Alaska: where the natural people and the natural resources face extinction

Share with your friends


Last summer, four Native Alaskan men, ages 67 to 98, were arrested by Alaskan Fish & Game wardens for attempted salmon fishing on the Copper River.

The fishermen were seeking food for their households. They did not know that a weekday fishing ban had been imposed by the State because of the limited salmon run, nor could they compete with the sports fishermen swarming all over the rivers on weekends.

Many similar arrests in recent years have once again raised to the forefront of Native struggles the question of basic subsistence.

Alaska’s 250 Native villages are among the last places on earth marked by a subsistence-level fishing and hunting economy, and they face annihilation as their aboriginal cooperative lifestyle becomes engulfed by an insatiable, profit-mad capitalism which destroys people and natural resources with equal ferocity.

As resources dwindle, Native hunting and fishing rights are arrogantly denied or ignored. The conservative backlash against Native Americans in the “lower 48” states is mirrored in Alaska by cries that Native people are a “special interest” group demanding “special privileges.”

But the hypocritical cries flaunt the historical truth.

The Whaling Issue

Large-scale exploitation of whales, otters, and other wildlife by American, Japanese, Russian and European interests during the 19th century rendered some species virtually extinct. The vast oil pipeline and other environmental assaults have helped to decimate salmon. caribou, and other remaining food resources. As a result, the State of Alaska and various capitalist-dominated international commissions have limited the seasons, or set quotas, or banned altogether the taking of certain wildlife.

But these restrictions totally ignore Alaska Natives’ survival needs. Whaling has been an integral part of Eskimo diet and culture for thousands of years. Yet in 1977, the International Whaling Commission banned the taking of bowhead whale. The Eskimos were not notified or involved in the decision, which was made on the basis of incorrect evidence on the number of existing bowhead whales.

Eskimo people strongly protested the ban and the denial of their right to participate in such decisions, and in 1978 the IWC permitted a quota of whales for Eskimo hunters. But it was far too limited for survival needs. And when a quota of only 18 whales was established for 1979, the Eskimo delegation walked out of the conference and rejected IWC jurisdiction over their people.

Clash of Cultures

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave Native Alaskans title to 40 million acres of land, plus compensation for lost land. But the fundamental result of ANCSA was the formation of 13 regional profit-making corporations to manage and distribute benefits to the people, and conservative leaders of the Native communities have themselves set out on a course which will cause the final extinction of Native cultures.

Business entrepreneurs, both Native and non-Native, preach that parallel and coexisting cultures are possible, and that the regional corporations can meet the needs of Native people for housing, education, employment, and legal rights, and still make a profit. But more and more Native people realize that these corporations have not stopped the destruction of their lands, resources and livelihood.

It has not been profitable to develop labor-intensive local businesses which meet economic needs and support the culture of Native people,-and the corporations have been investing in hotels, stocks and bonds, and large-scale extractive industries.

Clashes between the corporations and Native communities have already erupted; the battle over control of the resources of beautiful Admiralty Island is a vivid example.

Hiding behind phony catch-phrases like “more jobs and ecological protection,” capitalist interests are gearing up to plunder more nonrenewable Alaskan resources and exterminate the economy, the culture, and the very lives of the indigenous people.

Phil McMurray, a member of CRSP, is an energetic supporter of the Alaskan Native struggle. He lives in Juneau.

Share with your friends