GAMBELL -- Off the far western edge of the North American continent, nearly 1,500 people struggle in a daily battle for survival on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. There isn't much of an economy in this village of 677 near the northwest tip of the island. The people here are closer to Russia, 36 miles to the west, than the United States, more than 150 miles to the northeast. To earn enough money to survive, residents carve walrus ivory, guide a handful of bird watchers who make the 200-mile flight from Nome, or dig into old graves for prehistoric artifacts.
Illegal in much of Alaska, the practice remains legal on the island because the residents of Gambell and Savoonga, the only other village, chose to opt out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. To settle aboriginal land claims, ANCSA created 12 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village corporations that gained title to 44 million acres of land and nearly $1 billion. Instead of joining that settlement, Gambell and Savoonga settled for title to the 1.14 million acres of land in the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve – nearly the entire island.
Now jointly owned by Savoonga and Gambell, the island is private property, which entitles the people there to take advantage of what their ancestors left behind over the course of an estimated 2,000 years or more of occupation on a 90-mile-long island. In the 1800s, there were an estimated 4,000 people living in 35 villages on the island. They lived on whales, walruses, seals, birds, eggs, fish and what plants they could wrest from land or sea. They suffered mightily as the whales began to disappear to American whalers supplying a country hungry for whale oil.
Between 1878 and 1880, famine decimated island residents. Missionaries -- Gambell is named for two of them -- tried to help. Reindeer were introduced to the island in 1900 to provide food and transport for people who no longer had the food to feed their dogs. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt ...