Alaska Native

Haliehana Stepetin


Subsistence economy is more than cash and calories

By Isaac Stone Simonelli


arvesting our personal food has been something that my family has always done,” says Johon Atkinson, a community wellness specialist in Metlakatla. “We’ve always harvested off the land and been able to fill our freezers with wealth, with investments.”

Atkinson is a full-time harvester of wild resources, in addition to his career in the cash economy. Hunters, fishers, and gatherers harvest an estimated 34 million pounds of wild foods annually, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) Division of Subsistence. Those foods provide 25 percent of calorie requirements and more than the entire nutritional requirement for protein in rural communities.

Beyond calories, though, Atkinson explains that the subsistence economy provides a foundation for mental, physical, and spiritual health. In fact, some Alaska Natives believe the word “subsistence” is too reductive.

“I actually don’t use that word when I’m talking about harvesting our foods,” says Marina Anderson, the tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan and also a full-time harvester. Anderson explains that “subsistence” often refers to supporting oneself at a minimum level.

“Our ways of life are some of the richest ways of life, ways that connect us physically and spiritually to the lands and waters through our ways of coexistence,” Anderson says. “It’s not at a minimum level of keeping us alive.”

Laws of the Lands
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 extinguished indigenous hunting and fishing rights, with the understanding that the state government would come to a new arrangement. However, many Alaska Natives argue that Congress didn’t have the authority to trade away those rights in the first place.

“We’re indigenous nations with sovereignty, and it’s up to us to decide what and how we harvest,” says Haliehana Alaĝum Ayagaa Stepetin, who teaches Alaska Native Studies at UAA while working on her PhD dissertation on subsistence lifestyles in Unangam Tanangin, Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, through the University of California, Davis. Stepetin grew up practicing traditional fishing, hunting, and gathering with her father and aunties in the Aleutian island of Akutan.

The first state subsistence law in 1978 prioritized subsistence uses of fish and wildlife over personal and commercial use, but it defined subsistence users as all Alaskans equally. In 1980, Congress gave rural residents priority access to subsistence resources in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

“People who are living in rural Alaska are going to be generally more dependent on subsistence resources as a larger part of their household and community economy because they don’t have grocery stores and also because of a cultural history of living off the land,” explains Caroline Brown, the statewide program manager for the ADF&G Subsistence Division.

Even in rural communities that do have grocery stores, residents pay much higher prices despite rural Alaska being more economically depressed due to limited opportunities for jobs.

“You’re paying more, even though you have less money,” says Brown.

The largest annual per capita harvest of wild food resources comes from rural Arctic communities. In 2017, they harvested roughly 402 pounds per person compared to the average of 15 pounds per person harvested by Anchorage residents.

The rural preference was enacted in state law, as well, but it didn’t last long. In the case of McDowell v. State, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that every citizen has an equal constitutional right to fish and game. This created a split between state and federal subsistence law. The US Department of Interior began enforcing the rural preference in ANILCA on federal lands and waters, while ADF&G manages subsistence resources its own way everywhere else.

Haliehana Stepetin’s PhD work focuses on the deeper cultural implications behind Alaska Native harvests, such as the importance of gifting.

Haliehana Stepetin

Haliehana Stepetin’s PhD work focuses on the deeper cultural implications behind Alaska Native harvests, such as the importance of gifting.

Haliehana Stepetin

Haliehana Stepetin sitting in the doorway of a blue shack holding harvest
That doesn’t mean that ADF&G ignores the needs of traditional harvesters.

“We don’t really think about subsistence in purely economic terms,” Brown says, “because subsistence, as a way of life, has value beyond what we would describe as just economics.”

In its management studies, the division combines quantitative harvest surveys with ethnographic interviews of high-yield harvesters. “We interview them in order to provide that cultural and social context to harvesting,” Brown says.

Data gathered by the division are used by the Boards of Fisheries and Game to create subsistence rules and regulations. The boards use eight criteria for determining if a fish stock or game population is subject to subsistence preferences on state and private land. These include a long-term consistent pattern of non-commercial harvesting; geographic location; intergenerational transmission of knowledge; methods of harvesting; and the means of handling, preparing, preserving, and storing the harvest.

However, the input of harvesters does not ensure that regulations provide full access, according to Anderson. “Subsistence laws lock a lot of our people out from being able to actually harvest, learn our ways of life, and live our ways of life,” she says.

At a Board of Fisheries public hearing on permits for herring egg harvesting, Anderson made it clear that, if passed, she would not go through the bureaucratic process of receiving a permit to collect food that her Tlingit and Haida people have harvested for countless generations.

“I do not need to ask for permission for access to my spiritual sustenance,” Anderson says. “That puts me at risk for being criminalized. It puts me at risk of potentially having gear seized and the food seized.”

Anderson is particularly concerned about subsistence rights for Alaska Natives who reside out of state. These individuals cannot legally participate in resident-only subsistence harvests.

“They’re not able to come home and harvest. They’re not able to bring their families home to harvest, so it leads to more generational gaps in the knowledge,” Anderson says. “It’s more than taking food out of their mouth. Essentially, you’re stopping somebody from walking into their church. You’re putting a roadblock between them and their spiritual connection.”

One for Me, Four for You
Which resources are harvested varies widely among regions and communities. In general, Arctic communities rely more on marine mammals and large land mammals, while some communities in the Southeast, which rely heavily on salmon, specialize in gathering seaweed and herring eggs. One harvesting pattern that is remarkably consistent, though, is the 30/70 Rule.

Brown explains, “Regardless of where you are in rural Alaska… about 30 percent of the community’s residents produce 70 percent of the community’s food.” That makes sharing one of the primary characteristics of a subsistence economy. “These dense networks of sharing between households and between communities within a region are to make sure that everybody is covered,” she adds.

That makes the economy especially fragile. Anderson argues that if regulations pull heavy harvesters out of the sharing network, they affect everyone in the community. Her family, for example, uses a 60/20/20 rule, where they immediately distribute 60 percent of what they harvest and process to everyone in Kasaan. Another 20 percent is stored for the village to use later, while the family keeps the last 20 percent for their own needs.

“We start with families that are struggling, single mothers, and elders,” Anderson says.

In return, Anderson says she gets precious time with these elders, an opportunity to learn more about her culture and traditions.

As in Southeast, so too in the Aleutians. “[Gifting] has been the number one thing that keeps coming up in my visits with community about subsistence,” Stepetin says. “Through gifting we are rich, we are wealthy.”

Stepetin explains that there are traditional protocols throughout Alaska Native communities that establish a relationship between animals and plants, which she describes as more-than-human relatives, and the gifting economy.

“If you get a salmon, your first salmon of the summer, and you don’t give that away to an elder, the salmon will stop coming,” Stepetin explains, as an example.

Another element of subsistence economies is bartering. Trading often exists between households with certain specialties, as well as between communities that have access to different resources. Anderson explains that if she was going to get a traditional cedar hat, with a retail value of about $900, she’d go to an artisan and trade cases of smoked sockeye, bags of dry fish, and seaweed or other resources she harvested.

Haliehana Stepetin created a presence on Instagram to share her academic studies of Alaska Native food sovereignty.

Haliehana Stepetin

Haliehana Stepetin created a presence on Instagram to share her academic studies of Alaska Native food sovereignty.

Haliehana Stepetin

Haliehana Stepetin wearing a fur coat
Atkinson says that it’s not unheard of for people to barter for an iPad or iPhone because of the high value of wild harvests.

“Seaweed is such a seasonal food, where you can only get it for like two weeks out of the year, so it’s highly valued, and that’s how a lot of our foods are,” Atkinson says. “We truly appreciate what goes into harvesting our foods.”

Beyond Barters
Bartering is okay, but selling subsistence goods for cold, hard cash is illegal. A harvester can accept money to pay for boat fuel and equipment, but she could not sell a bag of processed seaweed in Anchorage, Anderson explains. She doesn’t like it, though.

“I don’t believe that indigenous people should have any limits on the way that we trade our food or our resources,” Anderson says. “I do believe that people should be able to trade for other resources or trade for money… The fact that it’s not allowable is another way to criminalize our people. And, when that happens, you take a harvester out of the community, and you take food out of people’s mouths.”

Anderson explains that traditional harvesting practices are, at their core, based on sustainability and that the point of any barter is to have an equitable trade that ensures everybody is increasing value for their families, which can include trading for cash. Because subsistence economies don’t exist in a vacuum in Alaska but are part of the mixed economy, cash is important.

“Access to cash often supports people’s subsistence activities because you’ve got to buy bullets. You’ve got to buy guns. You’ve got to buy nets. You’ve got to buy all these things that help you do subsistence,” Brown says. “A lot of people in rural Alaska will take some of the money that they make doing jobs and put it back into subsistence to support their subsistence activities.”

Stepetin points out that certain organizations, such as the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, help alleviate the economic pressures of subsistence harvesting by providing reimbursement grants for gear and other expenses.

ADF&G has found that highly productive harvesters tend to be households with several adult members who have access to cash. But the seasonal and variable nature of harvesting can make it hard to operate in both the subsistence and cash economies.

Atkinson says he’s fortunate to have a job in wellness that allows him to schedule his life around seasons, but he is aware that many people simply can’t get time off to participate in harvests that have narrow windows of availability. That makes resource sharing more important. “Everybody can still have a piece of that traditional lifestyle, that traditional wealth,” he says.

For Stepetin, she says one of the reasons she pursued a career in academia is because it gives her the summers off and allows her to prioritize her traditional harvesting lifestyle.

Between Two Worlds
As early as elementary school, Alaska Natives face significant challenges in balancing their lives in the Western educational system and learning the skills and cultural knowledge of traditional harvesting.

“Education in school was secondary to our subsistence activities. It was always secondary,” says Stepetin. “It’s because Unangaxˇ education happens on the water. It happens on the land.”

Likewise, Anderson recalls being pulled out of school for hunting trips and different types of harvesting activities. “There was a lot of friction between school and that lifestyle,” she says. “It’s expected for me to be, as a child, in school Monday through Friday, when the reality is I was out on the water learning my traditional knowledge.”

Anderson says she ended up having to petition her high school to graduate because she’d missed so many days. “There’s a lot of pressures that are pushing down on our traditional economy and our harvesting ways of life,” Anderson says.

While these pressures can make participating in the wild harvest economy difficult, that lifestyle remains vital to Alaska Native food sovereignty.

Stepetin explains, “Food sovereignty means that we, as sovereign nations and sovereign peoples, get to determine on what terms we have access to foods or the role that our own original foods play in our current day-to-day lives and our cultures.”

For more than 10,000 years, more than 200 different resources were harvested, processed, and used by Alaska Native communities, explains Atkinson. Far fewer are harvested now, but they are still out there.

“Knowing that is always a huge inspiration because there’s food everywhere,” Atkinson says. “We are so fortunate to be living where we have the opportunity to be able to harvest our traditional foods—because it’s more than just food.”