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For Alaska Natives and native-born Alaskans alike, subsistence is a birthright

Ron Devon
Stephen Nowers photo

Even though I currently live in Anchorage, I grew up in a village 80 miles Southwest of Fairbanks, and I was raised on a subsistence diet. Sure, we traveled to town when the Tanana River was frozen in the winter, or when the ferry was running in the summer, but if it weren’t for fish, and moose, and grouse, and berries, and sometimes caribou, and sheep, our freezer would have been pretty bare.

For many Alaska Native households in rural outposts, stocking the pantry and freezers with customary and traditional foods is literally a matter of survival, not only in terms of sustenance and culture, but economy. USA Today even reported that “Alaskans in rural areas will spend 40 percent of their annual income on energy this winter compared with 4 percent for the average Alaska household, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage study published in May 2009. What portion of the household budget doesn’t go to imported foods goes to heating fuel and outfitting hunting and fishing activities at exorbitant prices not seen on the road system.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is charged with managing for abundance as well as for “subsistence preference” or sometimes “subsistence priority.” Although some see that as a threat to their commercial or recreational access, the fact of the matter is that less than 2 percent of fish and game taken for any purpose in Alaska are taken for subsistence uses. The other 98 percent make up sport and commercial use.

The rights of Alaska Natives, and of native-born Alaskans like my family, to the wild game of the land, and of the sea is culturally and historically a birthright. And yet, the issue remains contentious.

Part of the reason is a matter of education, communication and leadership. There are many urban Alaskans of good will who simply do not understand, and their opinions and preconceived notions about rural Alaska are under-informed. Any time a group seeks to correct an injustice, those who come from outside that group must act as ambassadors if the effort is to succeed.

I believe that all legislators have a duty and a responsibility to learn, to understand, to listen to Native communities, and to care -- even if their districts are in urban areas. Passing judgment, or dismissing someone else’s problem is easy. Working together across ethnic, cultural, and geographic divides can be difficult, but we will never achieve the greatness that is our potential without respecting one another enough to listen. First and foremost we are all Alaskans, and we thrive together or we suffer together as a people.

Rural communities need jobs, but not at the risk of jeopardizing the wild game, and fish that we depend upon. While challenges of climate change are real in the Arctic, they will bring many new opportunities for shipping and resource exploration. Alaska could well be at the exciting forefront of this development, but not without cost. The harvesting and preservation of wild food, its migration, and availability adapts through time, but we do not yet know the full extent of what will happen or how we should accommodate such changes.

To be prepared, we must really listen to those on the front lines -- Alaska Natives and those in rural communities on the coast, and in the north. They are the eyes and ears in touch with these changes, challenges, and opportunities, and they are the people who should have a seat at the table, not to be regarded as troublesome stakeholders, or those who wish to stop development at any cost. They should not be dismissed or ignored, but rather they should be educators and partners as we all strive to move Alaska forward.

Ron Devon is a candidate for the Alaska State Senate in District N. His views are his own.