RURAL DEVELOPMENT IN ALASKA
The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs
and Indigenous People:
Authors and Actors in Rural Alaska
© Patrick J. Dubbs
Throughout the years, almost every conversation Ive had,
seminar Ive attended, or paper Ive heard related to "development" in
the North invariably touches upon the question of the viability
or future existence of small northern villagesvillages which
are primarily indigenous in their cultural orientation, land-based
in their economic pursuits, and "managed" by a mosaic
of external, non-indigenous institutions. However, as you might
expect, these common concerns do not have common meanings. For
some, the small villages are the embodiment of traditional indigenous
cultures, and their loss would constitute a form of genocide. For
others, the northern village way of life represents a segment of
Ruth Benedicts (1960) "great arc of human potential" that
should be maintained to provide positive adaptation models for
contemporary and future societies (e.g. Griffiths and Young 1989).
For still others, the pace of the small village is simply preferred
to that of a regional or urban center, and they feel it should
be retained as an optional life style. I too am interested in the
long term viability of Alaskas small, rural communities and,
in two earlier WRSA presentations (Dubbs 1988 and 1991), I have
pursued this interest. This brief paper continues this pursuit,
with its major difference being its explicit use of the sustainable
development concept to examine trends articulated in the previous
However, the more I pondered the title of this paper"Sustainable
Development and Indigenous People"the more bemused I
became at its inherent, yet unintended irony. Over the millennia,
indigenous people practiced and generally succeeded at some form
of sustainable development. Clearly, indigenous people intuitively
knew what sustainable development meant and no doubt had a good
understanding of many of the difficulties involved in its accomplishment.
Whether sustainable development is something contemporary indigenous
people wish or are able to pursue, however, is not quite so clear.
In this brief paper, I will address two interrelated areas of inquiry:
first, is sustainable development an appropriate strategy that
can be embraced by village-based indigenous people in Alaska today;
and, second and more importantly, is it an achievable strategy?
Though I suspect that these comments are more or less applicable
to most small indigenous community contexts throughout the circumpolar
region, I will illustrate them by occasionally making reference
to the village context of the Doyon or Athabascan region of Interior
Alaska as most of the "vitality issues" can be readily
The Village Demographic Context in Interior Alaska
The boundaries of the Doyon geo-cultural region are coterminous
with the boundaries of the Doyon Corporationone of the original
twelve land-and-capital-holding regional corporations formed with
the passage of ANCSA in 1971. In recognition of its overall population
being dispersed across a large number of subsistence-centered communities
and the vast size of the claimed but not awarded land
base, the Doyon region was the largest ANCSA land recipient, and
its 12 million-plus acres represent about 30% of all the lands
conveyed in the settlement process. With the additional 2.5 million
acres that were assigned to communities wishing to continue as
reservations, the Doyon area has the most lands in the state under
Alaska Native control.
There are currently 37 recognized and inhabited Alaska Native
communities distributed over the vast Doyon region, an area a little
less than the size of France with a total population of only 92,111
(see Figure One). Of these communities, 34 are ANCSA land recipient
villages while 3 elected to remain reservation communities. For
most of the 6,448 people residing in these communities in 1990,
Fairbanks serves as their transportation and/or administrative
Within this large regionabout one-third of all AlaskaNative
American individuals are a distinct minority, constituting only
11.8% of the overall regional population while at the statewide
level, Native Americans account for 15.6% of Alaskas population
(see Table One). Only in the Yukon-Koyukuk subregion of the Interior
do Native Americans constitute a significant percentage of the
total population (55.7%).
ONE: 1990 Native American Population in Alaska
Alaska Population Overview-1990 Census, Alaska Depart.
of Labor, State of Alaska, July 1991.
In the last decade, the overall Interior Native population grew
at the approximately same rate as the overall population (34-36%)
(Alaska Department of Labor 1982:7) and the average size of the
Native villages actually increased from 169 to 174. At first glance,
these data might suggest an increasingly viable rural area; however,
when we factor in the that fact that the rural Native population
only increased by 8%, while the urban population increased by 78%,
and when we break the population changes down by size of village,
it is easier to see that there are several communities whose long-term
viability can be questioned. (see Table Two).
While one would anticipate an increase in community population
size from 70 to 80, if for no other reason that the
formulation of ANCSA stockholder rolls in the mid-70s, one
would also anticipate an increase or stabilization of the population
in the 80s if the communities were perceived to provide individuals
with viable options. This was not the case49% of the communities
experienced a population decline in the 80s compared to only
a 36% decline in the 70s. The most threatened communities,
the predominately subsistence-centered communities of less than
100 individuals, experienced a much higher rate of population decline
in the 80s69%. These smaller communities have very
few full-time employment opportunities and those that are available,
e.g., school teacher, often are filled by non-local residents.
For the most part, individuals survive in these communities by
a combined cash generation-subsistence utilization strategy that
is dependent on transfer payments and/or seasonal employment as
well as adequate renewable resources.
The concept of sustainable development is so ubiquitous and ill-defined
as to make its parentage and, much more importantly, its actual
applicability questionable. For some, it has become the panacea
for the twenty-first century; for others, it is nothing more than envirobabble.
While one could conceivably trace its parentage at least to Malthus,
it seems fairly clear that its many and varied contemporary manifestations
are linked to a conceptual chain that has evolved over the past
quarter of a century involving the Club of Romes pronouncements
on the limits to growth in the early 70s, the "Another
Development" strand of the United Nations Environment Programme
in the mid-70s, the International Union for the Conservation
of Natures World Conservation Strategy of the early 80s
and, most recently, the World Commission on Environment and Developments "Our
Common Future" of the late 80s. What sustainable development
means, however, is not quite so easily determined. Rather than
try to reiterate the extensive and quite complex debate on the
meaning of sustainable development, it seems useful for the purposes
of this paper to simply approach it as Barbier (Barbier and McCracken
1988:14) does and view it as a general, overall orientation involving
some sense of continuity related to economic, ecological and social
development that utilizes "strategies which . . . are environmentally
sustainable over the long-term, are consistent with social values
and institutions, and encourage grassroots participation
in the development process" (Barbier 1987:102). At the village
or micro-level, Barbiers general orientation becomes centered
on the idea of "sustainable economic development" which,
in addition to avoiding the contradictions inherent in sustained
economic growth formulations, provides a formulation in which ".
. . the quantitative and qualitative dimensions are mutually reinforcing
and inseparable." This approach is
directly concerned with increasing the material standard of
living of the poor at the grassroots level, which
can be quantitatively measured in terms of increased food, real
income, educational services, health-care, sanitation and water
supply, emergency stocks of food and cash, etc., and only indirectly
concerned with economic growth at the aggregate, commonly national
level. In general terms, the primary objective is reducing absolute
poverty of the worlds poor through providing lasting and
secure livelihoods that minimize resource depletion, environmental
degradation, cultural disruption and social instability (1987:103).
In this view, the original questions raised are now more specific,
i.e., is it possible for small Alaskan villages to provide individuals
with opportunities for "lasting and secure livelihoods that
minimize resource depletion, environmental degradation, cultural
disruption, and social instability." And, is this a desirable
Desirability of Sustainable Development in the North
Consistent with the global pattern, "sustainable development" is
a concept that is increasingly being positively connected to programs
related to northern development. These efforts range from an Alaska
Federation of Native financing workshop on "Building a Sustainable
Economic Future" (1989) to the Canadian Winter Cities Forum 91
focus on "Is Sustainable Development Feasible." The activities
of the Arctic Institute of North America are particularly noteworthy
as it has carried out both theoretical and applied endeavors related
to sustainable development, for example, a Bibliography of Sustainable
Economic Development (1988), an on-going Sustainable Economic Development
Business Project (1989) and even short courses like "Rethinking
Rural, Native and Small Town Economies: Fostering Sustainable Economic
Similarly, the literature on northern development is beginning
to consistently reflect a concern with sustainable development
[ e.g., Keith and Simon (1987), , Griffiths and Young (1989), Pretes
and Robinson (1989), Lyck (1989), Science Council of Canada (1991),
and Hansen (1991)]. And, after reviewing this type of literature
to compile the Arctic Institutes bibliography on sustainable
economic development, Connatty (1988), besides offering a useful
graphic array of various components associated with SED, provides
an omnibus definition which closely parallels the previously
mentioned Barbier definition:
A beneficial progression in economic conditions for the people
in a specific area when current and future environment, social
and cultural needs are being met (iii).
In a subsequent and even more specific bibliography on sustainable
development and the entrepreneur, Michael Pretes (1989:vi), a staff
member at the Arctic Institute, sketches some common objectives
of sustainable development that are helpful in providing a northern
anchor for the more general Barbier and Connatty definitions:
- recognition that economic and environmental problems [are]
global in nature
- acknowledgment of the relationship between economy and environment
- advocacy of local control of resources
- avoiding reliance on non-renewable resources
- recognition of the importance of social and cultural traditions
- the need to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease
- recognition that these factors must be viewed with future generations
The Northern Workshop portion of the 1986 Conference on Conservation
and Development that was concerned with implementing the previously
mentioned World Conservation Strategy goes even farther in recommending
specific directions sustainable development must take in the North:
Community-based land use planning, integrated resource management,
community education programmes, community participation on resource
management boards, the decentralization of management responsibilities
to local governments, legislative change, international cooperation
and recognition, and settlement of outstanding aboriginal land
claims were seen to be the essential mechanism through which
sustainable development is achievable in the circumpolar North.
(Jacobs and Munro 1987:433)
At this level, it seems quite obvious that sustainable development,
as a strategy which results in ". . . lasting and secure livelihoods
that minimize resource depletion, environmental degradation, cultural
disruption, and social instability" (Barbier 1987:103), is
a highly desirable strategy for small Northern communities that
wish to continue their long standing, land-based cultural life
style while being able to actively " . . . meet the needs
of the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment
and Development:43). As Keith and Simon note, "For the northern
peoples of the circumpolar world, the key to survival and social
and economic well-being is sustainable development (1987:221)." However
desirable this strategy may be, the larger question, of course,
is whether it is an achievable strategy in the North.
Attaining Sustainable Development in Village Alaska
Since Alaska villagers are increasingly tied into complex external
relationships which they are unable to control, one has to question
whether sustainable development really provides more long-term
stability than was offered by other externally oriented "export
boom" development efforts. In order to pursue this further,
it seems useful to view village Alaskas relationships with
external actors from the perspective of a nested dependency hierarchy
(see Figure Two). While each level of this hierarchy, by definition,
has import for local level sustainability, in the interest of brevity
I will only focus on two of the components: the inner or village
level, where the ability to pursue less-dependent alternatives
is high, and the outer or global limits to sustainability, the
ultimate level of dependence. The intermediate levels might be
viewed as policy, legislative, and judicial levels that ultimately
affect the global and village action-levels, (e.g., the recent
policy decision of the Alaska State Board of Fisheries to increase
the Aleutian Island salmon catchment limits probably will have
negative consequences for subsistence and commercial fishing at
the village level in the Doyon region).
TWO: NESTED DEPENDENCY HIERARCHY
At the village level, there is a set of considerations this is necessary
but not sufficient" to achieve local level sustainable development.
To use Barbiers (1987) framework: economically, these considerations
involve opportunities for individuals to obtain cash and to increase
its local circulation so as to create "lasting and secure
livelihoods"; environmentally, they dictate that individuals
engage in subsistence and/or commercial natural resource pursuits
that "minimize resource depletion [and] environmental degradation";
culturally, sustainable development suggests that activities be
carried out in ways consistent with on-going cultural values so
that "cultural disruption" is minimized; and, finally,
these considerations must be met without an increase in "social
instability." As Weeden suggests, this necessitates " .
. practices that are economically gainful, socially acceptable,
and ecologically supportable" (1989:47). In the small villages
of the Doyon region, as I have suggested elsewhere (Dubbs 1988),
the only appropriate way to begin to accomplish these ends is to
essentially redefine "development" away from a traditional
economic growth orientation and towards a bottom-up, "Another
Development" orientation that is ". . . geared to the
satisfaction of needs, . . . [built] on the strength of societies
which undertake it [and which is carried out] in harmony with the
environment" (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation 1975:28). For me,
An "Another Development" strategy for rural Alaska,
like elsewhere, must start with the satisfaction of basic physical
and psychocultural needs of the rural population. In Alaska,
this demands that subsistence be given strategic primacy. The
totality of the subsistence system has sustained generations
of Alaska Natives in the rural homelands for thousands of years
. . . This sustenance is inextricably both physical and psychocultural,
and it provides, in my opinion, the single most important anchor
in the lives of rural residents (Dubbs 1988:17).
Along with a subsistence-centered systems obvious concern
about the quality and quantity of the natural resource base, the
other key variable in the "development" of a sustainable
community along the lines suggested by Barbier seems to be, What
is the optimum population size? Essentially, the population size
has to be small enough so that the on-going subsistence lifestyle
can continue to be the cultural and economic base for the community
and yet, it ideally should be large enough to support some local
economic activities so that immediate income leakages are minimized.
This may be an impossible balance, as it is quite probable that
the size of population required for an economically meaningful
local circulation strategy would be too large to be supported by
the local natural resource base. Thus, if villages are to remain
viable, they will need to depend on extra-local sources of income
as cash is a contemporary survival tool. The degree of dependence
will vary in response to the range of economic opportunities locally
available in each village, but there will be a degree of dependence.
Also, as state funds dwindle, one can anticipate increasing attention
being paid to the "optimum service-population size" needed
to receive and/or support government provided services such as
schools, health centers, potable water facilities, and airport
runways. If these types of services are reduced or eliminated in
the Doyon region, one can easily foresee entire small villages
being virtually abandoned. Already, the state has floated a trial
balloon about relocating small rural villages and forming new places
around development projects that ". . . make more economic
sense [as] the state is pouring millions of dollars into villages
that have no revenue-generating economy" (Fairbanks Daily
News-Miner, May 16, 1991:5). While this might provide for the short-term
cash needs of villagers, one obviously has to ask, At what cost?
The answer seems obvious.
- What villagers can do at their level to meet the "necessary
conditions" for sustainable development is to follow precepts
such as those set forth by Weeden (1989:43-45), precepts which
almost seem intuitive for an indigenous subsistence-centered
system that desires to pursue an appropriate and sustainable
course of action, and principles that seem to conform to the
sound-bite sustainable development slogan "Think Globally,
Act Locally." Specifically, villagers should
- ". . . direct [subsistence] stresses toward the most resilient
aspects of nature and away from the least reversible and most
- ". . . [avoid] human behaviors [which go] against grain
of nature [as these] usually mean higher costs (43);
- "submaximize" yields from renewable resources so
that continuity of supply is not threatened by unpredictable
- . . . retain "systems of human behavior and technology
. . . [which are] highly responsive to local conditions (44)";
- employ "Simplified technology . . . systems [which] cost
less, . . . are more easily maintained by local people, . . .
[and] are more mobile and cost less to repair or replace (44)";
- adjust to the fact that ". . . resource extraction systems
need to be able to weather hard times either from falling prices
and rising costs, or from temporary resource shortages (44)." This
can be accomplished by becoming generalists as opposed to specialists,
both in terms of resources pursued and the technology used.
While quite remote from day-to-day Doyon village-level concerns
and activities, the global situation clearly has been the focus
of sustainable development advocates over the past twenty years
and it has a significant long-term bearing on whether Alaska village
renewable subsistence strategies will be sustainable. One could
plausibly argue that the future of village Alaska depends on "Our
Common Future" global situation which Alaskan villagers
share with the rest of humanity but, because of the fragile nature
of northern ecosystems, Alaskan villagers may even be more at risk
than many others. As Griffiths and Young observe " . . . the
roots of the most serious threats to sustainable development in
the Arctic are of southern rather than northern origin (1989:10)." Already,
Global problems found in the North include arctic atmospheric
pollution and acid precipitation, climate warming, depleted animal
populations, with some on the endangered lists, and altered fish
habitats, with effects on some species (Duffy 1988:3).
These trends will be exacerbated and become more destructive for
northern lifestyles if industrial and emerging economies continue
to pursue unlimited and unregulated economic growth through non-renewable
resource based economies (Griffiths and Young 1989). This situation
is well recognized by the eight nations bordering the Arctic who
last year signed a historic "Declaration on the Protection
of the Arctic Environment" (First Ministerial Conference 1991).
Nonetheless, there is little Alaskan villagers can do by themselves
to alter these trends.
A different global consideration, yet a very immediate one, stems
from the reliance of Arctic economies, particularly the natural
resource sector, on non-Arctic consumers and producers. This influence
is constantly felt throughout Alaska through fluctuations in the
price of crude oil as a $1.00 price difference translates into
$150 million dollars of state revenue being gained or lost. Alaskas
economic history seems to have followed an implicit "staples
theory" of development in which natural resource exports are
the leading or basic sector that will give rise in time to backward
and forward industrial linkages as well as a developed service
sector to support the growing population. Unfortunately, the backward
and forward industrial linkages have been slow to materialize and
the states economy remains relatively undiversified and centered
on select natural resource exports, primarily oil, fish and timber.
To the extent to which Alaskan villagers participate in these export
activities in order to garner needed cash, their income-producing
livelihoods are subject to external markets beyond their control.
Similarly, to the extent Alaskan villages are dependent on state
expenditures, their viability is threatened by uncontrollable market
A particularly important variant of the external market-dependency
characteristic is the growing influence of "animal protection
movements" on the livelihoods of northern villagers, particularly
those engaged in harvesting furs for commercial purposes. The International
Working Group for Indigenous Affairs recent monographArctic
Environment: Indigenous Perspectives (Hansen 1991)presents
a comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon from the point of
view of the humans who suffer because of itindigenous northerners.
They clearly indicate that
The indigenous perspective [on sustainable development] focuses
on the indigenous society and on how small communities in the
Arctic can maintain renewable resource harvesting as the basis
of their economy. The strategy chosen by indigenous peoples is
one which enables them to maintain their close relationship with
nature while at the same time, reinforcing their cultural integrity
and securing their future as distinct peoples. Their strategy
involves a mutual dependence between indigenous society and the
natural environment and wildlife. (20)
In the mid-80s, several communities in the Doyon region
joined to form a fur marketing cooperative to better deal with
the vagaries of the external fur market and thereby better establish
trapping as an important cash generating strategy. Should villagers
like these who are regularly engaged in commercial fur harvests
find no markets for their furs, their prospects for a stable and
renewable source of cash will be severely threatened and with it,
their prospects for a sustainable rural lifestyle. One can only
wonder if a more widespread anti-hunting and fishing attack is
soon to follow.
If sustainable development is to have any chance of being attained
in village Alaska, it is quite clear that it will depend less on
the local actions of village Alaska Natives than it will on the
actions of external actors. From this perspective, a localized
approach to sustainable development will not appreciably alter
the historic pattern of subordinate and dependence relations between
village Alaska and the wider industrial system. Such a localized
strategy, even if successfully implemented, will not be sufficient
to insure the degree of self-reliance and self-determination sought
after by many Alaska Native villagers. The increasing importance
of the global ecosystem for village subsistence systems cannot
be ignored, and the roots of dependence have grown too deep for
the basic external exchange relationships needed for the continued
existence of small villages to be severed. It is simply hard to
imagine villagers existing today without having access to a productive
ecosystem, a source of cash income, and a modest range of services
that typically cannot be provided from resources within a small
community without a tax base; for example, health clinics, schools
and air fields.
Can anything be done? If Alaska Native villagers wish to embrace
sustainable development as a viable local development strategy,
and I think there would be strong support for this, it appears
to me that they will need to follow both an appropriate localized
development strategy as well as a heightened and externally oriented
political strategy. As Lyck points out, ". . . the decisive
factor [will be] their ability to gain support and acceptance among
nations south of the Arctic (1990:312)." Alaska Natives and
other northern Indigenous people have been aware of external threats
to their existence for several years and already have taken their
concerns to a larger forum. The 1977 formation of the Inuit Circumpolar
Conference to deal with panArctic development issues affecting
the indigenous way of life and the 1984 formation of Indigenous
Survival International to counteract the animal protectionists
are both significant occurrences. The planned involvement of the
ICC in the upcoming "global summit" or United Nations
Conference and Development (Nielsen 1991) provides an excellent
opportunity for indigenous northerners to link their concerns to
those of indigenous people throughout the world and thereby clearly
and powerfully dramatize the effects of the global level on the
viability of traditional lifestyles. But more is needed. Local
village people, in particular, need to become more forceful advocates
for their way of life in and out of their communities. The surrogate
spokesmens role fulfilled by those in indigenous organizations
is a useful one, but only village people can express true meaning
of a village way of life and what its loss would mean. This "true
meaning", rather than the professional argument of the surrogate,
might be what is needed to change the behavior of industrial-man.
In Alaska, there is some indication that a village voice may be
emerging. Will Mayo, the president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference,
the non-profit organization serving the Doyon region, recently
advocated the formation of a statewide intertribal council by arguing
The power of 200-plus Alaska tribes would be a great potential
force in local, statewide and national areas if we would only
unify. Look at the power just a few thousand sportsmen or animal
rights activists exercise in politics because they have organized.
We are forced to react to their moves and it is killing us. It
is time for tribes to develop an offense and let
someone else react. (Tanana Chiefs Conference 1992)
In sum, it seems the strategy for a sustainable indigenous future
must be "Organize Locally and Act Globally."
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Benedict, Ruth. 1960. Patterns of Culture. New York: New
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Mackimmie Library. Calgary: Arctic Institute of North America.
Dag Hammarskjold Foundation. 1975. The 1975 Dag Hammarskjold Report
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Young. 1989. Sustainable Development and the Arctic. Nuuk,
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Behrens. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: New American
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These observations are not based on systematic field research
and same would be needed to verify their accuracy.
Modified map from DoyonLimited 1980 Annual Report
For example, see ORiordan (1988), Pearce, et. al. (1990),
and Turner (1991).
Barbier takes care to differentiate this general conceptualization
of sustainable development from the more narrow one of "environmentally
sustainable development" that is specifically concerned with
optimal resource and environmental management over time (Barbier
and McCracken 1988:14).