Saving Subsistence with Cash and Care

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Alaska's far northern tribes trade oil -- seal oil.

by Roland Kelts

BUNNI NOONGWOOK SITS ACROSS from me in the twilit office of a wooden lodge in the center of Savoonga, one of two Native Alaskan villages on the north coast of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The early evening light -- blue-gray and sere through the windows behind her -- hasn't changed a shade since I landed hours ago. It's early August in Savoonga; the light will stay like this till just past 2 a.m.

On the short gravel runway where I deplaned sits a stack of cardboard and cans: purple and white boxes of granola, powdered potatoes, cylinders of Del Monte peaches and peas. But hanging from dilapidated porches and sagging clotheslines around the village are seal skins and polar bear pelts. And down on the pebble shoreline I stumble across the scattered bones and giant skull of a butchered whale.

The curious admixture of prepackaged dried goods on the runway and the freshest game imaginable everywhere else in Savoonga is emblematic of the region's two economies: cash and subsistence. In remote northwest Alaska, an experiment in cultural sustenance and development is taking place, with wide-ranging ramifications for the modern world.

Unlike Hokkaido's native population, the Ainu,
who have virtually disappeared, Alaskan natives
are the beneficiaries of a unique organization

Noongwook, one of the village's democratically elected Tribal Elders, smokes and sips black coffee and tries to explain exactly what living in one of the planet's few remaining subsistence economies actually means.

"It's just survival, you know," she says, emitting a husky laugh. "What you catch, you bring it home and share it amongst your family, or with whoever's in your boat. Or if you go on a snow-machine, whoever's out there on four-wheelers with you from the area or people wherever you got your catch, they get a share, and then they come home and share it amongst their families, or their elderly. That's still happening year-round up here."

Noongwook's easygoing delivery and affable warmth belie the complex economic dichotomies of her native land, not to mention its harsh climate and unforgiving environment. The Bering Sea freezes over by November and breaks up in late May or early June. The winter hunting season, when the snow is thick and rich enough to be traversed via pontooned snow-machines, starts in September. A blizzard two years ago lasted for 17 days, with winds of up to 70 mph.

"In the winter, there's just a little bit of light in the sky from about 11 a.m. to about 4 p.m.," notes Noongwook's colleague and fellow Elder, Kenneth Kingeekuk. "That's it. From about December, the sun just slides slowly across the horizon. And once that ground freezes, it's as tough as diamonds."

Such conditions mean that construction work of any sort is limited to the three summer months. During my August visit the earthmovers and gravel trucks motor past diligently every afternoon.

A new road is being built on the far side of the village, Noongwook informs me. Ten new homes are being built atop stilt-like contraptions called triadetics, which can be adjusted according to shifting ground levels. The permafrost (permanently frozen earth) has been melting recently, a phenomenon many scientists chalk up to global warming. When the pingoes -- ancient, pillar-like shafts of glacial ice -- melt, refreeze and then melt again, the structures above can tilt until they collapse.

"Most of them tilt southward towards the sun," says Kingeekuk.

Much of the enthusiasm expressed by Noongwook and Kingeekuk about current and future projects in the village emanates from the outside support they now receive. Unlike Hokkaido's native peoples, the Ainu, who have virtually disappeared as a result of oppression and neglect, Alaskan natives are the beneficiaries of a unique state and federally funded organization called the Denali Commission ( ).

Established in 1998 and based in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, the commission is charged with providing critical utilities, infrastructure and support to Alaska's native villages and communities. But to hear Denali co-chairman Jeffrey Staser describe it, the Denali Commission is nothing less than a model for the interaction between developed and developing nations worldwide.

"These are people who've lived in the harshest environments in the world for thousands of years," Staser tells me in an Anchorage diner. A former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and a Stanford graduate, Staser combines power with precision as he speaks about his mission: "We are not there to tell those people how to do things, and we don't just throw money at them. We employ them for the projects so they learn how to design and create infrastructures that improve quality of life. And we have a lot to learn from them, too."

Staser's excitement is infectious -- and evidence of the Denali Commission's successes is visible throughout the village. Savoonga's squat gray homes are now linked by metal pipes that run above the ground so they won't freeze -- a septic and water system that replaced the outhouses of yore. A new 24-hour health clinic, erected atop triadetics and now in its second year of operation, greets visitors at the village entrance. Gleaming control panels and engines at the power plant provide electricity to the village's 700 residents.

"The reason Denali came in to help us with the clinic is because our population is growing at a rapid pace," says Noongwook. "Now that there's jobs here, our young people want to stay -- or they come back after they're educated elsewhere."

"We owe Denali big thanks for getting us help so quickly," adds Kingeekuk.

"We can't really eat that white man's food.
It just goes right through you. It doesn't stick,
so it doesn't nourish you"

The symbiosis between ancient and modern cultures is striking. It's also hard to achieve. "Overall 'access' still looms large," Staser concedes. "It's the greatest impediment to local economic self-sufficiency. It's simply too expensive to transport people to where the jobs are. For most rural Native communities, subsistence hunting and gathering and transfer payments remain the core economy."

Indeed, a stroll around the village's gravel streets turns up numerous totems of cultural heritage amid the commission's construction projects. Standing amid the crabgrasses sloping towards the Bering's chill surf, an elderly man painstakingly ties seal skin to the hull of a whaling boat. Dried salmon filets hang in the wind like strips of orange leather. One early morning, three young boys greet me in the finally fading light of 2 a.m. and offer handmade ivory carvings of whales, birds and seals.

"You know, we can't really eat that white man's food," says Carl Pelowook, a cherubic middle-aged man bearing a New York Fire Department cap and a keen sense of irony. "It just goes right through you. It doesn't stick, so it doesn't nourish you. Gets really cold up here. You need food that stays inside you, like the seal oil or Muntuk (whale)."

Pelowook grins from beneath his cap, his eyes flashing mischievously when I ask him about Native holidays.

"We celebrate all the major holidays. Christmas, New Year's. We just had our Fourth of July event. And of course, we celebrate Columbus Day."

Columbus Day?

"Sure. We have to thank him for finally discovering us." @

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