Last year I wrote a post about food security in Inuit Nunangat, focusing on the Kuskokwim king salmon closure in Southwest Alaska by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 60 Yup’ik fishermen faced misdemeanor charges for fishing in defiance of the closure. In May 2013, 25 defendants made a religious argument to justify their actions in an Alaska State District Court, arguing that fishing for king salmon “is inextricably linked to the spiritual core of the Yup’ik people who inhabit the region.” Not surprisingly, the the judge ruled in favor of a compelling state interest to ensure continued king salmon runs, trumping the religious argument.
This case is the latest high-profile iteration of the subsistence debate that’s been raging off and on in Alaska for the last several decades. This is because in Alaska, country food harvesting is governed by state and federal regulations rather than local indigenous management regimes. With the exception of marine mammal hunting, non-Natives generally have the same right of access to fish and game as Natives. This means that a non-Native from Anchorage visiting the Northwest Arctic to hunt caribou – with the proper permits and tags – has the same right of access as an Iñupiaq whose family’s food security may depend on a good caribou harvest in any given year.
This system contrasts with fish and game management in Nunavut, Canada, where Inuit self-manage country food harvests (including the setting and enforcing of animal harvest quotas) through community-based Hunting and Trapping Organizations and are not required to buy permits.
The top-down system of federal and state management of country food harvesting in Alaska is supposed to ensure equal access to resources under the state Constitution for all Alaskans – regardless of race – but it ignores the fact that many Alaska Native families are starting from an unequal place when it comes to quality of education, income and cost of living.
Yet for decades, Alaska Native peoples have failed to adequately make this case in the fight for self-regulation of country food harvesting. In the past, the Alaska Federation of Natives has pushed for an amendment to the Constitution recognizing some form of Alaska Native preference when it comes to accessing fish and game on state lands. But these efforts have failed, in part, because arguments justifying supposedly preferential treatment of Alaska Natives have largely focused on cultural differences rather than more palpable differences in social and economic circumstance.
The Kuskokwim closure religious defense represents a continuation of this strategy, which rests on the assumption that the dominating non-Native society is at least sympathetic to, if not capable of empathizing with the cultural and historical significance of Native self-management.
These concepts are too abstract for many non-Natives to grasp for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here, which makes gaining statewide support difficult if not impossible. I propose an advocacy approach for self-management and a Constitutional amendment that instead focuses exclusively on food security and economics.
The food security status of Alaska Natives is a gaping hole in this ongoing debate. This is because there are hardly any data about the food security status of Alaska Native peoples as a whole, never mind specific regions like the Southwest and the Northwest Arctic where food prices are highest and educational attainment and median household incomes lowest.
Data from Nunavut and other parts of Canada where social and economic conditions are similar to certain regions of Alaska show us that these and other factors are a recipe for food insecure households.
The World Health Organization defines food security as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.
Data about Inuit and indigenous food security in Canada has garnered international attention, and forced political leaders at the federal and territorial levels to address the high cost of living in the North, as well as the myriad factors that contribute to poverty and food insecure households.
In Alaska, I suspect that food insecurity is highest in Southwest and Northwest Alaska – incidentally the two regions that harvest the largest share of country foods. In these regions, the cost of energy and store bought foods is highest, and educational attainment and median household incomes are lowest.
For example, the median household income in the Northwest Arctic Borough is $59,893 compared to $69,014 for the state as a whole – a difference of nearly $10,000. And in the Arctic, nearly twice as many people live in poverty (about 20% of the region’s population). As the pictures I’ve posted from Kotzebue (the region’s largest and most inexpensive community) testify, the cost of living in the Northwest Arctic is staggering.
Gathering food security data from these and other regions would show that many Alaska Native communities depend on country foods in order to access “sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Food security data would reveal that without country foods, life in rural Alaska would be economically impossible for many, and that for most families traditional foods are a cheaper, more nutritious alternative to processed store-bought foods.
Food security data would give the Alaska Native community a stronger platform from which to negotiate enshrining self-management of fish and game or at least an Alaska Native harvesting preference in the state Constitution. This information would be most useful in cases similar to the 2012 Kuskokwim subsistence closure, where the state showed its ineptitude at managing king salmon runs and forced many Yupiit families to carry the economic burden of that mismanagement. Instead of abstract cultural arguments, such data could be used to emphasize the need for Alaska Native self-management and/or priority harvesting in order to ensure that families have access to an adequate supply of food.
Such a move could easily be justified as a public health measure and would be far less politically controversial than religious or cultural arguments. The case could then be made that in the long-run, Alaska Native self-management of fish and game harvests increase economic self-reliance and decrease dependence on so-called “entitlements.” This message would appeal to Alaska’s Republican majority.
This change of strategy needs to come from the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Alaska Native advocacy organization, and other Alaska Native advocacy organizations capable of leveraging research on this and other issues. For decades, Alaska Native organizations’ strategy on achieving greater Alaska Native autonomy over country food harvesting has not changed, and has not worked.
The way arguments are framed matters. Food security, human rights and public health are politically more difficult to deny than abstract religious or cultural rights. This is why Alaska Native organizations need to take the lead in researching and documenting the food security status of Alaska Native communities.