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The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs

Decolonizing Economics

© Patrick J. Dubbs

While an adequate, comprehensive economic history of rural Alaska has yet to be written, especially one from the perspective of rural Alaskans, there appear to be several obvious trends that such a history would focus on. In this brief paper, which is really more bits and pieces of some other papers I have presented over the past few years related to local level development in rural Alaska than it is a fresh, new look at the rural Alaska economy, I will briefly describe and examine these trends which, in combination, I feel constitute what might be labeled a "colonized economy" and I will then suggest an alternative to or modification of the existing economic system which I feel will more directly benefit local rural residents. The use of "I" here is a deliberate one for historical data, like most if not all other data, are subject to a variety of interpretations and the one I make in this paper will pose some difficulties for the assimilationists and frontiersmen among us.

Where does one start on such a formidable undertaking? I , like Anders (1983), Berger (1985) and others dealing with the rural Arctic, have increasingly found it productive to conceptualize rural Alaska as a Fourth World context for this conceptualization forces us to look at the nature of historical interrelationships which give definition to the contemporary situation. In brief, the Fourth World is a world different from the precontact tribal world— it is a world created and maintained by a particular set of historical relationships between two distinct populations—an invading and/or settled colonizing industrial state population and a resident indigenous or tribal population still occupying its traditional land base. These relationships are initiated within a traditional economically-driven colonization framework and are perpetuated by an internal colonization dynamic through which the indigenous population "...generally inhabit[s] marginal geographic regions relative to central metropolitan areas, and...[whose] resources have historically exploited by the dominant group without local consultation (O’Neil: 119-120)" and eventually, the indigenous group loses its "...sovereignty and [becomes] subordinate to the wider society and state over which...[it does not] exercise any control (Stavenhagen: 4)".

The Fourth World construct describes the all too familiar "colonized economy" in which three processes—exploitation, dependence and dominance—characterizes the interrelationships or exchanges between the rural tribal population and the larger external system. It is an unidirectional power/reward situation in which decisions are initiated by, implemented under the direction of, and intended to benefit the external dominant system. This is not to say that there are no "benefits" accruing to the resident tribal population, indeed it is the illusion or reality of local benefits that props up this system, but that these "beneficial" outcomes were not intended to be primary outcomes. For example, there is probably no one in this room who seriously believes that the primary outcome of ANCSA was to be the settlement of long standing and legitimate Alaska Native legal claims to their traditional land base as opposed to it being the vehicle by which the North Slope oil wealth became easily accessible to multinational corporations, Alaska’s entrepreneurial community, the State of Alaska and the Federal Government.

Does this construct fit the rural Alaskan economic history? I think it does. A glance at the colonial economic history of rural Alaska reveals a consistent pattern of externally-generated natural resource extraction and exportation with little to no regard for the long-term welfare or development of the local resource producing regions. Rural Alaska is simply a resource bank to be drawn upon when external needs are great and/or profit possibilities are large. While the apparent strategy of extracting as many resources as possible as cheaply as possible may make good economic sense in terms of maximizing returns and minimizing costs, it clearly is an exploitative strategy when the maximization is geared to external entities and the minimization to local entities. It is a system of withdrawals, not deposits.

The component in this "colonized economy" constellation—economic dependence—is an undeniable one in rural Alaska. The alluring tentacles of different and sometimes more efficient goods quickly entwined rural residents and rather quickly, led to alterations in economic values, changes in seasonal pursuits, and formations of new residential patterns so that cash or goods could be obtained to fulfill these new needs. One saw the encouragement of individualistic economic gain as opposed to cooperative economic endeavors; the acceptance of diffuse corporate or entrepreneurial structures dictating both the time and place of work as opposed to following seasonal cycles; reliance upon highly efficient, imported technology as opposed to the ecologically sounder but less reliable and productive local technology; population relocation and centralization in sites of external production activities rather than in locations related to traditional ecological niches and, most importantly, an emphasis on the pursuit of cash generating and external market oriented activities over local subsistence activities.

The dominance feature directly relates to dependence as well as to decision-making. Dominance, on the one hand, is the other side of dependence. By relying upon external markets to purchase local resources, labor and provide goods, local residents were dominated by these external institutions in the sense of not being in control of them, or even being integral to their operation. External shifts in demand conditioned internal activities in rural Alaska rather than vice-versa. The other aspect of dominance, the decision-making aspect, again puts power and authority over local resources increasingly in the hands of external bodies or authorities, a phenomenon quite consistent with the historic rhythm of United States Indian policy (Price 1979). The proliferation of externally generated boards, agencies, commissions and the like, each with their nominal local rural representative, in many ways have become the definers of the future of rural Alaska.

About this time, the assimilationists and frontiersmen among us are no doubt saying something like "So what? That’s the nature of progress in the modern world and our Alaskan economy depends on these exports. No one’s twisting anyone’s arm. Besides, them Alaska Natives got all those corporations and are better off than you and me." There is obviously some truth to this type of support for a "colonized economy", it is just that the "truth" usually comes from the perspective of those who are outside the resource producing areas but who benefit most from them; in the Alaskan context, these are the residents and corporations, including the several ANCSA regional corporations, found in the more urbanized area of central and southeast Alaska. However, one might ask "what about the village residents whose livelihoods have become dependent upon increasingly unstable sources of cash and inaccessible natural resources in today’s mixed economy and who have become entangled in a web of external social, cultural, political, economic and technological systems? How do these folks feel about this export-oriented, colonial economy?" I am not sure and I do not think anyone else is sure what the response to this question would be in rural Alaska today. Six or seven years ago, I think you would have found a lot of support for the colonial economy throughout rural Alaska. After the Berger hearings, perhaps the only true indicator of rural resident responses to the post-ANCSA world, the rather precipitous decline in local governmental revenues due to the external oil glut, and the recent, widespread publicity generated by the disturbing Anchorage Daily News "People In Peril" series, I think today you will find a more reflective rural Alaska. My guess is that responses will vary with the size, location, and particular cultural and economic orientations of the community as well as its ability to consider and/or pursue alternatives to the existing colonial economy. Outside of the regional institutional centers, which I think form a fundamentally different pattern of rural development, I would expect most smaller, land-based communities to be quite concerned about their long term future in the colonial economic context. It is no accident that the such recent phenomena as the Berger Report, the Yupiit Nation, the Alaska Native Coalition, the Alaska Resource Commodities Trading and Investment Corporation and the Inupiaq Spirit Movement all seem to resonate more loudly with residents of smaller communities.

But, is there really any alternative to the existing colonial economy? Obviously, I think there is, but it is an alternative that will not be suitable for or desired by all rural Alaskan communities. It is an alternative pattern of development advocated by the "Another Development" school of thought for which

Development is a whole. Its ecological, cultural, social, economic, institutional and political dimensions can only be understood in their systematic interrelationships, and action in its service must be integrated...the three pillars, so to speak, of Another Development [are—it is]

  1. Geared to the satisfaction of needs, beginning with the eradication of poverty.
  2. Endogenous and self-reliant, that is, relying on the strength the societies which undertake it.
  3. In harmony with the environment...Another Development requires structural transformations (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation 1975:28).

Such development

"...relies on what a human group has: its natural environment, its cultural heritage, the creativity of the men and women who constitute it, becoming richer through exchange between them and with other groups. It entails the autonomous definition of development styles and of lifestyles (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation:34).

"Another Development" does not deny the import of traditional economic goals such as economic growth, infrastructure expansion, cash generation, etc., it simply views these as one of many possible means to attain need satisfaction as opposed to being the exclusive subject or goal of development.

Utilization of local resources in locally decided ways for locally determined ends becomes the path to self-reliant and sustainable development. Again, "Another Development" does not deny the fact that there may be a need for exchange linkages with other systems, it simply does not accept, a priori, that you must have such linkages. Should such linkages be required, it does suggest that they be initiated and controlled by local communities as much as possible.

By stressing harmony with the environment, "Another Development" goes beyond the mere physical environment to embrace the total physiosocial environment. Questions of compatibility, appropriateness, resource utilization, exhaustion and renewability and the like are part and parcel of fitting activities into the local environment rather than changing the environment to fit into activities as is so often the case under colonized economies.

In contrast to externally oriented colonized economies, "Another Development" occurs

"...when people and their communities—whatever the space and time-span of their efforts—act as subjects and are not acted upon as objects; assert their autonomy, self-reliance and self-confidence; when they set out and carry out projects. To develop is to be, or to become. Not to have. (Third System Project: 72)."

Is an "Another Development" strategy a feasible one for rural Alaska communities? Again, I obviously think that it is. However, for it to be successful, several features have to be in place, the most important of which is that a locally-controlled subsistence-centered system be given strategic and unassailable legal primacy so that it can provide an enduring basis of physical and psychocultural sustenance for residents of small communities. With this foundation, rural communities can and should embark upon a wide-variety of local and extra-local cash extending and generating activities. To be sure, these types of activities such as tourism, enclave employment and the sale of natural resource products involve trade-offs between autonomy and external dependency, but they also are activities that are initiated from, implemented by and intended to benefit the local community as opposed to the external colonizing system. Through this approach, one becomes a selective participant in the colonized economy rather than subservient to it.



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