In 1969 Sen. Ted Kennedy visited southwest Alaska and proclaimed the villagers some of the poorest people he had ever seen. Today Alaskan villages continue to be regarded as poor by the standards of the larger, dominant population.
We may not all be Kennedys but materialism is the root of our identity and the guiding practice in how we conduct our lives, shape our educational systems, and, in some cases such as prosperity theology, even determine how we will get into heaven. We are defined as successful or unsuccessful, rich or poor, by the size of our bank account, our house and the neighborhood it's in, our car and the clothes we wear.
Materialism is not everyone's guide to self-worth and nowhere is that more true than the Native villages of southwest and south-central Alaska. The houses are humble by urban standards, if they have a car it's a well-used pick-up and Carharts serve most purposes.
But most of the villagers do not consider themselves to be poor. When asked, many say they are rich and feel sorry for folks who have to live in urban areas. When Catherine Knott and I asked people, on a recent project, "How do you define a wealthy person in this village?" we got one of three answers: a freezer full of fish, a large connected family, or freedom. Sometimes people answered all three.
Salmon is the life-blood of the diet and life ways of the people. Catching salmon is the primary subsistence activity and has been for at least 4000 years, perhaps longer once the archaeological record is more complete. Of course other foods are important as well, but nothing compares to wild salmon in nutritional quality and quantity. Emerging evidence suggests the Yup'ik may be biologically adapted to metabolizing salmon providing measurable protection against such diseases as diabetes.
Many households have two or three freezers full of salmon and other wild foods. Amassing that amount of food takes time and a little cash. Many have forged a modern lifestyle that involves part-time work, usually commercial salmon fishing, to get enough cash to pay for the tools of subsistence: a boat and motor, four-wheeler, snowmachine and gas to run them. But a full-time job takes away from the considerable time it takes to fish, hunt, gather plants, get firewood and process everything. That in itself is a full-time job. Living by the seasons cannot be done on an eight to five or two-week on/off schedule. Subsistence, however, shows up as unemployment in statistics that contribute to the image of a poverty stricken rural Alaska.
A full freezer is so important that some mental health clinicians have found that tests of dysfunction are less reliable than simply walking around a village and identifying who does not have full freezer's orhas an inadequate woodpile. Something is wrong if either exist.
Subsistence is the foundation of family and community. Fish camp is a place where meaningful, multi-generational work takes place, a rare thing in modern America. Often the Native language is spoken reinforcing the world view embedded within it. And always traditional values are passed to the next generation.
Throughout the winter, a community is defined by who gives and receives jarred or smoked salmon. "If you don't share," one woman told us, "you are nobody." Some sharing of wild foods is by need, particularly to the elderly. But most sharing is among people who already have salmon. This form of sharing is a powerful statement of human bonds defining the network of community.
And, we were told, some perceive of wealth as freedom. Freedom is not the erroneous idea that wilderness is a place to do whatever one wants. Freedom is the ability to pursue a subsistence lifestyle based on decisions one makes within the constraints and competence of cultural traditions.
Many urban Natives have adopted a materialist lifestyle and that's their right. But most in village Alaska have chosen to live the traditions of their ancestors in a modern setting where wealth is defined as fish, family, and freedom.
But those traditions are under siege because wild salmon are under siege. We may, as Yup'ik leader Thomas Tilden has said, be seeing the equivalent of the last bison on the prairie. Few Native Americans can say they live a subsistence tradition that spans from prehistory to now. Two of the few that can are the Yup'ik and Dena'ina of southwest and south-central Alaska. Decisions we make in the near future, on many fronts, will determine if those traditions disappear.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.