RURAL DEVELOPMENT IN ALASKA
The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs
© 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
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 Alaskas westernized
urban areas, and as a new , pro-development political administration
takes control of the Alaskas state government, the status
of these communities will come under increasing scrutiny and/or
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 1950s, Diamond Jenness, that formidable chronicler
of the post WWII Arctic situation, clearly believed the depressed
economy of the 50s 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 Governments 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 1970s. 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 Councils
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 Youngs 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, Weedens (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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- 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).
- 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
"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
(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:
- 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.
- A country which is small in area may have a narrow range of
resources and hence a specialized economy.
- A small country may be heavily dependent on one large foreign
- A small country may depend on external institutions.
- A small country may have a narrow range of local skills and
specific difficulty in matching skills with jobs.
- There may be diseconomies of scale in the provision of infrastructure
services, and it may be impossible to provide some services at
- 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:
- limited economic resources and prospects;
- lack of opportunity even for their limited pool of human talent;
- very restricted educational opportunities and facilities;
- vulnerability to political domination by one or a few unscrupulous
- vulnerability to domination by multi-national corporations
and financial institutions;
- (usually) excessive dependence on one crop, service, or other
form of economic activity;
- 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;
- consequent isolation from each other and from the outside world
- increasingly restricted opportunities for emigration;
- vulnerability to natural disasters; and
- lack, or poor quality, of their own press, radio and television
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:
- high import dependence;
- an export sector largely dependent on agriculture, agricultural
processing, and tourism;
- 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;
- flourishing small-scale and informal sectors;
- quantities of goods traded too small to affect world prices
of either imported or exported goods;
- a high proportion of government revenue being raised from tariffs
on imports, leading to considerable differences between world
and domestic prices;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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;
- the likelihood that linkages may be particularly important,
because if value-added is to be retained locally, projects will
have to be inter-related;
- conversely, if high-cost investments are undertaken, then these
same linkages may mean that many parts of the economy are adversely
- 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:
- to maintain or achieve political independence;
- to increase the living standards of the population;
- to promote greater economic self-reliance;
- 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
If one accepts Pradervands 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, Alaskas 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
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
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
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
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
The demographic data were calculated from Alaska Population Overview:
1986 and Provisional 1987 Estimates (Alaska Department of Labor,
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
It appears, at least for some areas of precontact Alaska, that
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(1980) twenty five distinct Eskimo societies extant in Northwest
Alaska in the early 1800s.
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Dryzek and Young (1985) and Weeden (1985) particularly examine
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