The Key to Conflict Resolution: Reconnection with the Sacred; The Pribilof Aleut Case Study


In the early 1980s, the Aleut people of the Bering Sea's remote Pribilof Islands survived a profound crisis that ultimately was a spiritual, cultural, and economic turning point in their lives. For two hundred years commercial sealing had provided the sole economy on St. Paul and st. George, and it ended abruptly in 1983.

In 19786 and 1787, the Russian fur traders transplanted Aleuts from the Aleutian archipelago to the Pribilofs to serve as a slave labor force to harvest fur seals. These Aleuts became the survivors of a holocaust at the hands of the Russians that took 80% of their population within a fifty-year period. The U.S. government purchased the jurisdiction over Alaska with the Treaty of Cessions in 1867, and along with it, the Pribilof Islands. The U.S. government contracted with private companies for forty years after to continue the taking of fur seal pelts. Aleuts continued to serve as a captive labor force. The government assumed direct management over the fur seal program in 1911, pursuant to the International Treaty for the Conservation and Preservation of Northern Fur Seals. The Treaty was constructed to halt the high seas taking of air seals that had brought them to near extinction. In return for the U.S. government's agreement to harvest fur seals and to share the pelts with the Treaty participants, the other countries agreed to enforce laws against the high seas taking of fur seals. The conservation regime increased the numbers of northern fur seals from two hundred thousand to nearly one and a half million within twenty years.

Although the fur seals fared well under the conservation regime, the Pribilof Aleuts did not. Treated as second class citizens, and of far less concern to the U.S. government than the fur seals, the Aleuts lived under the arbitrary, oppressive, and sometimes cruel control of the government agents who administered the "Pribilof Islands Program." The agents exercised such inordinate control to ensure that Aleuts produced the highest numbers of fur seal pelts possible each year. During WWII, the government sent Aleuts to live in dilapidated internment camps in southeast Alaska where 10% of the population die of heat prostration and disease. While on the Pribilofs, the government agents subjected the Aleuts to many cultural indignities, ranging from the forced restructuring of their customary work methods to the censorship of their letters to the outside world. The agents ignored consensus decision-making which served as the traditional method of dealing with conflict and community problems. Government agents assumed the role of police, judge, and jury; they quickly suppressed the protests by the people through threats to deport trouble-makers, terminate their employment, or to remove them from their government owned homes.

Eventually, in the early 1960s, Alaska's only native-owned newspaper, the Tundra Times, published some letters successfully smuggled off the islands. The published letters led to investigations by the Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Congress. Legislation enacted in 1966 granted Pribilof Aleuts the rights of all other citizens of the United States. What did not change was the Pribilof Aleuts' economic base; they continued to depend on the U.S. government to provide jobs in the federally managed fur seal harvest program.

In 1969, leaders of the Fiends of Animals, a national conservation group, initiated an organizational campaign to stop the federal take of the seals on the Pribilofs. Others involved in the Canadian anti-sealing campaign joined the efforts of Friends of Animals in the late 1970s. Well funded and organized media campaigns against the fur seal program were organized and effective. Full-page ads in national newspapers characterized the Aleuts as "brutal, bloodthirsty, greedy killers of animals" resulting in anti-Aleut hate mail from all over the world. At the height of the anti-sealing campaign in 1980, Congress received tens of thousands of post cards and letters for Americans who protested the U.S. government's involvement in the Pribilof fur seal program.

Under pressure from the public, members of the Hmane Society of the United States, and other animal rights activists, the U.S. government announced its intention to stop the commercial seal harvesting and to completely withdraw from the Pribilofs within a year. The Aleuts knew this meant elimination of their only economic base which provided 80% of the local jobs and funds to maintain infrastructure that was critical for human occupation of the Pribilofs.

Predictably, the government's decision created community-wide anxiety and uncertainty. It left the Aleuts feeling angry, frustrated, and powerless over their future. The resulting depression was profound and widespread; the tragic number of deaths in 1983 remains a testament to the fear and sense of futility the Aleuts experienced at the hands of an impersonal and distant bureaucracy. In that year, Aleuts experienced 100 documented suicide attempts, three murders, and four suicides. By comparison, Pribilof Aleuts had one murder and no suicides in the previous one hundred years.

The population of fur seals began to decline in the mid 1970s at a rate of 6-7% per year. The people in the animal rights organizations seized upon this fact and claimed that the seal harvesting was causing the declines. The Pribilof Aleuts argued that these declines were symptomatic of something seriously wrong in the Bering Sea ecosystem, and it probably was related to diminishing food supplies. In many fora, the Aleuts noted their observations of unusual wildlife conditions and behavior. They observed seabird chicks falling off cliff ledges and dying in large numbers, steller sea lions eating fur seal pups in greater frequency than ever in living memory, and thinking fur seal pelts. No one heard the Aleuts. The people from the scientific community characterized these indigenous observations as "anecdotal" and thus of little value to scientific research and management. The people from the animal rights groups believed that these arguments were self-serving. The people in Congress chose to listen to the animal rights advocates and not the Aleuts, encouraged by the emotional appeals of their constituents to focus on the fur seal harvest.

Thirteen years later, the official reports on the status of Bering Sea wildlife sound an ominous note: northern fur seals are listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act; steller sea lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; harbor seals are listed as declining; red-legged Kittiwakes are under assessment for classification as endangered or threatened; and Spectacled Eiders are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Today, sixteen species may be in a state of severe and sustained decline in the Bering Sea. Many of these species are integrally linked to the well-being of coastal indigenous peoples of the Bering Sea. The reasons for the declines continue to elude the scientific community.

Meanwhile, the international treaty for the conservation of the seals lapsed, along with its provisions that required an internationally coordinated fur seal research program. The Aleuts argued that the research provisions should remain in force given that the seals were still declining in large numbers throughout their migratory range. However, there was no support for the Aleuts' call to help the seals.

Having lost the battle to protect their livelihood and the research provisions of the international treaty, the Aleuts then focused on protecting their rights to eat seals for food. Seal meat had been a staple in Aleut diet for almost ten thousand years. Some animal rights advocates argued against allowing the annual subsistence take of approximately sixteen hundred seals (from a population of nearly one million seals), claiming that the Aleuts could buy hamburger, fish, and chicken at their local grocery store. Several congressional staff people wanted to know why Aleuts needed to eat seal meat anyway.

As a compromise to the people opposing the Aleut subsistence take of seals for food, the government established new rules and regulations to closely monitor the subsistence harvest; each seal would be weighed by government officials to ensure that the Aleuts did not waste meat. This monitoring angered Aleut elders. The elders pointed out that no other American citizen had to have their food weighed by the U.S. government to ensure that every edible piece of food is used. Again, no one heard the Aleuts. Most of these regulations remain in place today.

As recently as four years ago, the leaders of some animal rights organizations tried to pressure the U.S. government into promulgating regulations to specify which parts of the fur seal Aleuts could for food. Meanwhile, fur seal pelts removed from seals during the subsistence harvest were thrown away because of laws prohibiting their commercial sale. Villagers are now allowed to take the pelts for use in traditional arts and crafts. However, since 1867, the U.S. government has not permitted the Aleuts to take pelts for their personal use, so the traditional technology and art skills have been forgotten.

In the year before the government pulled out of the Pribilofs, the Aleut leadership was under enormous pressure to come up with quick solutions for providing a new economic base for the people. At one point, the situation seemed so desperate that plans were made to purchase one-way airline tickets to the mainland of Alaska for all villagers. Another time, the young men of St. Paul devised a plan to secede from the United States, declare war, and forcibly take over the island's U.S. Coast Guard station. It took a potentially tragic suicide pact between two teenagers and a child to wake the villagers to the need to work together in an atmosphere of relative calm and collectedness.

The urgency of the situation prompted the Aleut leadership to take huge risks in their decision-making processes. They discarded convential western economic and community planning approaches and devised their own. The first challenge came with a proposal to throw out the democratic one-person/one-vote system to which they had become accustomed. The leadership realized that unity among the island's governing bodies could not be achieved with this voting system because of the distrust developed over the years which had been created by the one-person/one-vote system. The people in each organization had their own ideas about what should be done and they had their own interests to protect. Thus, the leaders decided that unity and elimination of divisiveness required a focus on the process rather than on the goal. The leaders remembered the wisdom of their ancestors who had always placed great importance on the process of reaching decisions. In contrast, western society had become almost exclusively goal-oriented. The "Wisdomkeepers" had understood that if the process was constructed with the proper spirit and intent, the whole or result would always be greater than the sum of its parts and would exceed all individual expectations.

The Aleut leaders realized that this could only be achieved by acknowledging and respecting each other as truly equal in the decision-making process. They decided that every representative of the community, including people from all local organizations, the elders, and the youth, would sit at the table with total veto power over any major decisions. At first, the Aleuts had strong reservations about granting such power to every designated representative. The historic distrust made the leaders wary of decisions being made out of self-interest instead of altruistic concerns about the community well-being. In the process they established rules that included no personal attacks or criticisms within or outside the circle of decision-makers, no use of derogatory terms or nuances of behavior which signaled something negative in any context, and total honesty. The new system worked; the Aleuts were able to reestablish their traditional values of mutual respect and honor in making decisions. Individual leaders were careful not to abuse their power, and no one spoke negatively about others because they understood it would hurt their ability to move their suggestions within the body of representatives. Everyone felt they were heard and listened to when they spoke at meetings. People put their egos aside as everyone was treated as an equal. Deliberations went as long as was necessary to achieve consensus.

The wisdom of the elders proved to be the correct approach to use during this crisis in the Pribilofs. Results far exceeded expectations as the focus shifted from goal to process. Ten years later, St. Paul was developed one of the most robust economics in rural Alaska. Per capita income is estimated at $34,000, or $10,000 more than the per capita income before the U.S. government left the Pribilofs.

Now, we, the Aleut community, have had time to reflect on this past and to do some soul searching. There are many questions to be answered: Why did the people from the animal rights organizations focus on "saving" the seals and not the Aleuts? Why did the American people respond so strongly to the message of these conservation organizations? Why was it difficult to understand the Aleuts' need to eat seals for food? Why were the Aleuts not listened to as they attempted to flag the growing problems in the Bering Sea ecosystem? Why did we, as a community, allow chaos and despair to reach such tragic proportions before we could act? Why did we succeed in our decision-making efforts beyond our expectations?

We have some answers to these questions. Aleuts experienced personal and organizational conflicts as a result of fearing the unknown. Animal rights groups and their supporters engaged in conflict because of their deep-seated fear of death. Individuals in Congress acted out of fear of losing power, prestige, and influence at the hands of their constituents on election day. Scientists and resource managers who ignored indigenous people's observations acted out of fear of losing their credibility, and possibly their jobs in the western science community if they supported the world view of nature as espoused by indigenous peoples. Such fears, coupled with a lack of connectendness to (or separation from) the sacred in all creation, form the fundamental basis of all human conflict. Understanding what this means is the first critical step towards understanding what to do to resolve conflict.

The Wisdomkeepers know that what is manifested externally, no matter what it is, must first be manifested within. External conflicts arise from internal conflicts. We cannot give what we do not have. This is a universal law. When we do not feel love and compassion for others, we have no love and compassion for ourselves. When we fight others, we begin by fighting within ourselves. When we act out of fear, we are expressing our distrust of the process of life and living, and thus our very being. When we trust life, fear and separation from the sacred are nonexistent.

The goal-orientation and controlling behavior of the U.S. Government agents over the lives of Aleut people were understandable, given that the agents were products of their society. The goal-oriented western society has its roots in the collective fear of loss of control. By definition, achieving goals can require control over people, and their performance, productivity, and allegiance. If control is lost, we may not achieve the goals set for the organization or group. We hold the organization and group leaders responsible for achieving the goals we have approved either by majority for achieving the goals we have approved either by majority vote or acquiescence. The organization leaders are chosen and rewarded for their abilities to achieve results. Having been chosen for these abilities, the leader attaches his or her ego (and even self-worth) to meeting the organization's goals. When ego and self-worth are attached to the outcome of any action, the illusion of the need to defend or enforce position come into play; thus, conflict is inevitable. To put it another way, when the origins of an idea stem from an imbalance created by fears, the results are never balanced, creating more fear-based actions which ripple through time, affecting the lives of countless numbers of people, perhaps for generations.

When the goal becomes the priority, we ignore process. A process focus in decision-making requires an orientation towards the needs and desires of people rather than on the results. For such a process to work, we must recognize the value of people rather than on the results. For such a process to work, we must recognize the value of people as individuals desirous of being treated with respect, honesty, dignity, and reciprocity. Such recognition require, in turn, a sense of connectedness with their own sacred identity. We lose this sense of connectedness when we detach from our feelings to serve as a defense against reliving some soul-hurting experience in our past. We escape from the reality of the present moment. Those who do not recognize and face this behavior pattern in themselves and in goal-oriented societies of which they may be a part will remain disconnected from the sacred, and thus are likely to experience a life of internal and external conflict, unable to treat themselves or others with the qualities born of love.

In the eyes of Pribilof Aleuts, western society's systems are fear-based. They negotiate conflicts from a position of power and through the force of law. They seek to control situations through some form of control and manipulation over the behaviors of people and they focus on the goal and not the process. They think of people in terms of labels or as organizations to dehumanize them and justify hurtful actions towards others. These fear-based systems create short-term fixes and focus on results in reckless disregard for the probable negative effects over the long-term.

The lessons from the Pribilof Aleut approach to conflict resolution bear some attention for what they may offer to improving the way we resolve conflicts of any kind. These lessons include: to focus on the process and to understand that for any process to work, we must individually feel that the other is truly equal, deserving of respect, honor, dignity, and reciprocity. We have also learned that unless we feel these things for ourselves, we cannot feel it for others. We have also found that a properly constructed process will always have an outcome greater than individual expectations, and we must be willing to risk a departure from conventional wisdom.

Today, Pribilof Aleuts have returned to use of the one-person/one-vote system and a goal-orientation in all local organizations. Conflicts on every level have re-emerged. We need to remind ourselves of the spiritual lessons we learned in crisis.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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