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Seldom spoken truth in subsistence battle: How unproductive Alaska lands really are

Craig Medred
Fish strips drying in Quinhagak. Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine

Alaska's long, bitter subsistence battle is back in the news again. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, last week called a hearing to discuss how to resolve an issue that has divided Alaskans for decades.

"One area of agreement is that things aren't working as promised," she said. What she failed to note, however, is that it now appears things are never going to work, short of some dramatic recession that depopulates the 49th state.

Nor is this bitter battle likely to end any time soon, as those testifying last week before the U.S. Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee illustrated. Native leaders suggested a takeover of management or co-management by Native organizations would solve the problem. Craig Fleener, himself an Alaska Native but speaking as a representative of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, pitched the idea that the state could produce its way out of the subsistence morass.

What is needed, he argued, is large-scale manipulation of ecosystems to grow more moose and caribou. The state, he said, has been handicapped in its efforts to kill wolves and bears in efforts to eliminate predators and increase the survival of prey.

One thing the two sides seem to share is a misunderstanding, or willful disregard, of the productivity of the north. Both appear willing to overlook one big, fundamental reality: Aside from salmon, which thrive because they spend their lives at sea, Alaska is a land poor in living resources. The population of the state at the time of the white invasion was, according to the respected Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, near 60,000 people.

This is what one might consider the human carrying capacity of Alaska. The population in the "good old days," the now fondly-remembered 1950s when the federal government was trying to eliminate wolves and bears in line with what had been done in the Lower 48 states, was only about twice the prehistoric number.

Growing Alaska population

One can make an argument that if the state were to now eliminate wolves and bears, the ecosystem might -- MIGHT -- be able to support 130,000 or 140,000 people. And if the state were to eliminate commercial fisheries, which have been managed to produce yields never before seen in Alaska history, the wild resources of the state would clearly support at least that many people.

The Alaska Native population in the state is now near 130,000. So, if all hunting and fishing by non-Natives was banned, the wild resources might support the Native population a decade or two. The Native population was sadly devastated after white contact, primarily due to disease and starvation during gold-mining days as wild resources declined due to overfishing and overhunting.

There were only about 25,000 Natives reported to be living in Alaska in 1910. There were 32,000 in 1940. In fact, it was not until 1970, according to ISER, that the Native population of the state returned to its pre-contact level, but the population of Alaska Natives has fared well since the arrival of federal assistance in the form of President Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society.'' 

The Native population skyrocketed from the 1970s into the 2000s and continues to grow. In some places, as was seen along the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska in 2012, the local population has already outgrown what some local resources can support. This problem is not going away. It is only going to get worse.

Given the population realities and the predictable reluctance of the non-Native population, some of whom were born here, to abandon their desires to hunt and fish, Alaskans can likely expect the political struggle over subsistence to go on and on. But maybe it's time to look at the bright side.

It could be a whole lot worse.

At least Alaskans aren't killing each other as they did in what anthropologists have dubbed "The Bow and Arrow War Days." It is unclear, they say, how long these wars raged on the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta, but they appear to have been Alaska's version of "The Hundred Years War" of Europe.

"The Bow and Arrow War Days imperiled lives and made legends of great men and women in the Yup’ik world prior to the arrival of Russians in the mid-1800s AD," wrote Caroline Funk in the journal Ethnohistory. "The Yup’ik conflicts, ranging from deadly to merely threatening, comprised one portion of a nearly pan-Alaska period of violence.

"During the hundreds of years of these wars, regional Yup’ik social and political organizations formed fluid alliances against equally mutable enemy cohorts. The full range of the conflicts extended far to the north and south to encompass the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and most Yupiit."

Alaska, according to Funk, was something short of Eden before the arrival of the Russians who are historically portrayed as bloodthirsty. Funk has joined anthropologist Anne Fienup-Riordan in suggesting the "Smiling Eskimo" stereotype, so skillfully deployed by Alaska Airlines as a marketing image in modern times, is not particularly accurate.

"The Bow and Arrow War Days are little known outside Alaska," according to Funk. "This may be due to the erroneous notion held among Westerners that Eskimos in general, and Yupiit in particular, are peaceful, loving individuals. According to Fienup-Riordan, this 'pernicious pacifism' was initially fostered by the typically nonviolent historical interactions between Yupiit and white traders and missionaries. She suggests that since the west coast of Alaska was not subjected to the intense Manifest Destiny process, Yupiit did not respond violently to Westerners. Hence, people tend to think of Yupiit as peaceful -- or emphasize the harmonizing aspects of Yup’ik cosmology while ignoring the levels of violence within the culture. In fact, it is only in the suppressed notes of John Kilbuck, an early Moravian missionary to the area, that Fienup-Riordan found evidence for violence during the historical era."

Funk, who studied more than 1,000 oral histories recorded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs between 1978 and 1991, said she found plenty to support Kilbuck's observation.

The Bow and Arrow Wars, according to Funk, could have run for as long as 1,000 years with villages regularly being annihilated and children and women being regularly stolen, but it is unclear what exactly started the conflict.

One hypothesis, she said, focuses on disruptions in trade between the Chukotkans on the western side of the Bering Strait and the Yupiit on the eastern shore as Russian traders moved into the Russian Far East.

"If interruption of established trade patterns and the presence of a new colonial entity caused war, then the Bow and Arrow Wars could have started about three centuries ago," she writes. "A related hypothesis links the start of war to the migration of a violent Yup’ik nation through the area. At some point in the past 500 years, the Aglurmiut moved through western Alaska after being forced from their homeland farther to the north and east in the Norton Sound area."

Competition for resources

Another theory ties the wars to the pre-White invasion of another group of aboriginal peoples.

"Since massive cultural change occurred with the arrival of Thule cultural practices about a 1,000 years ago, it is logical to suppose that this could mark the start of the Bow and Arrow War Days," Funk writes. "The past thousand years have been violent throughout North American indigenous cultures in general.

"(But) whenever the precise beginnings, war began for the (Yukon-Kuskowim) Triangle Yupiit deep enough in the past that it is considered a constant way of life in the oral histories. Occasionally, the ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) oral histories contain vague hints of a lifestyle that existed before the wars, but it is difficult to determine whether the hints are about times before any war or times before the most recent series of raids and revenge killings. As far as the elders of the 1980s are concerned, war in the Triangle area was a continuous factor in the lives of their nameable ancestors."

Why? No one knows for sure, but competition for resources is a likely reason.

Earlier research "suggests that it was control over such coastal resources as seals that led to the conflict ... indicating their high significance in Yup’ik life and war," Funk writes. "Some of the Triangle oral histories suggest that resources were under stress or access to resources was curtailed during the Bow and Arrow War Days.

"For example, one states that more people resulted in more deaths: war would happen and escalate the death rate, but when there were fewer people, there was no war and less death. Were the initial high death rates caused by resource stress?"

Alaska was a tough land in which to survive only a few centuries back. There was war. There was famine. And there were regular conflicts over resources.

Maybe instead of constantly feuding over the latter these days, Alaskans of all stripes should take a moment now and then to give thanks to the reality that they've now agreed to try settle disputes with words instead of the weapons of death, and no one starves anymore.

And maybe if everyone recognizes that, a reasonable discussion about subsistence can begin. The issue is really no longer about living off the land. The land cannot support the current population.

What it is all about today is finding a way to use the resources available to support the hunter-gatherer cultures being buried beneath a tidal wave of technology.

This problem sometimes seems to have been lost on both sides of the argument.  They fight over who should have a priority to kill what while the youth of both rural and urban Alaska -- Native, white, black, Asian and other -- peer at the screens of their smart phones and contemplate everything but a cultural connection to the land that is Alaska.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com