previous sub-section
4 The Availability and Harvesting of Naturally Occurring Resources: Subsistence Economy, Part 1
next sub-section

The Modern Subsistence Economy

Modern subsistence economies integrate modem technologies and the sources of income required to maintain them. There is no doubt that the modern versions of the subsistence economies of Gambell, Unalakleet, and Wainwright are different from the general arctic and subarctic subsistence economies of twenty-five years ago. Nevertheless, they remain quintessentially subsistence economies in their organizations of production: ownership, control, labor, distribution, consumption.


80

Let me explain what I mean by a "quintessentially subsistence economy."

Subsistence modes of production, literally of extraction, in the three arctic and subarctic villages in this study can be distinguished from other economic forms by several factors in addition to their direct and intimate links to naturally occurring resources. First, subsistence modes of production lack well-developed market systems. The producer consumes his own product, although he is not the sole consumer of his product. Nevertheless, middlemen are not inserted between the producer and the consumer. Nor are permanent locations or structures set aside for the exclusive purpose of exchanges of goods. Second, while exchanges of processed or unprocessed resources for services do occur, these are relatively rare and do not provide the energizing force of the system. Third, in a subsistence economy, labor is not a commodity that can be bought and sold in the marketplace.

A fourth characteristic is that neither the extracted resources themselves nor the labor required for extracting and processing them are converted to capital. Since capital accumulation does not occur, the savings of renewable resources for future sales is limited as a motivator of human activity. However, resources are preserved and stored to sustain human Fife. Forces such as wind, water, and changes in temperature, as well as biological processes, render difficult any form of long-term storage (periods beyond one or two years). The technological requirements for overcoming these forces and processes are either very expensive or unavailable. Resources are therefore stored and subsequently distributed to maintain life, but they are not stored for future sale and the conversion to capital.

The fifth distinguishing characteristic may be found in the distribution pattern used in subsistence economies. Distribution of resources in subsistence economies is, for the most part, based on family, extended kinspersons, friendship, and village networks. Goods except at community festivals, when they may be pooled—are not distributed to people outside the established personal networks. The absence of specialization within a subsistence economy is a sixth distinguishing feature. An individual's productive activity is built on a broad spectrum of


81

skills, which are directed toward a wide range of products and species.

A seventh and final factor, one closely related to the previous six, is the fact that productive activities are directly linked to procuring food and shelter for the maintenance of life itself. This final factor elicits an image of an individualistic economic structure. In fact, however, the social fabric in which the subsistence economy is embedded is crucial within and among communities.

Subsistence, the Political Economy, and Cash

A long history of trapping (commodity), whaling (labor), coal mining (labor), fishing (commodity), public sector employment and transfers, and federal and, more recently, state relations and controls has drawn native villages ever deeper into public sector dependencies, as their traditional lands and resources have been expropriated. The interplay among the cash derived from public and private sector economic activities, the technology for subsistence and commercial activities, and the persistence of the subsistence economy will be discussed in part throughout this and the following four chapters, but the theory that accounts for the persistence of native subsistence economies in Alaska will be proposed in chapter 9. With this in mind, let Us explain the cycle of naturally occurring, renewable species that are extracted by residents of the three villages and the organizations that exist for extracting and distributing those resources, including strategies and planning.

Introduction to Culture and Nature at Gambell, Unalakleet, and Wainwright

No one season or month begins the subsistence year at any of the three villages, so the beginning point for our periodization is somewhat arbitrary, fitted as it is to the Gregorian calendar, which cuts the arctic and subarctic winter season in half. This is true, even though the three villages differ among themselves in habitat and in the variety and amounts of naturally occurring resources that are available to them. Wainwright is, after all,


82

arctic, whereas Gambell and Unalakleet are subarctic. Nevertheless, the winters are long and the summers short at all three villages, and the activities that are conducted at such feverish pace during the summers at all three villages are the necessary prelude to the long and demanding winters.

The residents of Gambell extract resources over about half of the length of the island and 30 miles and more from shore in the northern Bering Sea, sharing their bag, catches, and collections with their kinspersons from Savoonga. The Savoonga residents, who use roughly the other half of the island, share the products of their efforts with their kinspersons in Gambell. In this way, the territorial range of families in each village is increased. The distance between the two villages is 48 miles. This is an important factor for island residents and should not escape our attention.

Although millions of birds nest or pass across the island each year, and although thousands of sea mammals summer in the vicinity of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island's resources are limited in comparison with those of Unalakleet and Wainwright. Furthermore, access to the resources on which island subsistence is based is often constrained by weather conditions even more than is the case for either Wainwright or Unalakleet. Because of the absolute limits on island resources, the long distances to the mainland, and the prohibition against hunting along the Siberian coast, gifting and sharing loom especially large in Gam-bell and Savoonga, especially since residents from either, or both, can come on hard times during long winter periods in which stored foods are depleted and fresh quarry cannot be added to the larder.

In Unalakleet, the native foods that are extracted and enjoyed by the residents become ready at different times of the year, but there is no time when at least some native food that is important to the local diet is not available. Native foods are sought throughout the year, whenever people have the need or "taste" for them and the means, and weather, and travel conditions to go for them. ("Taste" is used in our discussions of all three villages to convey the idea that some food is desired at a certain moment or during a certain season. The amount desired may be small, but whatever the amount is, it is desired.)


83

The subsistence resources on which people rely are numerous, and several are abundant during the season in which they occur. Most of these resources are available and harvested within a 60-mile radius of town: along the length of the Unalakleet River valley and its tributary river valleys, north and south along the coast, and about 30 to 80 miles west into Norton Sound. Winter caribou hunts, however, frequently are conducted more than 100 miles northeast of the village. Four- and five-day hunting trips engaged in by as many as a dozen men on snowmachines are commonplace.

Wainwright lies on the tundra well above the Arctic Circle. Its environs do not produce the wide spectrum of fauna found near Unalakleet. However, certain species of mammals and fish are seasonally and locally abundant. Normally, caribou are abundant in the late summer and fall and available through most of the year. In the spring, ducks and geese migrate through the area in vast numbers. In 1982, Luton (1985) observed a man and wife net nearly seventy chum salmon in a single day in front of town, while thousands of walrus drifted by on ice floes.

In the early 1980s, several hunting trips for Dall sheep were undertaken from Wainwright. One of these trips took four days by snowmachine into the Brooks Range. Yet even when such extraordinary hunts are excluded, the people of Wainwright continue today—as they did in the past—to extract resources distributed across vast areas of land and sea (see Pederson 1979). In 1982, during the field investigation period of this study, people frequently traveled by snowmachine 150 miles or more inland into the foothills of the Brooks Range to hunt. The cabins of many Wainwrighters are located 50 miles and more up the Kuuk River. People traveled to Atqasuk on the Mead River to fish. Still others hunted around Icy Cape or fished on the Utukok. In 1982, one of the two Wainwright whales was taken off Atanik, 25 miles northeast of town. A boatload of Wainwright walrus hunters was temporarily stranded more than 100 miles to the north, on the ice near Barrow.

Such travels expand the types of environments that are exploited by Wainwrighters, as they do for Unalakleet villagers. Wider environments add to the types of flora and fauna they


84

encounter and increase the times at which natural resources can be extracted in abundance. But long trips by snowmachine are expensive, and even the most carefully laid plans can founder on the unexpected behavior of a species (e.g., caribou may have migrated in an unpredicted direction), the breakdown of equipment (snowmachines, pack sleds, or the like), or the occurrence of extremely harsh and protracted storms. The need to carry sufficient fuel to reach far distant hunting sites restricts the amounts of quarry that can be returned to the village.

It is the case in all the villages that people look to the land and its rivers, to the sea, and to the skies for their subsistence needs. The resources they harvest for food come from all three. The land and the sea provide certain resources year-round, and others do so seasonally. In the midst of an environment yielding numerous and sometimes abundant resources, people nevertheless must work hard at the harvest, and they must acquire and constantly draw on a considerable store of knowledge about the resources and the natural conditions to be able to meet their subsistence needs each year.


previous sub-section
4 The Availability and Harvesting of Naturally Occurring Resources: Subsistence Economy, Part 1
next sub-section