“We’ve got a situation where Inuit people are protesting in the streets in communities across the territory — it’s something that I don’t think anybody has ever seen.”
– Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for Toronto (St. Paul)
In the past two months, the issue of food security in northern indigenous communities has received a flurry of press attention. This attention is due largely to three events:
- the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food’s 11 day fact-finding mission to Canada, his findings, and the Government of Canada’s apathetic response;
- Inuit protests of North West Co. owned grocery stores in Nunavut (the corporation that happens to own 33 Alaska Commercial Co. (AC) stores throughout rural Alaska) and the growing, Nunavut-based “Feed My Family” Facebook group movement; and
- U.S. federal and state enforcement of a king salmon fishery closure on the Kuskokwim River, effectively denying Yupiit fishing of this species in one of the most expensive and impoverished jurisdictions in America.
I would like to comment on the closure of the Kuskokwim king salmon fishery, and put this action in the context of what appears to be a growing and unprecedented movement against the astronomically high cost of store bought foods in Canadian Inuit communities.
In Alaska, the state and federal government have jurisdiction over the traditional subsistence activities of Alaska Native peoples. This means that the state and federal government, rather than tribes or other Alaska Native bodies, have the power to set and enforce harvest quotas on fish and game, or close the harvest altogether if fish and game species counts are determined to be unsustainable by these management regimes.
This month, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game unrolled staggered closures of the Kuskokwim River king salmon fishery because, as the Anchorage Daily News reports, “Bethel-based research revealed a weak, late run for king salmon along the Kuskokwim River this year.” This closure is scheduled to last through the end of June, and essentially criminalizes king salmon fishing until the closure is over. The reasons behind this season’s low runs remain unclear, but some blame the over-allocation of harvest quotas to the commercial fishing industry in prior years.
Nearly 17,500 people live in the Bethel Census Area through which the Kuskokwim winds, 81% of whom are Yup’ik. Reliance on traditional country foods in the region, particularly fish, is great. 18.6% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is more than $14,000 less than the statewide median income ($66,000). Poverty and the high cost of store bought foods can therefore elevate the importance of traditional country food harvests for many families and communities, on top of the immeasurable spiritual and cultural fulfillment that harvesting and consuming these foods brings.
As of June 21, state and federal wildlife officials had issued 33 misdemeanor citations to individuals fishing for kings in acts of civil disobedience, and seized 21 nets and 1,100 pounds of salmon. “Teddy” of Napakiak made this comment in a recent Alaska Dispatch news article: “We’re the kind of people that prepare, you know, mostly for winter living, and summer’s the only time when we gather a whole lot while we can…’cause this is our store. The whole thing is our store, our Wal-Mart, our supermart. They close that, it’s like not going to the store for a week.”
KTUU reports that, historically, the Kuskokwim River has been one of the largest producers of king salmon in the state, with most of the harvest used for subsistence: “With gas prices in some villages well above $6 a gallon and food prices almost twice as high as in Anchorage, people have become even more dependent on wild salmon runs to sustain them.”
With the exception of marine mammals, Alaska Native peoples lack exclusive or even preferential access to traditional foods, sharing the same rights to fish and game as non-Native residents. This situation contrasts with the situation in Nunavut Territory, the majority Inuit jurisdiction carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, and the site of recent peaceful protests against the high cost of store bought foods in at least six communities.
In Nunavut, Inuit are guaranteed participation in decision making about their traditional food harvests through participation on the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, a body established by the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (the 1993 land claim of the central and eastern Arctic Inuit). However, climate change and rising fuel costs have made access to traditional country foods difficult in recent years, increasing dependence on nutritionally inferior and astronomically expensive store bought foods.
It is important to understand that Canadian Inuit and Alaska’s indigenous peoples have managed fish and game for millennia, and that this management constituted (and continues to constitute) a vital part of our nutritional, spiritual, and cultural existence. In fact, a recent study credits the sustainable hunting and fishing practices of the Aleutian Islands Unangax for stabilizing the Pacific marine ecosystem for millennia.
As a result of the U.S. colonization of Alaska and the transfer of Alaska Native inhabited lands to state and federal jurisdiction following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, indigenous self-regulation and management of traditional food harvests have since been usurped. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now regulate hunting and fishing on state and federal-owned lands in Alaska. Lands owned (12% of the state) by the Alaska Native corporations established by the 1971 land claim also fall under Alaska Department of Fish and Game oversight.
In Nunavut, an 80% Inuit jurisdiction in which 70% of households are experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity (Egeland, May 2010), citizens launched a Facebook group called “Feeding My Family,” which the group’s 21,000+ members have used to share pictures of food prices in the territory’s 25 communities. Citizens in communities across Nunavut used this group to protest these food prices which, like Alaska, are the highest in the nation in communities too often blighted by poverty and median income levels far lower than the national average. As in Alaska, rising fuel costs also make non-storebought food options inaccessible to many hunters and fishers.
Incidentally, the North West Co., the multibillion dollar corporation that owns the majority of Nunavut’s grocery stores, also owns the Alaska Commercial Co., and the majority of supermarkets in rural Alaska Native communities. Having lived in both Iqaluit, Nunavut and rural Alaska, I can say that store bought food prices in rural Alaska and Nunavut are comparable.
A Human Rights Issue
People are considered food secure when they can acquire safe, nutritionally adequate, and culturally acceptable foods in a manner that maintains human dignity (Van Esterik, 1999). The right to food is a human right recognized by Article 22 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is a right that “requires States to provide an enabling environment in which people can use their full potential to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families” (U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food).
The right to food is not a right to a minimum ration of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients, or a right to be fed, but is “about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires not only that food is available … but also that it is accessible – i.e., that each household either has the means to produce or buy its own food.” In regard to indigenous peoples specifically, Article 20 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.
2. Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.
Unlike Nunavut, data do not exist that give a clear picture of the food security status of Yupiit and other Alaska Native peoples living in rural Alaska, where the high cost of living, the failure of Western colonial schooling, and limited employment opportunities create a perfect storm for poverty, overcrowded housing, and food insecure households. The state and federal closure of the king salmon run further undermines Yupiit access to food along the Kuskokwim, in a region where the high cost of nutritionally inferior storebought foods are not an option for many.
More importantly, the king salmon closure and the severe stress it places on the food security of Yupiit households contravenes the internationally recognized human right to food, and consequently denies Yupiit and other Alaska Native peoples access to the same standard of living as other Alaskans and Americans. Using the language of human rights, Yupiit and other Alaska Native peoples can use this demonstration of colonial force to strengthen our decades-long struggle for Alaska Native management of country food harvests. This event can also be used to advocate for a rural Alaska food subsidies program, similar in intent to those that exist (to varying success) in Northern Canada. Finally, we can follow the lead of Inuit in Nunavut and use the Kuskokwim closure tohighlight the issue of food insecurity in rural Alaska Native communities, and to call into question the astronomically high cost of store bought foods in stores owned by the multi-billion dollar North West Co.
Egeland, G.M. Inuit Health Survey 2007-2008: Nunavut (May 2010).
Van Esterik, P. “Right to food; right to feed; right to be fed: The intersection of women’s rights and the right to food,” Agriculture and Human Values, 16 (1999).