Our Earth Takes Care of Us: Our Rural Staff Shares the Importance of a Subsistence Lifestyle
Subsistence is a traditional way of living off the land that has sustained Alaskans for thousands of years. But for many Alaska Natives, subsistence is more than just food—it is a worldview and a way of life that includes history, culture, traditional values, and customs. – The Arctic Institute
To further explore how the Earth takes care of us, we asked several of our 2021 rural staff to chat with us about how subsistence lifestyle activities are important for them and their families. Specifically, we spoke to Allison from Aniak, Jackelyn from Napaskiak and Lewis from Kwigillingok.
Allison goes hunting, berry picking and fishing. After a horrific snow machine accident in 2016 that left her partially blind, she returned to fishing in 2019, which helped her relearn how to coordinate her life and how to function again. It is a way of keeping her busy after work and allows her to continue taking care of herself.
Lewis goes fishing and berry picking. “It’s a must,” he mentioned, “It’s a family thing.” Lewis talked fondly of recalling picking berries as soon as he could hold a berry as a child. When he is engaged in subsistence activities, he feels calm and time passes quickly.
Subsistence activities are very important for many individuals and families as they store the extra food for winter. In recent years, there have been increasing concerns.
A recent article by KYUK, a public media outlet for Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, highlighted a current challenge associated with subsistence fishing. “In the old days, 1.6 million summer chum salmon would swim up the Yukon River. This year, the run is the lowest on record. So far, there have been only 153,000 summer chums counted in the river.” The commercial fishery, Kwik’Pak, is closed right now, so they are unable to sell fish. Subsistence fishing for chum and chinook is also closed. “Many people along the river have not had a taste of the fish this season.”
“People depend on salmon,” stated Allison. “Ten years ago, three families used to get 200 chinook and 100 coho per season,” she added. “Chinook was the main source of food and the closures due to low numbers of fish in the Kuskokwim River have deprived people of their essential food and what they’ve known for thousands of years. Now we put away about 100 fish. We’re also trying new things like eating more white fish.”
Years ago, Jackelyn would see plenty of fish swimming and jumping in the rivers. When she went fishing last summer during a heat wave, instead of jumping out of the water, the fish were floating dead. She was worried about how the abnormally warm temperatures were impacting the fish count.
It was noted in the KYUK article that the Yukon River has seen its worst summer chum salmon run on record, and its third worst chinook run. They are also unable to sell salmon because the commercial fishery is closed.
A subsistence lifestyle is much more than a family endeavor. It is a community event. Lewis shared the importance of the communal orientation of subsistence activities where individuals and families will share with the community so Elders have fresh fish to eat before collecting for themselves. “It’s all a big connection,” he explained. “Sharing… Sharing is caring.”
In terms of community benefits, Allison sees subsistence activities as a great way to keep busy and pull people away from substance abuse and alcohol. She also explained the spiritual life of subsistence activities for herself as Yupik and Athabascan. “If we chose to party and drink, we can’t hunt or we don’t get fish.” She depends on the spirits and ancestors to provide the food so she can be fed.
Camp Fire’s Rural Alaska Program operates mainly during the summer, which is also the main period of subsistence activities. Our staff are typically in communities working with youth, teens and community members as the fish are running, the berries are growing, and the boats are in the river. Our Covid-19 model provides activities and food to bring home, which has helped give people flexibility to have Camp Fire resources at the same time as partaking in a traditional subsistence life. In fact, our summer activity kits even encourage youth and teens to go berry picking for some of the recipes we provide, make clay nature models of the wildlife they see in their community, and more.
When the pandemic reality hit, we knew our typical in-person delivery model would not work. Accordingly, we created a take-home activity kit model in which local community members were hired to distribute food and kits safely to youth, families and Elders. Over the past two summers, we have hired more than 30 local staff.
As we plan for the future of our program, we will be looking at flexible models that support rural communities and their traditional subsistence calendar. Camp Fire’s Rural Alaska Program is focused on supporting community wellness and community connections. We recognize the vital role a subsistence lifestyle plays across Alaska and we will continue to support programs and activities that promote and honor this way of life.