Merriam-Webster defines for us the word, “subsistence”, as it pertains to Alaskans as :” means of subsisting: as a : the minimum (as of food and shelter) necessary to support life b : a source or means of obtaining the necessities of life”
Alaska Native Peoples exemplify what the dictionary strives to define. They obtain their food, shelter, and clothing from the land. The land provides everything they need to sustain their lives, their existence.
In my mind, the word “subsistence” conjures images like an Iñupiaq hunter waiting for hours poised over an air hole ready to strike a seal (oogruk) with his harpoon, or a whaling crew hunting bowhead. I think grandmothers and grandchildren gathering eggs from migratory waterfowl in woven grass baskets.
I think of the Athabaskan families on the Yukon River harvesting fish from their weir and putting up fish for the winter. I think of Athabaskans hunters in moose hide mukluks on snowshoes hunting hares.
I am always comparing my life to that of a subsistence culture, because that is what I have always gravitated towards, and the life I value most. Unfortunately, the life I desire is not the life I lead.
Our family is not the poster-child for the subsistence lifestyle. However, we are the picture perfect example of an Alaskan Family living in the “Big Village” of Anchorage, with one foot in our fast-paced city life, and the other foot trying to keep a toe-hold on our cultural subsistence life of hunting, fishing and gathering.
Life in Anchorage is like that. Our “Big Wild Life” lies on the fringe of wilderness and concrete and we do everything we can to preserve our traditions, but unfortunately our life does not center on a subsistence lifestyle. We do what many families do, and we supplement our subsistence lifestyle with our Safeway lifestyle, or vise-versa, depending on your point of view.
My wife is Iñupiaq Eskimo (Unalakleet, AK). She works for a non-profit corporation that works to advance Alaska Natives through social, economic, and educational means. Though she Alaska Native herself, she works in downtown Anchorage. It’s hard for her to find the traditional foods she loves like herring eggs, salmon strips, and her grandmother’s caribou stew.
Though Jorie is Iñupiaq, she has spent her entire life living in Anchorage aside from a few summers spent in Unalakleet, and at her grandparent’s cabin on the Unalakleet River. She only possesses relics of information passed on to her from her mother, uncles, and grandparents.
Living a subsistence lifestyle takes knowledge and skill. Nearly everything I know about hunting, fishing, and gathering edible plants, I have learned on my own by studying, talking to people, and trial-and error. Hunting, fishing and gathering in Alaska is different than it is in Michigan where I grew up.
The challenges of new species, terrain and climate prove difficult and much of the time I am not successful hunting moose or caribou, but I keep trying. Even so, I pass on things that I have learned about hunting, fishing and wild plants to my children and even my wife. It’s really hard to teach your children something you don’t know yourself. Subsistence is no exception.
Preserving your fish and game, and plants is also hard work. It takes a lot of time to prepare fish to be canned, dried, smoked, frozen, and pickled. It takes time to butcher game meat into steaks and roasts, grind it for hamburgers and sausage.
Because of the time commitment, I find very difficult to balance with our lifestyle here in the city. Most of the time, the demands of our life in town with work, school, extracurricular functions, and child-rearing, take precedence over subsistence.
Still, we strive to do what we can. Though we missed gathering fiddle head ferns, and Devil’s Club buds this year, there are still plenty of other opportunities for gathering this year. Morel mushrooms will be out in just a couple of weeks, and Shaggy Manes come out in late August and early September. This will be Isabella’s first year to come with us to pick blueberries, salmon berries, and cranberries.
In the next few days, I’ll be taking the boys down to ship creek to flog the water alongside everyone else hoping to land a King Salmon. As each successive wave of salmon species begin to return to their home streams, David, Joseph and I will be trying to catch them. And, when the Alaskans-Only dip net fisheries open up on the Kenai, and Kasilof, we’ll be out there too! I’ll be holding the net, and the boys will be doing the dirty work dispatching those beautiful Reds.
This fall will be the first year I take David and Joseph hunting for small game like Snowshoe Hare, and Ptarmigan. And, if things work out, I’ll drive up the Dalton Highway, AKA: “The Haul Road” to bow hunt for caribou again this year. Although last year I got skunked, I learned a LOT, and I’m confident I can return successful this year.
My most cherished time of year are the few days I get to hunt for moose. Those days belong to me, and whether I harvest a moose or not, isn’t really the point. In the next year or two, when I think David is ready I’ll start taking him with me. I’m really looking forward to the day when I have both boys (and Isabella if she wants to) by my side hunting moose.
In our family, subsistence is a choice. We don’t have to hunt, fish, or forage for our food. In a way we’re very fortunate to have that luxury. However, if I had my way, I would live by the land. It’s difficult, but I think it’s the way we were meant to live.