Elder Wisdom, Subsistence Rights, and the Environment

Elder Wisdom, Subsistence Rights, and the Environment

 by Larry Merculieff

Summary: The wisdom of the elders is needed and essential for facing the challenges we face today. Merculieff honors many who have gone before, who gave their lives to protect Aleut traditional ways of life and subsistence rights and acknowledeges these ways are challenged now more than ever. He calls on the next generation to think big, honor the past and look toward the next seven generations with every act.

Source: Keynote Presentation to the Alaska Tribal Conference on Environmental Management. October 2006.


Aang Waan. Cumuuxuulaax Exumnaax, Cumuuxuulaax Kusuthaax. Tanaa Awaa.


I really wondered what words I could share with you that would make any difference and thought about our heritage. I think about all of our ancestors and past leaders who were our freedom fighters-who fought for our educational rights, our subsistence rights, our land rights, our cultural rights, and our rights to self-govern. I think about all the elders who are still with us, fighting to restore our cultural ways.


They all dedicated their lives to these generations-long struggles. They were human rights activists in the best sense of the word. They were inspiring leaders that all of us would do well to model after.


I think of Elizabeth Peratrovich who had supreme courage to walk into the halls of state government to speak the truth in a dignified way. I think about Howard Rock who had the vision of a unified Alaska Native voice and staunch belief in the power of the press when he created the Tundra Times. I think about the Alaska Native Brotherhood whose leaders had the vision and courage to pioneer use of the U.S. legal system to fight for Alaska Native rights. I think about the Inupiat who unified to create a “Duck In” in protest of the injustice of duck hunting regulations. I think about my own ancestors who secretly met against the rules of a U.S. government agent to plan how to smuggle letters out of the Pribilofs to be published in the Tundra Times, describing our conditions of servitude at the hands of the U.S. government, resulting in a human rights and congressional investigations that led to the passage of our bill of rights in Congress in 1966.


I think about the leaders who made the Land Claims deal. Some may look back and criticize what they did, but I know they did what they thought was right at the time. Consider the circumstances at that time. They had the courage not only to challenge State law, but national law and multi-billion dollar interests to say We Are United in our stance that no one, not the state government, not the U.S. government, not multi-national companies will run roughshod over our rights as Alaska Native peoples. The results were far from perfect, but no one should deny that what they did took courage and that they did what they thought was right.


And I recall the first ever Celebration gathering in S.E. Alaska where there may have been a dozen dancers celebrating their culture in the 1970’s. And now there are hundreds and hundreds- where every village has cultural groups, and cultural groups have sprung up throughout Native country, thanks to the persistence and dedication of our wisdomkeepers and culture bearers, the Elders.


We have a rich heritage of strong peoples who had visionary, dedicated, and courageous leaders we must not forget. We Dare Not Forget.


We dare not forget because today’s generation faces new challenges that will continue to ask of you, as leaders, to have courage, integrity, persistence and vision to the same degree, and perhaps more, than what was required of our people in the past.


Remember, it was only five years ago that the Alaska Native community had to mobilize in support of Katie John so that the governor would not appeal the lower court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging our traditional subsistence rights. And about the same time, we were fighting the battle for the right of coastal Alaskans to take halibut for subsistence purposes in the international, national, and state arena. This effort stemmed from the plight of one village, Port Graham who called to say that they were in a desperate state. The State of Alaska had cut their take of salmon and bear, and what they had left to fill their winter supplies, was halibut. So, they sent out a couple of guys in a skiff and brought home 19 halibut for the village. Waiting for them on shore were two law enforcement officers…a blue shirt and a brown shirt. These men were cited for violation of state sport fishing regulations that allow only two halibut per person. I recall testifying before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who regulated halibut fishing, where we were seeking what amounted to one percent of the total human take of halibut per year. Sport and commercial fishing took 99 percent of all the halibut landed in Alaska. I will never forget the statement of one member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who was concerned that Alaska Native populations was increasing and asked….if the population doubled, would we ask for two percent? I said yes, and his response was that the extra one percent certainly wasn’t going to come out of the sport fishing community. Well, thanks to the fact that Alaska Native leaders were united, we got our one percent and a lot of previously non-existent regulation because of the Council’s fear that we will take more than we need or sell the halibut commercially. This mentality….this greed…this ignorance still exists today and in fact may be worse than it was five years ago because of the influx of new residents to Alaska.


We all know how important our traditional ways of life and subsistence foods are to us. But, as Alaska’s population continues to grow, these ways are challenged now more than ever. There is ever growing pressure on use and access of the fish, wildlife, and habitat. Tens of thousands of people are coming into all areas of Alaska to hunt and fish….building more and more lodges, bringing in more float planes, river boats, and outboard motors bringing noise pollution, and the pollution of ever increasing discharges of gasoline from inefficient burning of outboard motors. I recall one villager telling me that there were 8,000 people who were flown from Anchorage to their village in Kodiak to hunt or watch bears in one season, causing bears to move away from their hunting areas. And the bears are getting smaller over time because outside hunters go for the biggest bears.


It wasn’t too long ago that an elder Athabascan couple was cited for illegal take of a road kill moose for a potlatch; where a Yupik elder was cited for taking home an undersized halibut; where a Tlingit youth was cited for hunting in Resurrection Bay where his ancestors had hunted for thousands of years, where an Aluttig hunter on Kodiak was cited for unknowingly crossing from federal lands to state lands to hunt deer.


I think about how the Elders lament the changes they have seen in their lifetimes. One Athabascan elder, the late Jonathan Solomon said, “We think we have a lot of animals these days, but you don’t know what that is. You never saw caribou cross the Yukon river, the herd a mile wide and running for three days and nights.” A Yupik elder said, “We think we get a big King Salmon when we get one that is 60 pounds. I remember when the average King Salmon was 150 lbs.”  Other Elders pointed out that before the institution of western management regulations, there was always abundance, and the fish and wildlife have steadily gone down since then. In fact, when outsiders first came to Alaska, they found the lands and waters teaming with fish and wildlife, and the lands pristinely clean and undisturbed…an undeniable testament to the wisdom of our people as stewards.


But, the nature of our stewardship has changed because of laws and regulations not of our own making. The average Alaska Native today must wade through a myriad of laws and regulations to do what we have done for thousands of years. Taking beaver has one set of regulations. Taking salmon yet another. Taking ducks yet another. Taking seals and whales yet another. Taking caribou yet another. We have to deal with the Board of Fish, and the Board of Game, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal Subsistence Board, the regional advisory boards, and State and Federal law makers. In fact, the average Alaska Native is probably the most regulated American in the United States in terms of living our lives they way our people have lived for millennia. I maintain that these regulations, in terms of their cumulative impacts, are changing our cultures at fundamental levels and in ways no one, Native or nonnative, is looking at or questioning in terms of long-term consequences. For one thing, it is requiring our leaders to wear so many hats, hopping from one meeting to the next…testifying here and there….sitting on this advisory board and that. So much so, that many of our leaders are forced to do nothing but deal with brushfires lit not by us, but by people and institutions outside our villages, all to try to ensure the economic survival and wellbeing of our peoples. They are spread too thin to be proactive. We have become, by circumstances and necessity, reactive in our leadership today.


Compounding the challenges, is global warming and climate change. Beaver are moving further north and growing in numbers, creating more dams that lower water levels at a time when water levels in all rivers and lakes are decreasing. Walrus have been found with seals in their stomachs. Beluga whales show up in Ft. Yukon. Migratory routes of wildlife are changing in timing and location. Salmon are showing up with parasites more and more because sea temperatures are conducive to growth of these parasites. Polar bears are found in increasing numbers floating dead in the water or emaciated because of their struggle to go to and from diminishing sea ice. Weather is becoming unpredictable. Hunters are having to go further out due to climate changes and human disturbances, increasing their exposure to dangers. Pollution is being transported by snow melt on mountain tops and air and sea transport. Wildlife populations and vegetation are changing dramatically. And, as sea ice disappears, water levels rise, and storms intensify, more and more coastal communities will be at risk.


In the world at large, our forests are being decimated, our waters, air, and land polluted, species are being hunted and fished to extinction, and the average human body is now a container for countless poisons. For example, it was recently discovered that some of the biggest pollutants in the North Sea are now aspirin, tums, antacids, antibiotics, and hormones from our wastes being eliminated through the toilet. Through lack of wisdom and critical thinking, what we take to suppress the sicknesses of the human body are now making our world’s oceans sick.


Oh yes, this generation has a set of challenges ahead of you that are unprecedented in size and scope from anything our ancestors have had to deal with. And, these challenges were not created by us or any indigenous peoples on this planet. And that is my point here today. This mess was created by a worldview of take, take, take, without thought to consequences or any sound vision of where we want to go. It was created by greed, arrogance, and ignorance.


The world needs the wisdom of our ancestors more than ever in human history to get us out of this mess. And so, we must not abandon the teachings of the elders because the politics, mindset, legal structures, and institutions of the majority may not support our ways to the degree it needs to be supported.


I leave you with some wisdom of the Elders to guide you. The elders say that nothing is created outside until it is created inside first. We trash the environment on the outside, because we trash our environment on the inside. We separate from others on the outside, be it for political, religious, or other reasons, because we are separated on the inside. We are in conflict on the outside because we are in conflict on the inside.  Nothing is created outside until it is created on the inside first.


And the elders say we cannot offer the world that which we do not have. Einstein said that we cannot solve the problems of the world by the same consciousness that created it. I can only offer the world that which I have…that which I am….that which I know.  If I am internally in conflict, internally not in harmony, internally sick, internally without wisdom, how can I help others? So, the elders say the most unselfish act you can make for your people is to heal yourself so that you are a real human being again. Then, you are fit to be a leader.


The Elders also say that what we choose to focus on becomes our reality. If we choose to focus on finding something bad about someone, you can always do it. No one is perfect. If you choose to focus on conflict, then that will be your reality. If you choose to focus on the problems, and not focus on the vision of the world you want, then that will be your reality.  And if we choose to always react to some negative thing created by the ignorance of the outside world, then that will always be our reality.


It is my hope and dream that you will choose to be proactive. You will choose the wisdom of our ancestors and our elders, because knowledge without wisdom is not only useless, but dangerous.  You will choose to create rather than to destroy. You will choose to unify with courage like our ancestors did instead of fight to be the one who is “right” about things against those you label as “wrong”. You will choose to take the time to deliberate amongst each other to create a vision for the world you want, not the world others say you should want. You will choose to act with dignity and integrity. You will choose to learn how to live instead of how to make a living. You will choose the wisdom of our cultures that teach us to share, to work together, to respect, to give, to speak your truth without attachment to the results, to honor the ancestors and our Mother Earth. You will choose to say “nothing is impossible if we stick together dedicated to our dreams” and know deep inside yourself that this is true. And always remember the humor of our people.


And to the younger generations, I say this: question everything. Question yourself, question authority, question everything about the way things are, listen to the elders, really listen to those you disagree with, listen to the land, listen to your heart first rather than your mind….then have the courage to act without thought to the odds against you. Your ancestors have shown the way it can be done, so there is no excuse… and there is no more time….The Time to be a real human being again is Now. The World Needs the Real Human Being. And remember, you come from great people who understood that we do the world no favor by thinking or being small.


Thank you.