Stampede Road

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Stampede Road

Looking back toward Denali National Park from Stampede Road.

Subsistence living and Alaskan Natives

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I thought I might offer a little diversion from my usual post format which generally only documents my activities, at least those that might be of some vague interest to anyone reading, and instead provide a few thoughts and observations on a single aspect of my Alaskan experience while I await my ferry back to Homer. Generally, I have tried to avoid giving opinion in this blog as I know those reading it have various views on certain topics and I don’t wish to get into extensive debate at this time! In fact, this post was considerably longer when I first wrote it – I think I got carried away! I tried to cut it down to the bare bones of the question on my mind at the time.

Sitting in Henry’s Restaurant in the center of Kodiak I noticed that many people were playing the lottery and other gambling games. It appeared to be traditional to drop the used tickets on the floor and in some places it was as if there had been a ticker tape parade. It was about 5.00PM (on a Wednesday) and the place had more people than you might expect for this time of day and they weren’t all tourists/visitors like myself waiting for the ferry. I don’t necessarily think it is strange here because Kodiak is a working fishing town and fishermen rise early in the morning so presumably go to bed early. However, it reminds me of an issue concerning the subsistence fishermen of remote Alaskan villages. I have heard from people I talked with and also read that alcohol and substance abuse is a problem in native communities across Alaska and Canada as people transition from subsistence living to what we might consider ‘conventional living’. Often associated with a transition to ‘our way of life’ it is worth mentioning that these excesses are in fact a component of ‘our way of life’ and the indulgences are not exclusive to a particular group. Even though statistics might suggest otherwise they often offer no direct or provable correlation to actual causality thereby distorting or even completely masking the most relevant information. Problems experienced in our inner cities and elsewhere don’t seem a whole lot different to me and although alcohol highlights or exacerbates many of the symptoms, it in and of itself is not the root cause of the problem as we might do well to remind ourselves.

Clearly the native groups stand out because many are in a difficult transition often forced upon them for various reasons some more unpleasant than others. It is one thing for a population to slowly transition to a new way of life over a number of generations but what if it happens almost overnight? For example, as recently as the 1960’s, under the guise of a government assimilation policy, families were torn apart in Canada and children forced to attend residential schools in an attempt to wipe out the culture, language and traditions of native populations. (something for which the Canadian government formerly apologized just recently) Imagine having to change the way you live, eat and work over a single generation. The health challenges alone caused by dietary shifts are apparently noted by the medical profession in Alaska as this change takes place. Interestingly Weston Price wrote extensively on the subject of dietary changes as people moved away from their ancestral homes as early as the 1930’s. Read his ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration‘ for more information. The trauma caused by a significant change in the way a person lives not to mention the extra time people sometimes gain as a result of shorter working hours and modern creature comforts understandably can lead to problems. I have to wonder if the underlying cause of the symptoms experienced by communities where such changes unfold is simply related to the sense of loss of what was once a clearly defined purpose in life? What could be clearer or more meaningful than being the provider of food directly to your community? It is said that a life of service is a happy one, something we generally associate with the caring professions. It seems to me that the work of those in subsistence roles such as the Alaskan Native fishermen is the ultimate definition of a ‘life of service’ to a community. And what do you replace that with when it is lost, particularly when forced by another people’s agenda? I assume that many Alaskan Natives today have no such direct responsibility as providers to their communities? Those able to remain in the fishing industry or even be involved with modern sustenance hunting might have some connection to a well understood role but fishing for a company that ships the catch to people you don’t know in a far off place is not quite the same as delivering the nights catch to your neighbors and I am certain that taking a tourist on a trophy hunt isn’t the same as hunting in order to ensure the survival of your family. The loss of control, responsibility and fulfillment presumably can have far reaching psychological implications. And what of those forced into the service jobs of modern communities such as working in fast food restaurants? I challenge anyone to explain to someone who has made such a transition how his/her life purpose is still as important. Logically it can be argued in the context of a wider community but I for the life of me couldn’t look an Alaskan Native who has lost his way of life in the eye and give him/her an acceptable answer. Is it no wonder some of those in such situations seek escape through various substances as they transition to ‘our way of life’?

After doing a google search, I found this comprehensive report that provides even more background and also recommendations for dealing with some of the questions I was pondering at Henry’s Restaurant if you are interested.

The Emerald Isle of Kodiak, AK

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The Emerald Isle of Kodiak, AK

Driving north on Pasagshak Road I found a spot to show just how green this island is explaining why it is known as Alaska’s emerald isle. Given the obvious implication of it’s green abundance, I have been lucky I think because it has barely rained since I arrived.