Subsistence Economies in Rural Alaska


Since 1980, federal law has protected subsistence uses by "rural" Alaska residents. The rural language in ANILCA was a political compromise primarily intended to protect subsistence uses by Alaska Natives. Congress presumed that subsistence fishing and hunting by Alaska Natives would be largely safeguarded by a law protecting fishing and hunting of "rural" residents. Like federal law, the current Alaska state law also protects subsistence uses in rural areas; however, under state law, both rural and urban residents are eligible to participate in the rural hunts and fisheries.

A "Rural Socioeconomic System"

The term `rural' has come to mean a type of `rural socioeconomic system' in Alaska, rather than simply a demographic pattern. While a standard demographic definition of rural (populations less than 2,500 people) would protect most Alaska Native villages (most number less than 1,000 people), it is inappropriate because it would eliminate from subsistence protections mid-sized places dependent on wild foods like Barrow and Kotzebue (Inupiat settlements dependent on marine mammals and caribou), Bethel and Dillingham (predominately Yup'ik communities dependent on salmon and seals), and Kodiak and Sitka (predominately non-Native towns containing Alutiiq and Tlingit tribal groups dependent on salmon, halibut, and deer). The understanding of `rural' as a type of socioeconomic system developed to conform with actual patterns of subsistence dependencies in Alaska communities.

By and large, `rural' in the subsistence statutes has come to refer to Alaska communities substantially dependent on wild foods for nutrition and other customary and traditional uses -- for medicine, furs, transportation, and ceremonies. Using this rural paradigm, state and federal fish and game boards have classified Alaska places as rural or non-rural for subsistence protections. With a few exceptions, there are clear distinctions in the socioeconomic systems of Alaska communities -- communities substantially dependent on wild foods stand out from those that are not.

Wild Food Harvest Levels

Based primarily on harvest levels, federal and state boards have classified about 270 communities as `rural' in Alaska. Wild food harvests in rural regions range from about 153 to 664 pounds per capita annually. These are substantial harvests; by comparison, the average American in the continental U.S. purchases about 222 pounds per person of meat, fish, and poultry annually. The wild food harvest in rural Alaska contains about 242% of the protein requirements of the rural population and about 35% of the caloric requirements (the caloric shortfall is made up with purchased foods imported to rural Alaska).

By contrast, wild food harvests in Alaska's urbanized areas range from about 16 to 40 pounds per capita annually. The urban harvest contains about 15% of the urban population's protein requirements and about 2% of the caloric requirements. Alaska's non-rural areas are supported by an industrial-capital economic system, where most foods are purchased and employment is based on service support of several basic industries -- commercial (oil, timber, minerals, fish), national defense, tourism, and commerce.

Based on the rural and non-rural classifications, about 20% of Alaska's population lives in rural areas and 80% in non-rural areas. The rural population is split almost evenly between Alaska Natives (49%) and non-Natives (51%). In urban areas, about 7% are Alaska Natives.

Kinship Groups and Small-Scale Technology

High levels of production and consumption of wild foods is only one characteristic of subsistence socioeconomic systems in Alaska. In rural communities, family-based groups are the usual economic firms in the production of wild foods. This social form is sometimes called a `domestic mode of production,' meaning that kinship groups organize production activities in the subsistence sector of the local economy. Family groups in the subsistence sector use small-scale, efficient technologies for harvesting and processing wild foods, including a blend of old (fish drying racks, smokehouses, and harpoons) and new (skiffs with outboard motors, snow machines, and rifles). Equipment is commonly purchased, which means a family must have a source of monetary income to successfully engage in subsistence production.

Specialization and Exchange Networks

There is specialization in production of wild foods in the subsistence sector. Typically, about 30% of households produce 70% or more of a community's wild foods. Wild foods are distributed among households primarily through non-market channels along lines of kinship and other reciprocal social obligations. Producers share subsistence foods with family members, the elderly, single mothers, the disabled, and other segments of the community. For instance, while moose was harvested by 50% of households in Galena, 95% of households ate moose during the year. In addition to sharing, some subsistence products are bartered and exchanged through customary trade networks via small-scale transactions involving modest amounts of money. Federal and state laws prohibit the sale of subsistence products at commercially significant volumes.

Territories and Traditional Knowledge

Land is the third component of the rural socioeconomic system, along with labor (family-based groups) and capital (small-scale technology). Subsistence foods are produced from traditional territories accessible from each community by boat or ground transport. A community's subsistence areas are commonly the traditional homelands of a local tribal group. Customary law guides local residents' access to the territory's resources, such as trapping lines, fishing camps, and common hunting areas. The customary rules exist alongside legal property systems defined by municipal, state, and federal governments. Hunters and fishers are instructed by mentors in traditional systems of knowledge, beliefs, and values regarding the natural world. In Alaska Native traditions, animals are commonly understood to have spiritual qualities and the violation of rules regarding the proper respect and treatment of animals can lead to declines in populations and poor luck in harvesting. Within the subsistence area, fishing and hunting follow a seasonal cycle linked with the migration of animals, weather, and quality of products within the local area.

Mixed, Subsistence-Cash Sectors

In addition to the subsistence sector, the rural economy also has a cash sector (also called a `commercial' or `market' sector). Commonly, the cash sector is not well-developed in rural communities. Jobs are few and seasonal. Incomes are modest and insecure from year to year. Common sources of income include commercial fishing, trapping, or fish processing, public sector jobs from government grants, such as schools, and dividend payments from Alaska Native corporations. In some rural communities, the local cash sector is more developed, such as on the arctic slope where borough revenues from oil production fund local jobs, or on the Aleutian Islands where large commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea support employment in fishing and fish processing.

While the subsistence sector is essential to the rural economy, so is the cash sector. The most successful families in the rural economy combine monetary employment with subsistence production. Income from jobs is invested in equipment to harvest wild foods. Commonly, the most highly productive subsistence harvesters are from households with the largest monetary incomes. The subsistence socioeconomic system in rural areas is most properly understood to be a mixed, subsistence-cash system. Thus, subsistence and cash sectors are interdependent and mutually supportive.

`Rural' and Resource Management

Alaska's overall population is still relatively small (only about 615,900 people total in 1995) and densities to the land are low. Nevertheless, commercial interests and the growing urban population create increasing pressures on Alaska's wild resource base through sport hunting and fishing and commercial enterprises like guiding, tourism, and commercial fishing. Rivalries between interest groups over fish and game have necessitated the development, of laws that recognize and protect subsistence harvests.

The rural preference in federal law provides a tool for fish and game managers. Subsistence harvests by communities classified as `rural' can be recognized as distinct from the recreational harvests and commercial uses. Regulations regarding seasons, harvest methods, and bag limits can be created which provide for the customary and traditional features of the subsistence harvest pattern. Subsistence users are enabled to pursue cultural patterns without conflict with regulations from the federal and state governments. When wild resource populations cannot support all uses, customary and traditional subsistence uses are restricted last, after commercial and recreational uses. In this manner, Alaska communities with the greatest dependencies on fish and game are provided an opportunity to continue ways of life built on mixed, subsistence-cash economies.


Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 1998. Community Profile Database. P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, Alaska, 99802. 907-465-4147,

Georgette, Susan and Hannah Loon. 1993. "Subsistence Use of Fish and Wildlife in Kotzebue, A Northwest Alaska Regional Center." Technical Paper No. 167. Juneau: Division of Subsistence, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

George, Gabriel D. and Robert G. Bosworth. 1988. "The Use of Fish and Wildlife by Residents of Angoon, Admiralty Island, Alaska." Technical Paper No. 159. Juneau: Division of Subsistence, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Marcotte, James R. 1990. "Subsistence Harvest and Use of Fish and Wildlife by Residents of Galena, Alaska, 1985-86." Technical Paper No. 155. Juneau: Division of Subsistence, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Wolfe, Robert J. and Robert J. and Robert J. Walker. 1987. "Subsistence Economies in Alaska: Productivity, and Development Impacts." Arctic Anthropology. 14(2):56-81.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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