As an Inupiaq Eskimo that lives a predominantly subsistence lifestyle (which means much of our food comes from the land), I am very heavily regulated by the federal and state government. Which if you think about it is nothing abnormally really in this day and age. But the amount of regulations that I wear daily can be pretty staggering, and is often something that people who live a non-subsistence lifestyle have no real grasp on.
We live in a time where our subsistence rights are being terrorized, mostly by state officials. All over the state there are cases and cases being brought against Native people that are incredibly ridiculous and fantastic, aimed at smearing the 'morality' of traditional cultural activities. But we will get to that in a bit.
Now I'm not a expert in these regulations though I do keep one eye out form any new changes in the wind that pertain to my art or my food. Anything in this post is based off of my personal knowledge, which is gained from perusing websites and the occasional....few and far between....paper in the mail from Fish and Game.
The first thing people should be aware of it that the regulations that govern us are separated into to three main bodies. State, Federal, and International. Easy enough right? Most of the time ,yes. Each section usually lords over some section of animals; State gets local-ish animals, Federal gets U.S. migratory-ish animals, and international is where animals that migrate through different countries or inter-country trade gets haggled out. Basically State handles animals like caribou and squirrels, Federal has a love affair with ducks and geese, and international gets the animals like whales and endangered marine mammals. This is a not a totally accurate view but as we all know complexity and masses of words somehow equals more control in big government arena's.
One thing I should point out here is that in recorded modern history, (we might have something to with the mammoth going round the bend) no animal has ever been hunted to extinction by subsistence hunters in the state of Alaska. All animals that are endangered or extinct have became that way through western commercial hunting and trade. Usually whalers looking for easy marks/food/money. And you have to keep in mind that before the native population declined rapidly from exposure to disease, there were hundreds of thousands of individuals, maybe even millions, living off the population of animals present. The Inupiaq people alone are estimated to have gone from 500,000 to today's number of 10,000. So in a way we became one of those endangered species also.
Hunting in fishing in Alaska is big business. Millions and millions of dollars are spent in the state to be able to hunt and fish and even more is spent on just taking pictures of all the animals. People come from all over the world to experience the Alaska wilds. Here in Anaktuvuk Pass alone I sat and counted hunters flying here to go to the three nearby hunting camps (non-native or local by the way), and in one day I counted 35 individual hunters. Times that by about 30 days during caribou and sheep prime season and it will give you an idea of the numbers even in this tiny far away place. They each spend anywhere from $4,500-$10,000 a trip (we looked it up and found some brochures) regardless of what they are hunting. And what do subsistence hunters pay? We pay $25.00 a year for a permit to hunt as much as we need, versus the one or two animals the outside hunters take. So you can imagine the type of feelings that state and government officers have for us, those that use the resources and give such little back. Especially the villages that ban tourist companies.
So what regulations do I have to live by?
The most interesting one is the salvage regulation. It sounds really amazing on paper: you absolutely must take with you 80% of the animal you harvested. No matter what. You must take it with you back home and store it. And this sounds really well thought out (because what jerk would take an animal and not use it right) till you realize that animals do carry human contagious diseases. Animals also have 'mystery' diseases. It is like saying if you went to the market and purchased a beef roast and you got it home and noticed that it had some pretty substantial sized green pus filled tumors (which we have seen), that the law would require you to bring it home store it with your other food, and wait for test results to come back to tell you if you could eat it. And from experience we know that it takes almost 3 WEEKS to hear back from the state biologists after you have given them a sample. And by the way there is no system set up to regularly test and provide feedback on whether an animal is fit for human consumption or not, we had to hunt down a state biologist to do us a favor and she did it more out of curiosity than anything else, because we included pretty digital photos. I have talked with people who have accidentally consumed sick animals and have as a result suffered for months with painful sicknesses and doctor visits and it always leaves me wary.
Then are the things I can do with leftovers and the things I can't do with left overs paragraphs. As an artist this area of subsistence regulation fascinates me. I have looked far and wide for the reasons behind these regulations and have yet to find any that make sense (though I'm sure you can find good reason eventually) . I have even sat down with a ex-state F & G guy and he was as baffled as me. Here are some examples: I am not allowed to make any product out of any feathers of any of the birds I eat the exception being ptarmigan. The wording behind the rule is that every other single bird is considered to be a migratory bird. That includes snowy owls, ravens, eagles...everything else. The government will allow you to make religious items if you petition for it, and special permission is given to educational entities, but personal use and for sale items are forbidden. Pretty much every single animal has it's own set of rules. Brown bears can be used but nothing sold from them, polar bears can be used and artwork sold from them as long as it is 80% changed, no one cares what you do with caribou parts, some sea mammals parts can be sold as long as it's not any type of 'hard' substance like bone. The list of rules pertaining to each type of animal is huge and daunting and a maze of political red tape. And of course, as you may have guessed, the government does not provide a clear and ready place for people to get to know these regulations. I receive at least 5 or six calls/emails/facebook messages a month from other native artists wondering of they could use certain animal leftovers in art simply because the information via web is extremely sparse and contacting a the person you are supposed to contact is a crap shoot. I have left messages and sent emails to the person that is supposedly in charge of the giving us this information and I have never ever received a response. Even a simple brochure or pamphlet would be helpful, after all visitors to Alaska spend over 7 million dollars a year on Alaska Native crafts....we should at least have a pamphlet will all the rules right? It is my contention that the F & G were built to be enforcers and nothing much else.
These are just examples of a small part of our regulations. I didn't even enter the discussions on seasons, or how they change according to whose land you are in (in Anaktuvuk Pass this land is divvied up by 5 different entities), or rules on how to handle animals, or how you can kill them depending on the time of year, or how they change according to what vehicle you are in....etc etc. The regulations are a huge huge list full of mysteries and qualifications and twists and turns and any normal person will tell you that they are not always sure what is going on with the regulations. The state sends you a small pamphlet to your house every year with the season dates for your area (if you bought a hunting license) and if there are any changes to any regulations they will post a sign at the post office and hope people see and read it. I know they are understaffed and underfunded but I am always befuddled at what they do. If you visit the state interwebs site, it will give you some infoand more links to other websites, which will give you more links to other websites. Confusion is they feed you, yet you are require to be fed. After all, it's your fault if you didn't know right?
As most of you know I grew up in a village called Point Hope. Some of you might have heard of it from an incident that happened a few years back. The fish and game guys reported that a very substantial amount of caribou had been shot and left to rot outside of Point Hope by subsistence hunters (some weird exact number like 112). They sensationalized it and it was broadcasted across Alaska as proof positive that subsistence hunters abuse their rights. They accused elders of protecting criminals and took pictures of lonely baby caribous to prove how horrible it all was. I received a few phone calls from people from home, everyone was confused and frightened by how viral this situation became. In the end it was found out that only about 6 caribou had been left, one because it showed signs of a disease that is highly contagious, and 5 because the hunter sliced his hand open and had to go back to town for medical aid. The trial was extremely public and called for action to hold native hunters to higher 'moral' rules. The interesting thing to me though was not that this had become such a poisonous account, but that a year before this an even more horrendous act was completely ignored. A man purchased a new pistol and went out of town to play with it. He found a big herd of muskoxen (a protected species) and proceeded to shoot 6 of them for target practice. The f & G made a small statement in the local newspaper about how horrendous it was, but when they caught the guy it turned out to be a non-native local who apologized briefly and paid a small fine. He showed up once or twice in a small newspaper after that but nothing more was said. I found this interesting simply because of the obvious difference on how the situation was treated.
Stuff like this is happening all over the state though. In Barrow a man was fined and his car and shotgun was taken away because he was found hunting geese after 10pm, Alaska natives are splashed on newspaper front pages almost every month and are portrayed as abusing subsistence rights. I hear of other similar stories from the different tribes of Alaska, and these barely make it in the news. But in the end the government has us by the neck, each finger a hairs breadth away from starvation and destitution. So we squint, and growl and write blog posts.
So I wear these ever-changing regulations like multicolored rags. Each one a mystery and dusty burden. And I think about who knows more about these animals? The ones who sit in offices and use calculus to estimate numbers, or the ones who breath the same air and drink the same water? And then I realize that stuff like that doesn't matter anymore. But I am forever hopeful that it will matter one day.