Thirty miles west of the Kuskokwim metropolis of Bethel lies Nunapitchuk, a place carved in half by the Johnson River and nestled near land so awash with lakes and swamps you need a boat to reach the village’s airport or gas station during the summer.
Juliana Wassillie grew up in this village of 500, experiencing the yearly cycle of subsistence life—eating salmon pulled from the intersection of the Kuskokwim and Johnson rivers, searching for bird eggs, and enjoying berries and greens gathered from the rich tundra.
“We the Yup’ik Eskimos try to survive off the land and depend on our own to feed ourselves with whatever there is in the wild,” Juliana wrote. “It is immensely important for me to keep my tradition going and help make it stay that way for years to come.”
Going out in the field
But what happens in a subsistence culture when salmon become scarce?
Juliana described her village as part of a UAA multidisciplinary project that’s continuing today. The project is examining risk, sharing and the economics and culture of subsistence in salmon-dependent areas of Alaska’s Kuskokwim region and the Russian Far East region of Chukotka.
“Our main objective was, how risk affects cooperation, how sharing is used when you introduce risk into the environment,” said Dr. E. Lance Howe of UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, who devised and collaborated on the project with Dr. James Murphy, Dr. Colin West, Dr. Andrew Gerkey and Dr. Olga Bogach in Alaska and Dr. Viktoria Petrasheva and Tatiana Degai in Russia. Cristina Gaina, a UAA economics student, and Mikhail Kolodiy, a UAA M.B.A. student, also participated in field experiments done in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
Western Alaska and Chukotka share similar cultures and ecosystems, but differ in terms of governance, development and resource management.
“The fisheries of these two regions are linked and have recently experienced a major shock,” the project’s summary explained. “During the last 10 years, runs have declined precipitously with subsequent impacts on resource use. In Alaska, the governor declared the study region an economic disaster area for several years.”
Scientists don’t fully understand why the decline occurred, but have launched numerous research initiatives in western Alaska concentrating on salmon and the countless biological factors affecting their lives.
“We want to explore the human-environmental dynamics behind these events, which have received notably less attention,” Howe’s project summary stated.
The scientists visited Yup’ik and Chukchi communities on both sides of the Bering Sea—learning about the people in those areas, talking to members of the traditional councils and documenting information about local institutions governing the harvest and sharing of salmon and other subsistence resources.
Then, they designed decision-making exercises and economic experiments focusing on the effects of risk on the harvest and sharing of resources.
Nunapitchuk and Chevak, Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Tuluksak and Tuntutuliak participated as community partners in Alaska; the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Pacific Institute of Geography, Kamchatka, are Russian entities that took part in the research.
UAA undergraduate and graduate students who had lived in the participating communities contributed by writing essays and taking photos.
Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement
University of Alaska Anchorage