dependent economies regardless of the locus of their actual ownership (Selwyn 1978:11-16). Interestingly enough for the focus of this paper, Selwyn's fourth type of island economy, the remote island subsistence economy, is more typical of most rural Alaskan communities. It is one which has not been fully integrated into one or more of the dependent economies of the modern industrial world system and which still has a significant subsistence component. He views this type of economy as a ". . . highly fragile system [which] is being steadily absorbed into the world economy" through greater import and export dependence because of internal influences like growing population pressure on resources and external influences such as the creation of demand for goods that the subsistence economy cannot supply (Selwyn 1978:17). This type of economy is also constantly threatened by another characteristic common to several islands---a highly fragile natural ecology and very vulnerable physical environment (Dolman 1985:42).

Assuming it is possible to view the small communities of rural Alaska as having several similar structural characteristics, albeit on a much smaller scale, of "geographically disadvantaged developing island countries" (Selwyn 1978:2), one must next ask---in spite of the pessimism inherent in the description of small states, are there solutions to their dependent situation, particularly that of small island countries, which might have applicability in Village Alaska? I think there are and these solutions, at least in terms of Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, presumably should help a small island state attain what are assumed to be its major "development" goals:

  1. to maintain or achieve political independence;
  2. to increase the living standards of the population;
  3. to promote greater economic self-reliance;
  4. to preserve the values, traditions and integrity of island society (Shand 1980:12).

These goals are quite consistent with the concept of "Another Development"---need-oriented, endogenous and self-reliant, and ecologically harmonious (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation 1975:28)---which, as I have argued before and remain convinced of today, is much more appropriate and sustainable for Village Alaska than is conventional growth-oriented western development (Dubbs 1988). However, in the remainder of this paper, "development" will be used to refer to the attainment of the four goals described above.

As one moves into the area of solutions---particularly the achievement or maintenance of political independence---the weakness of the atoll metaphor quickly becomes apparent in the area of policy as the small Alaskan communities are not and never will be completely sovereign states and, thus, they do not have certain policy options available to them such as nationalization of industries and the regulation of trade. Nonetheless, there seem to be distinct advantages to external entities approaching each small rural Alaska community "as if" it was a sovereign small state and, perhaps more importantly, for each community to act "as if" it was an independent small state.

If one accepts Pradervand’s recent view that "‘'Development’ has been done to people, for people, despite and against people, and especially without them" (1990:19), one major advantage, if not the paramount advantage, of the small state, recognized early on by Kuznets (1960), is that the numbers involved, the sense of community due to its relative homogeneity, and the possibility of solidarity because of the closeness of ties among its members allow for more localized, appropriate and versatile planning and policy making. This planning function, as Seers (1982:81) points out, is " . . . especially important in small countries where the penalty for strategic mistakes can be high." This would suggest that, in rural Alaska, the community as a whole needs to be much more informed about and involved in local level policy making rather than relying on the myriad of boards and councils found in most communities. There could then be a pattern of local level political leadership

. . . capable of finding a way forward for a small country, taking advantage of political opportunities, linking policies to political reality, mobilizing support for them, and exploiting what room to maneuver there is. Then it may become possible to broaden the range of development options (Seers 1982:81).

Indeed, it could be argued that the community actually should become the policy making body, something along the lines of the New England town meeting or the Kuna Indian "gathering" (Chapin 1985:42). This basic empowerment of rural residents would be a very significant step in allowing people to chart their own development and could well ease the feelings of helplessness and frustration and the accompanying destructive behavior that are thought to stem from a lack of control over their political, economic and service provision systems (Alaska Federation of Natives 1989:64).

The logical, if radical, extension of this local empowerment thrust is that the small community needs to be the primary locus of consideration, as opposed to the last, for the vast majority of social service activities, economic projects, and governmental activities. By that, I mean that these should be physically located within the local community, carried out by members of the local community or individuals they hire to do so, and controlled by the local community even though the basic funds for these services will still originate from the government. For example, Alaska’s Borough and Rural Education Attendance Areas centralized school districts could be disbanded and each community could be treated as a separate school district. The resources supporting the burgeoning administrations of the state social service agencies and ANCSA non-profit corporations might be reallocated to individual communities on a per capita basis for the local provision of these same services. There may well be a diminution of services of the central office specialists but, if these are critical and can only be provided on a central basis, then communities can choose to integrate to provide these services on their terms rather than accepting the a priori rationale that they must be centralized. There may also be increased expenses due to the duplication of some services that are now provided by a common centralized and remote source, but what is lost in terms of economies of centralization will be more than compensated for by increased efficacies and feelings of community empowerment. In fact, without this actual local ownership and control of the development process, I do not hold much hope for many of the small communities as they will gradually succumb to the manipulations and pressures of external actors as

. . . federal and state governmental programs meant to bestow economic and other benefits upon the villages often end up subordinating the indigenous socio-politico-economic orders to conformity with the administrative templates of the central governments (Impact Assessment:250).

As one moves from political to economic goals or the concern with increasing the living standards of the population and promoting greater economic self-reliance, the small state perspective is not particularly promising in terms of altering the current economic situation. Seers provides a succinct summarization of this restraint when he states:

The choice facing governments of many small countries is bleak. The development options for dealing with the current economic crisis are constrained by realities. Political, economic, and cultural constraints are implicit in the work of many analysts, especially dependency theorists. Geographical determinants of development strategy . . . do not change at all, or do not change significantly, within, say, 20 years. They limit for any particular country the range of feasible scenarios . . . (1982:76-77)

Many individuals have advanced feasible economic scenarios available to small rural Alaskan communities and, elsewhere, I have tried to separate them into cash extension (distribution and circulation) and cash creation (generation) strategies (Dubbs 1988). Both of these categories clearly recognize that the future of the small communities necessarily involves them engaging in regular exchanges with the larger external system so that they have access to adequate cash resources. However, I believe the rural Alaska economy conforms quite closely to Tisdell's analysis of the economies of small Pacific Islands countries, i.e.,

There are no direct trade substitutes for many subsistence items and this, coupled with reluctance to risk complete specialization in commercial activities, will ensure the strength of subsistence activities in the foreseeable future (1985: 129).

While subsistence will still be the center of village life, the autonomous, self-sufficient subsistence community, however desirable that may seem, is not really a future option.

I think what the small state experience brings to this argument is that it reinforces the overwhelming importance of imports and exports in small state economies and how such a system mitigates against self-reliance. Seers once again provides us with a cogent expansion of this argument when he states:

. . . the only feasible development strategy in small countries, with limited natural resources, lies in creating export-oriented industries or services . . . . It is very hard for such a government to create these at all rapidly without foreign capital and technology, the main channels for which are transnational corporations . . . [who] also provide access to the necessary markets abroad . . . [and thus] many of the important decisions about output and investment are taken overseas (1982:78).

Economic internal self-reliance in this type of import/export system is obviously a question of degree rather than an absolute option. To the extent that imports can be reduced, import substitutions increased, export ownership localized, export output diversified and export markets widened, the local economy will be less dependent on external systems, particularly single markets for single products. Fortunately, there are some positive, cash-generating export options for rural communities along these lines such as Native arts and crafts cooperatives, alternative tourism packages, and marketing renewable natural resources for specialty markets (e.g., plants and herbs). However, these types of endeavors are not easy to establish and sustain, especially if there are growing populations which consume the local resources needed for export expansion or, as is often the case in underdeveloped islands, there is widespread "emigration" of the ablest members of the society because there are insufficient local economic opportunities (Tisdell 1985). These export activities also create or maintain an economy partially dependent on external ties; as Demas (1965:48) states, "In a very small country the constraint, if not the poor, will be with it forever. It is a permanent fact of the national economy."

The entire area of external transport, an area of obvious concern for both rural Alaska and remote island states, is not one that seems to be particularly amenable to being solved by a single island state or rural Alaska community, primarily because of infrastructural, start-up and operational requirements that cannot be accommodated by a small demand structure (see the extended discussion by Selwyn 1978:42-49). Selwyn's (1978:49) suggestion that regional small states might have more leverage by cooperating to meet common transport problems seems a notion that could be productively pursued by several small rural Alaskan communities for a wide variety of purposes, e.g., transport, purchasing, exporting, etc. For example, a regional transportation body could investigate and negotiate a common rates for communities on a common transportation route, e.g., the Kuskokwim River. There also could be region-wide marketing cooperatives like the Yukon Flats Fur Cooperative organized to achieve marketing leverage.

Whatever is done in the economic domain, it is useful to keep in mind Wace's (1980:112) conclusion regarding similar attempts to alter the economies of Pacific Islands:

The narrow range of economic activities suggested here which try directly or indirectly to exploit the advantages of insular isolation would, if adopted, hardly lead to spectacular increases in the standard of living of islanders. They might, however, provide some stability of employment and income, and supplement traditional forms of livelihood. Because most of them are based on qualities and resources which are indigenous to the islands, and do not envisage the breaking down of their isolation, nor demand the investment of large sums of overseas capital, their adoption should not lock the future prosperity of the islands entirely into that of other states in the form of economic colonialism. They concentrate on the unique, and on things which cannot be done, or grown, or made elsewhere.

Whether this is an acceptable scenario for rural Alaskan communities, will ultimately depend on "the values, traditions and integrity" of these communities. The cultural systems of small states are obliquely referred to in arguments related to the positive role their solidarity and homogeneity are assumed to play in facilitating their ability to respond to change and/or engage in the structural transformations necessary to achieve economic growth. There has not been a lot of direct attention paid to our fourth "development goal", the preservation of the values, tradition and integrity of island societies, in the small state literature, perhaps because of the inherent difficulties involved in "preservation" efforts. Some attention is paid to cultural loss as being a "natural" consequence of being tied into the larger world through improved communication and transportation networks, or as an unavoidable "cost" of development, e.g., tourism and the loss of culture. Unfortunately, the critical importance of the cultural domain in defining appropriate developmental, societal and individual goals (and means) seems to only now be widely recognized---primarily in the context of sustainable development. For most indigenous small state areas, it is too late for simple cultural preservation; these societies will need to engage in cultural regeneration. The anthropology and sociology literature is replete with examples of and strategies for cultural regeneration and it will not be reviewed in this paper. Suffice to say that if, as was previously mentioned, empowerment occurs, the small state's size and ‘boundaries’ could well be additional positive factors in these regenerative efforts.


The unstated, underlying impetus for this paper was a personal feeling that those of us involved in "development" in the Arctic need to continually examine and review our operational and analytical paradigms. For most, the conventional western approach to development is the dominant one and, in spite of is apparent overall failure in indigenous communities throughout the world (e.g., Bodley 1990, Burger 1987, et. al.), it is still the paradigm that is advocated for Village Alaska . In this paper, I wanted to explore a different theme or, perhaps, a new paradigm---small states---much for the same reasons that led to Demas' (1965:47) pioneering effort in the small state area; he says

. . . I cannot help feeling that the continental pattern of development has not been distinguished sharply enough from the patterns of development open to the very small underdeveloped countries and that as a result the problems faced by the small countries have been obscured.

While this is a very limited exploration of the small state concept, I believe it does suggest that further exploration of the small state area might better illuminate some of the issues facing Alaska's small rural communities and, perhaps, it might reveal some much needed new strategies to deal with these issues, particularly as the momentum for sovereign tribal governments intensifies in rural Alaska.


The same argument presented in this paper is probably applicable to similar communities in Canada but, due to limitations of the paper, I have not attempted to incorporate any Canadian data.

Specifically, Village Alaska consists of two Athabascan corporate regions (Ahtna and Doyon---40 communities with a total population of 5706), two Yupik areas (Bristol Bay and Calista---72 communities with a total population of 18686) and, three Inupiaq areas (Arctic Slope, Bering Strait and NANA---32 communities with a total population of 10114). It excludes regional service centers such as Bethel, Galena or Nome, and the 30-plus small Pacific Rim communities which have a fundamentally different form of integration into the western economy.

The demographic data were calculated from Alaska Population Overview: 1986 and Provisional 1987 Estimates (Alaska Department of Labor, August, 1989).

For example, Anders (1983), Berger (1985), Dryzek and Young (1985), Dubbs (1988), Klausner and Foulks (1982), O'Neil (1986), Paine (1985) and Ritter (1979).

The underlying question of whether these types of properties actually are constraints of the small state should, it seems, be an empirical question; however, most such listings ,a priori , assume they are barriers which must be overcome.

The scope of sovereignty available to traditional and IRA tribal governments would provide these communities with much more ability to act as and be recognized as a "small state" but a discussion of this issue is beyond the immediate scope of this paper.

It appears, at least for some areas of precontact Alaska, that this type of arrangement was indeed in place. For example, Burch's (1980) twenty five distinct Eskimo societies extant in Northwest Alaska in the early 1800’s.

This characteristic also is especially important for those advocating the need for certain structural transformations such as quickly reacting to market changes or forward and backward linkages, to achieve conventional economic development (e.g., Demas 1965:8-16 and 37-38).

Dryzek and Young (1985) and Weeden (1985) particularly examine a wide range of possible local level economic alternatives.

See Demas (1965) for an extended, orthodox discussion on these types of activities, particularly his belief that exports must become the permanent leading sector in the economies of many small countries.


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The essays assembled in this collection reflect over 30 years of first hand observation of, and participation in Native education and rural development in Alaska.




Part I: Alaska Native Education

Cultural Definitions in Educational Programs

The Log School: A Case for Appropriate Design (with Ray Barnhardt)

Alaska Native Education and Development Ideologies

Part II - Rural Development in Alaska

Organizational Congruence and ANCSA

Another Development in Rural Alaska

Decolonizing Economics

The Whale and the Co-op: The Emerging Issue of Animal Rights in Rural Alaska

Arctic Atolls: Small State Theory and Rural Development in Alaska

Sustainable Development and Indigenous People: Authors and Actors in Rural Alaska

Small Alaska Native Villages: Are They Worth Saving?



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Last modified August 14, 2006