RURAL DEVELOPMENT IN ALASKA
The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs
The Whale and the Co-op:
The Emerging Issue of Animal
Rights and Alaska Native
© Patrick J. Dubbs
Land, Economic Development and Cultural Survival
Committee on Environmental Issues in Anthropology
Council on Anthropology and Education
American Anthropological Association
1988 Annual Meeting - November 18, 1988
For three weeks or so in October, the saga of the attempted rescue
of three gray whales trapped in the ice off Barrow, Alaska became
an on-going, ever-expanding news event which provided many of us
with a welcome relief from the rhetoric of the election campaign.
Yet, the rescue itself quickly generated its own rhetoric. For
example, Newsweek magazine entitled its three page story "Just
One Mammal Helping Another" (October 31, 1988) while one of James
Kilpatrick's nationally syndicated columns was entitled "Whale
rescue showed best of humankind" (November 2, 1988). The otherwise
restrained Christian Science Monitor even captioned its short photo
essay as "U.S., Soviets join in whale 'summit'" (October 27, 1988).
I realize that, for many onlookers, the presumed rescue of the
whales was indeed an uplifting, "best of all worlds" type of activity especially
since they are such magnificent creatures who now are on the endangered
species list. My guess is we probably would have seen a different
scenario had they been the three hummingbirds of Fresno. Nonetheless,
the event occurred, countless hours and well over one million dollars
were spent on "saving" two whales and we are now in a position
to assess the event from a multitude of perspectives.
In the interest of brevity and to avoid what syndicated columnist
Jim Fain has alluded to as the pointless moralist perspective,
i.e., Moralists who denounce the expenditure of millions on a brace
of whales ignore the fact that we lavish more on professional wrestling.
The argument is as pointless as it is ancient. If show business
and social work competed in a perfect society, Madonna would not
make more than Mother Teresa. We have to deal with isness, not
oughtness. (October 28, 1988).
I will restrain myself and not focus my remarks on the ironies
inherent in the tragedy of the three young Inupiaq children who
were trapped in a house fire in Barrow and who died while the rescue
of the three whales proceeded nearby. Rather, I will direct this
paper to an area I have been concerned with for several years of
sustainable local level development for small rural northern communities
and more specifically, how I perceive this type of animal-media
event to be both a direct threat to this type of development as
well as to indigenous Alaskan cultures as we know them. Any schema
for sustainable development in rural Alaska that will meet the
needs of the current and next generation as well as "preserve" and/or
continue the evolution of Alaska Native rural cultures must be
inextricably tied to the land. These indigenous cultures were and,
more importantly, are land-based cultures whose practitioners gain
both physical sustenance and spiritual definition from the land.
Today's mixed rural economy of subsistence consumption and local
harvesting for export is inescapably dependent upon access to land-based
renewable resources. It is also, as Ross and Usher (1986:148) point
out, ...increasingly vulnerable to events and decisions beyond
its knowledge and control. Commodity price instability, inflation,
resource-management policies, environmental alteration or degradation,
economic development and social welfare policies, technological
innovations--all emanate from the dominant industrial economy and
can have profound effects on the local economy as well.
In late 1985, in the Upper Yukon (Yukon Flats) area of Interior
Alaska, the tribal government organizations of ten small communities
[with a total population of around 1500] got together to form the
Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments (CATG) for the purpose
of reducing the region's historical vulnerability to external events
and decisions. Their goal was and is to develop an appropriate,
locally controlled approach to sustainable development in their
region which will allow for the continued viability of both their
communities and their culture. Quite naturally, CATG decided to
focus its initial efforts on the enhancement of components within
its existing land-based mixed economy and decided to concentrate
on the fur industry because "...it is an integral part of the subsistence
way of life in the Yukon Flats, it utilizes a renewable resource
that is readily available,...the technical skills required by the
industry are already in place [and it] will bring more immediate
benefits to the trappers who represent an economic distribution
network that reaches every family in the Yukon Flats region (Stanley
quoted by Hansen 1988:19)." Given the historical price volatility
of the fur market and the capriciousness and monopolistic tendencies
of the transient fur buyers, CATG decided its most appropriate
response to the fur industry would be to form a marketing cooperative
to act as a middleman between the fur market and the trapper and
thereby realize better prices for the trapper. With support from
an Administration of Native Americans grant and a loan from a Canadian
fur auction company, the Yukon Flats Fur Cooperative was incorporated
under state law in June of 1987 (Hansen 1988:19). In addition to
achieving market equity and stability, the cooperative's long term
goals include such activities as providing cheaper supplies, building
storage and tanning facilities, developing a local fur garment
production capability, and, in conjunction with the local school
district, carrying out educational programs geared to training
people to be better able to participate in existing and new economic
opportunities within the region (Hansen 1988:20). In this region,
the fur cooperative clearly is intended to be the cornerstone of
a locally controlled sustainable development strategy.
Ironically, the fur cooperative and the local mixed economy which
supports the cultural base of the region are threatened by the
very system that created them. The dominant Euro-american system
which introduced and strongly encouraged the commercialization
of fur trapping, which created widespread dislocations in northern
indigenous systems, and which fostered an interlocking, pervasive
system of dependency, is now the same system which is attempting
to drastically alter trapping practices and/or stop fur trade altogether.
If these efforts are successful, they will severely curtail attempts
by indigenous Northerners to finally overcome the pervasive web
of dependency as well as their attempts to begin exercising real
control over their own lives. This attempt to destroy indigenous
economies and cultures is carried out in the name of preserving
the rights of animals, generally by those who reject "...the use
of animals for any purpose that causes them suffering or death
(Herscovici 1985: 19)." As an apparent member of the Animal Protection
Institute of America who wrote a letter to a Fairbanks paper states: "Trappers
trap for money. Destroy the fur market and I think that would end
95 percent of the trapping (Classen 1986)."
While I have no desire to see any species eliminated or "intentionally
abused", I do have a desire to see the essence of cultures thousands
of years old preserved. I feel animal-media events like the whale
rescue, because of their distorted anthropomorphizing and misplaced
sense of priorities, lend fuel to the creeping animal rights movement
in Alaska and thus, become direct threats to the cultural existence
of many Alaska Native societies. One need only look at the current
dependent situation of the Eastern Arctic Inuit seal hunters to
see how devastating the uninformed actions of the animal rights
activists can be (Wiedemann 1987).
While it may be too late for the Eastern Arctic, indigenous peoples
throughout the Arctic are responding to this serious threat to
their existence. Indigenous Survival International, a pan-Arctic
organization founded in 1984, is actively attempting to explain
the indigenous position with regard to:
- their respect for the land and its living resources,
- their right to harvest the land's bounty,
- the traditional benefits of a spiritual and cultural link with
nature and its gifts, and
- conservation of the land and its resources for future generations.
(Indigenous Survival International [Alaska]1988).
The European Parliament recently passed a declaration of intent
to support legislation that calls for "...a
ban on leg-hold traps in Common Market nations and the labeling
of imported products made from furs stripped off animals caught
in steel-jawed traps (O'Donoghue 1988:1)." While this specific
legislation does not call for a total boycott of trapped furs,
I suspect it is the first step toward such an end. If the labeling
legislation is enacted, it will directly impact indigenous Alaskan
trappers as Europe is the ultimate market for many Alaskan furs
and most trappers use the affordable, efficient and portable steel-jaw
However, I do not think the real question here is simply the ethnocentrically-determined
humanness of specific trapping devices. Rather, it is a long-standing
and much larger question of whether or not the words of tribal
peoples will continue to fall on deaf ears in the industrialized
world. They will if the cultural and subsistence activities of
indigenous Northern people continue to be viewed within the cultural
framework of western nation-states. They will if indigenous cultural
practices are not differentiated from the practices of the western
industrial system which have despoiled the global environment.
They will if people believe that the subsistence way of life is
not a dynamic, responsive adaptive system anchored in the land.
And finally, they will if people continue to simplistically place
the rights of animals equal to or above the rights of humans.
Adler, Jerry, Lynda Wright and Bill White. 1988. Just One Mammal
Helping Another. Newsweek (October 31):74-77.
Christian Science Monitor. 1988. U.S. Soviets join in whale
'summit'. October 27:3.
Classen, Thomas J. 1986. Letter to the Editor of the Fairbanks
Daily News-Miner. December 16:4.
Fain, Jim. 1988. Trapped Whales a Whimsical Media Event. Fairbanks
Daily News-Miner. October 28:4.
Hansen, Kenneth. 1988. Community Based Enterprises In The North:
Cooperatives. Unpublished Rural Development Senior Project.
University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Herscovici, Alan. 1985. Second Nature: The Animal Rights Controversy.
Toronto: CBC Enterprises.
Indigenous Survival International. 1988. Invitational Letter to
Fourth ISI Assembly. Anchorage: ISI-Alaska Steering Committee.
Kilpatrick, James. 1988. Whale Rescue Showed Best of Humankind. Fairbanks
Daily News-Miner. November 2:4.
O'Donoghue, Brian. 1988. European Fur-labelling Policy Would Put
the Bite on Trapping. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. November
12: 1 and 8.
Ross, David P. and Peter J. Usher. 1986. From the Roots Up:
Economic Development as if Community Mattered. Croton-on-Hudson,
New York: The Bootstrap Press.
Wiedemann, Eric. 1987. Is Saving the Seals Killing the Eskimos?.
World Press Review (July): 35-37