On Aug. 8, Alaska state Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) said this about Alaska Native subsistence on an Anchorage TV station: “I wish it were true that folks in Point Hope, Barrow, Nuiqsut, etc. were dependent on subsistence foods. Then the epidemic obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, dental cavities would not exist.”
Senator Giessel, whose health-related career took her to rural Alaska, knows better. While it is true that too many children in rural villages, like too many children in Anchorage, suffer from poor dietary choices, poor home health mentoring and poor fitness habits, it is absolutely not true that subsistence activities are inconsequential.
But clearly the senator was so anxious for her critique of rural subsistence to be heard, she proudly documented her philosophy on her Facebook page, which is where I read her remarks.
In Nuiqsut, everyone benefits
According to the online Subsistence Harvest data retrieval tool, in 2006 (the last date for which harvest data is available), for the community of Nuiqsut about 59 percent of hunters harvested nearly 600 caribou with 96 percent of those hunters sharing with the village -- resulting in 100 percent of the community benefiting from the harvest.
In Barrow, for the same year, 1,018 caribou were harvested by about 48 percent of the eligible households. Some 78 percent of those harvesters shared with the village, resulting in a distribution of meat to more than 90 percent of eligible households.
In Point Hope, the community distribution of sea mammals is important enough for the community to be engaged with the science and policy of marine mammal management and protection. Point Hope also harvests caribou; Nuiqsut and Barrow also harvest whales.
An issue referenced in a Washington Post article concerned the melting of permafrost freezers where the meat is stored. The system of “passive” freezers (freezers requiring no outside energy to maintain and operate) is critical to the preservation of food and according to the villagers; frozen ground is melting.
The senator sniffs at this issue, yet the economic impact is real. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the dressed weight of a 400-pound caribou is about 240 pounds. This equates to about 100 pounds of meat. The Municipality of Anchorage lists on its website that the typical price of ground beef in Anchorage is $3.37 per pound. And the State of Alaska’s Department of Labor, Research and Analysis Division notes that the cost of living differential in Alaska is significant.
$3,255 per household
The cost of living index for Anchorage is set at 1.00, for instance, while the index for Kotzebue, a regional center in Northwest Alaska, is 1.61. It’s safe to say, the index for smaller communities like Point Hope would be higher.
But, using these values, the import substitution value of the 600 Nuiqsut caribou alone would be 600 x 100 pounds x $3.37 x 1.61 or $325,542. Divided among the approximately 100 households in Nuiqsut, the caribou alone represents $3,255 per household. The value of the marine mammals, oils, birds, fish and berries more than double that import substitution value to the community. Subsistence is not insignificant.
I risk belaboring this point in order to call out Senator Giessel on her premise and conclusion. Her premise is that subsistence is insignificant part of the rural economy. Her conclusion is that the economic benefits to the villages from offshore development will outweigh the cost, even in the form of climate change and melting permafrost.
Mocked and trivialized
The irony here is rich. Senator Giessel is one of a gaggle of Republican legislators who push an extremist agenda imported to Alaska via the American Legislative Exchange or ALEC. This organization is funded by the wealthy conservatives and contains an ideology that decries, among other things, big government programs that foster dependency. Yet here we have Nuiqsut, independently producing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of local food, and still being mocked and trivialized by the senator because they want to preserve some measure of economic independence.
This incident provides a snapshot of the senator’s real purpose for serving in the legislature. She wants to give state revenues away to her friends in Big Oil and she is willing to dispense with subsistence so Shell can get its way.
Senator, have you no shame?
Elstun Lauesen is an Anchorage freelance writer and the husband of Harriet Drummond, who is running for the Alaska House in District 16. Commentary first appeared in The Tundra Drums of Bethel. Used with permission.