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Subsistence and the Cultural Survival of the Athabascan People


Klutina and Tazlina finally saw what their dad was watching; it was a huge bull moose staring directly at them. It was mid-August, when their meat is in prime condition. It was Klutina's first hunt. Tazlina's father is going to show her brother how to provide the winter supply of meat for their family. Klutina meaning `head water river' and Tazlina, or `swift river,' were both named by their grandfather. Tazlina watched as her father and brother cut and butchered the moose. It will be taken to camp -- their home for the next three weeks. Half-rotten timber was gathered by the children's mother to smoke and dry the meat. There was no refrigeration and this was the only means of preserving the meat. After consuming some of the meat and tanning the moose hide, all family members packed as much meat as possible to the river -- approximately 25 miles. A train of dogs were also used to pack meat and supplies. The moose provides the Alaska Native with more than just meat for the family. Antlers can be made into a variety of tools and the moose hide can provide clothing, moccasins, mukluks, and traditional drums.

Klutina and Tazlina are fictional characters but their lives and how they lived them is how I envisioned it when my mother and father told me stories about our people long ago.

History of Ahtna Country

The Ahtna region contains the Wrangell-St. Elias and Chugach mountains, some towering 16,000 feet over the salmon-rich Copper River and millions of lakes. The area is rich with moose, grizzly bear, dall sheep, and one of the largest populations of the American bald eagle and the Nelchina caribou herd. The winters can be -60°F or colder with heavy snow fall. Springs are wet with runoff; the summers are dry and can soar above 90°F degrees.

Things have changed since Klutina's first moose hunt. Western society has made its way to Alaska and in some instances, changed the Alaska Native lifestyle forever. The Russian army explorers were the first foreigners to come to Alaska. They set up army posts along the coastal areas around the state. For 50 years they tried to infiltrate the Ahtna region but were unsuccessful, every time they sent a group into the region, they would never return. When they did penetrate Ahtna territory, they committed heinous crimes against the Ahtnas, yet they still could not survive the winters.

In the late 1800s, miners came north to winter at Klutina Lake from Valdez. If it weren't for the Natives' knowledge, they would have all disappeared. Visitors saw a Native elder wearing ornaments made of copper. The whites wanted to be taken to where the copper could be found and the elders traded the information for flour and sugar. The source of this copper is now known as the Kennicott Mine and they built a railroad from the mine to a town known as Cordova.

In the 1920s, the depression caused an increase of people arriving from the lower 48. In the 1930s, Alaska Natives began to address the increases in crime (due to the rise in alcohol use) through tribal councils. In the 1940s, the Alaska-Canada road, now known as the Alcan highway, was constructed through the Ahtnas' prime subsistence land. This was the beginning of an even more violent crime spree against Alaska Natives; their homes were burnt down and entire villages were forced to relocate. The Ahtna Indians lived in constant fear.

During the 1950s, the environment began to deteriorate and Native people were forced to seek employment. I remember those times. This was not by choice, however, the Ahtna Indians would have defiantly preferred a subsistence lifestyle. Fathers and uncles who were responsible for teaching their sons and nephews how to provide for the family the traditional way, now had to leave their homes to find employment. My own father did what he could to teach me and my brothers the traditional way.

Hunting Moose

I remember the first time my father and I went moose hunting. The moose season lasted over 40 days. It was an early fall morning; I gazed out the window of the car trying to help my dad spot a moose. We were looking for a bull moose because the current regulations would not allow us to take a cow. My dad suddenly stopped the car. I looked in every direction to see what he had spotted. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and got out. He asked me to get the rifle and follow him. We entered the woods and walked, as silent as possible, on a game trail for what seemed an eternity. We came upon a large lake as the sun was starting to warm the air. Dad and I stood there scanning the lake, looking for any movement and found none except for the ducks and two pair of swans. Dad motioned me to follow the trail back to the car. After walking in silence for a small distance, my dad raised his hand for me to stop and not move. It was the look in his eyes that told me we had finally found what we had been looking for.

At first I did not see anything until I saw the ears move. It was difficult to see the antlers since he was still in velvet. This was the big moment for me to provide my family with a winter supply of moose meat. Dad showed me where to stand so that I could get a clean shot. I aimed, but did not pull the trigger. Dad looked at me and I looked at him; I said I wanted him to shoot it. I did not fear the moose or the rifle; my only fear was shooting at the moose and missing it; then my family would not have meat for the winter. It was a question of survival. Dad shot the moose and we dressed it out and left to go get help to packing it out. A couple of days later my morn and brother returned to the kill to bring the hide home for tanning, but a bear had beat them to it.

After all the work was done and the meat stored for the winter, I asked my dad how he knew the moose was out there. He told me he had seen the wet moose tracks crossing the highway I learned that I always needed to be aware of the total environment surrounding me -- including looking for animal tracks.

Hunting Caribou

One cold winter morning, my mother, uncle, and I drove 40 miles up the highway to hunt for caribou. While driving, we spotted a heard of 15 caribou walking up on a hill beside the highway. My uncle and I grabbed the rifle and headed towards the herd. We had a box and a half of shells and proceeded to shoot at the caribou. Of the 15 caribou, we did not hit one. When I started to reload, my mother asked how many shells I had left. I said "three." She grabbed my rifle and needless to say, we went home with three caribou that day (My mother was well known throughout the area for her shooting ability)

Fishing for Salmon

It is early June and the river is teaming with Copper River red salmon; fish that is known around the world for its rich flavor. The trail leading to the river is narrow and infested with bugs. My mother tells me to talk loudly, sing, or bang a can while walking down the trail to the river to let the bears know that you are coming. You never want to surprise a bear, especially one with cubs. Once we arrived at the river, we checked the fish wheel for fresh fish. The fish wheel is a structure used by the Ahtna Indians to catch fish, sometimes as many as 500 salmon in one night. I counted out 300 fish. My job was to work on the fish that were caught the day before. These fish were placed in a gravel pit and left for the night. Next, they are strung on line from the fish wheel to rinse. This process removes the slime from the fish so when they are dried, they will not become brittle. After this process, the heads are cut off and some are cut into strips. Others are left whole and put on a fish rack to dry. This process will be repeated every day with each new catch from the fish wheel. This way of `putting up' fish for the winter is still practiced today

The Turning Point

In the early 1950s there were plenty of moose and caribou. During that time, regulations were just becoming more restrictive. The Ahtna were restricted to taking game only during certain months of the year. Our existence began to be at the mercy of the federal and soon-to-be state government. Food and clothing were bought instead of being made from materials found in our environment. Dependence upon the welfare system became a way of life for some. Receiving money for doing nothing is a major contributing factor to the gradual increase of substance abuse among Ahtnas.

Cultural Persistence in a Modern World

A native elder was visited one day by a non-native caretaker. The elder was a man in his 90s and lived his entire life in an area where the Nelchina caribou herd migrates. The caretaker saw a look of sickness in his eyes; they were foggy, he did not smile, and looked as if he were wasting away. His wife told the caretaker that their grandchildren didn't care much for hunting. The caretaker had just recently been hunting and had fresh caribou meat. The caretaker went home and brought back packages of fresh caribou meat. She put the meat in water to boil and left. When she returned two days later, she saw a change in the elder that was not to be believed. His eyes were so clear and bright, the smile on his face was worth more than words could ever express. He and his wife felt as though there would never be a way to show the caretaker the gratitude they felt for the generous gift of fresh caribou meat. The caretaker needed none. The look in their eyes and joy on their faces were thanks enough.

How do the Ahtna Indians survive the impact and changes that have occurred over time? The Ahtna, despite the enormous pressure to change, have not abandoned their way of life. We still hold the highest respect for the animals and land we live on. We continue to fight the state of Alaska in courts to retain our subsistence way of life. A person once asked me what my culture and lifestyle was. I told them it's something you have to live with to understand. It is something you cannot buy in the store, trade, or give away; it is something that you are born into.

Today, Alaska Natives and American Indians are living in a time of hostile statements, judges, congressman, governors, and presidents. We are told that we are equal citizens in the United States of America and no longer need "special privileges." I do not believe for one second that what was granted to us were "special privileges" or "gifts." When Congress met with us on these issues, it was on a government-to-government basis and Congress intended to leave the culture and traditions of the Alaska Native and American Indian intact.

Some people make remarks such as, "you people are all living on state and/or federal welfare assistance." Both state and federal governments have restricted some Natives to the point that government dependence is their only means of survival. Native people are restricted from taking of game. When they are hungry, they are no longer able to trap and make a living because of these restrictions. The Ahtna people need to live their lives as they choose. I've always wondered why so many young people leave and almost always return to the village after living in the cities. I believe it's because they need to be among the tribe to live and practice our culture and tradition -- they choose this lifestyle rather than the urban lifestyle.

The problem we face under state management is that most members are politically appointed, resulting in unsound management. The majority of government decision makers have been sport hunters or urban people that have no knowledge of a subsistence lifestyle. State courts up to and including the highest courts, are appointed by the governor.

We are protected under federal management to practice and live a subsistence lifestyle. The boards and commissions are dictated by the existing ANILCA Law. The boards also have a clear and concise law to provide a boundary between meeting subsistence needs and sound fish and game management. We've lived under both systems and support federal over state management because of our ill-treatment by the state in the past. We've lost faith and no longer trust the state system. In the early 1990s, the state board of fish and game adopted regulations for a five day moose season for our region. We took the state game board to court over this and lost on a split decision. The state supreme court ruled that this was a reasonable opportunity for several hundreds of Native families to get their moose. Under federal laws, we would have been able to take the state supreme courts decision to federal court. However, under state management, the state supreme court is the highest authority Ultimately, we would like to manage the resources ourselves, but in reality, we must work with the system that is in place even though the federal system best meets our customary and traditional needs.

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