Potlatch moose hunting draws state's eye

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Dean Babcock asked the Creator to bring a moose to him in March.

Within a week, his wife, Mary, spotted a yearling cow within a hundred feet of their home off Pittman Road near Wasilla. Babcock said he talked to the moose, then got his rifle. He shot the moose, as a special state law allows, and thanked the animal by placing willow branches in its mouth.

Then, the Babcocks say, they shared that moose with 20 people at a memorial potlatch April 11 honoring three relatives who had died within the last year, including Mary's 42-year-old brother, killed by pneumonia.

While most people can't shoot moose out of season, Babcock's was a legal hunt under state statutes allowing any resident to kill one for use in an Alaska Native funeral or memorial ceremony, provided they notify state biologists.

But while Babcock followed the rules, a recent -- albeit slight -- increase in the number of reported "potlatch" hunts is triggering a statewide review of hunting moose for religious purposes. The review could lead to changes in laws governing the practice.

Since January, a dozen people have walked out of the state Department of Fish and Game's Palmer offices with permission to kill a cow moose out of season in places like Point MacKenzie or along the Matanuska River. That's as many of the ceremonial hunts as state biologist Tony Kavalok approved all of last year.

The majority tell Kavalok they need moose for potlatches in Anchorage or Eagle River, he said, "because it's easier to come to the Valley and take a moose than try to find an area around the Anchorage Bowl."

Anchorage biologist Rick Sinnott said most of his potlatch moose callers express more interest in Point Mac or Chickaloon -- Kavalok's territory -- than hunt areas around the Anchorage Bowl, which offer few opportunities because many are limited to primitive weapons such as bows or muzzleloaders and some are closed to moose year-round.

"Several times I've given potlatches road-killed moose, if the people are willing to go that route," Sinnott said.

In the sprawling Fairbanks region, biologists OK'd 65 potlatch hunts last year. In Tok, biologists got word of about a dozen moose killed for the hunts each year for the last three years. And, state game officials say, more Alaskans might be taking the potlatch moose without coming in for permission.

Already, this year's ceremonial hunts in the Mat-Su might have effects that will be felt by other hunters. Kavalok plans to issue 360 antlerless moose permits this fall rather than 400 because of the rising numbers of potlatch kills, though general season hunters targeting bull moose won't see any change.

Ongoing for years, the hunts grabbed the attention of the state Board of Game during a February meeting in Anchorage. The board heard reports from state biologists like Kavalok that raised questions about expanding numbers of ceremonial kills. They also heard legal opinions that the practice clashes with state law regarding subsistence hunts, board chairman Cliff Judkins said.

"It's been pretty loose," Judkins said from Wasilla, where he lives. "It's kind of a touchy subject, an emotional issue with a lot of people. I think people have kept their hands off ... maybe it's gotten a little lax."

The implication that potlatch hunters are somehow abusing the system rankles Babcock.

Killing that moose wasn't a hunt, he said, but a sacred act to honor the dead and allow the living to grieve and move on.

"I prayed about it," he said. "I said, 'Creator, I don't want to go hunting. One needs to come to us.' "


State biologists say the potlatch hunts probably aren't hurting moose populations.

For one, moose numbers are solid in most places the hunts occur, officials say. For another, not that many ceremonial hunts are happening, even with more notifications of kills in some areas.

But, officials say, the potential for abuse exists. There's no way to ensure the moose are being used appropriately, short of attending every potlatch and other ceremony, several said.

The way state law is worded, any Alaska resident can walk into the office of a biologist like Kavalok and get permission to kill a moose in their yard "under very loose guidelines," provided they say it's for a religious ceremony, said Tony Russ, a Wasilla resident who chairs the local fish and game advisory committee hoping to get the potlatch hunts stopped until the state resolves questions surrounding the practice.

"Another 100 people in Palmer say, 'Yeah, let's go ask for a moose. He can't say no,' " Russ said. "It's not Tony's fault. It's just something that needs to be cleaned up."

The state's deputy fish and game commissioner said he's heard unsubstantiated rumors of moose taken for people dead 20 years, or "hooplatch" moose taken for basketball games.

In some places, state officials say they don't know if they're getting an accurate picture of how many cow moose are being taken through the ceremonial hunts. In Glennallen, for example, people taking moose for funerals in that area aren't notifying biologists before they go hunting, and they aren't reporting in when they return, as required, said Pat Valkenburg, deputy fish and game commissioner.

Maybe there's not a big problem with unreported moose, but biologists say they can't know that without more information.

"If it gets to the point there are so many potlatch moose being taken it really affects the ability of other people to harvest moose, that becomes a major issue," Valkenburg said. "It's not to that point yet, as far as I can tell, but we'll have a better idea when the numbers come in."

He's spending the spring collecting reports on potlatch hunts from state wildlife biologists around Alaska. Then he plans to check those numbers against information collected by the state's Subsistence Division from tribal and village entities about how many moose showed up at potlatches and other Native religious ceremonies.

The issue is racially charged, Valkenburg acknowledged. "That's why it's important to make sure the Board of Game isn't presented information that isn't solidly based on data."

Urban hunts

Regulations allow the hunts, provided hunters notify the state and use the meat "as food in customary and traditional Alaska Native funerary or mortuary religious ceremonies" for a death within the last 12 months.

The law bans such subsistence hunts in "non-subsistence" areas. Mostly, those areas are near urban centers -- Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, parts of the Mat-Su. But a 1979 state Supreme Court decision requires the state to accommodate the taking of moose for religious ceremonies, Valkenburg said.

So in practice, biologists have allowed the hunts in non-subsistence areas, officials say.

Last month, the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee that Russ chairs asked the Department of Fish and Game to immediately stop all potlatch moose hunts in the Mat-Su areas designated as non-subsistence.

That's not going to happen. By summer's end, the commissioner's office could recommend possible changes to statute to remedy the conflict. But, in the interim, the Department of Fish and Game is telling people in Anchorage and the Mat-Su that they can take moose in non-subsistence areas, though they should try not to, Valkenburg said.

"If it's very inconvenient to travel outside non-subsistence areas, don't," he said. "We're leaving it up to their discretion."

Meanwhile, the state plans to address any escalating hunt numbers with more education and enforcement, though that issue could also end up in front of the game board as an allocation question.

"It's really important, and we're going to re-emphasize this, for people who want to take a potlatch moose to notify the area biologist," Valkenburg said.


Babcock said he's never heard of any Natives abusing the potlatch permit. Poaching among all people is a much bigger problem, at least in the Mat-Su, he said.

Originally from Wisconsin and a member of the Anishinabe Tribe, Babcock more than three decades ago married Mary, a Yup'ik woman originally from Alakanuk. The two now serve as healers with the Knik Tribe, they say.

The potlatch hunts are part of a larger cultural philosophy of survival, a word that Babcock uses to mean everything from knowing how to predict a coming flood to hearing the different ways wind moves through birch and over water.

"This is just part of our culture," he said. "Our potlatches enter all this together -- it's spiritual, it's religious and it's part of healing."

Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call 907-352-6711.