As officials in Alaska talk about subsistence, Natives have lived it, season by season

By John Tetpon, Alaska Beacon - April 16, 2024
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The author's grandmother Kipo, center, is seen with her family in 1921. (Photo provided by John Tetpon)
The author’s grandmother Kipo, center, is seen with her family in 1921. (Photo provided by John Tetpon)

It was a cold wintry day, and the sun was out, shining brightly against the blowing snow just above the ground, which is a normal occurrence around that time of year. The wind always blew just hard enough to feel like sand on your face.

Grandma Kipo, a small Inupiat woman about 60 years old, and I walked to a small creek where she knew there was ling cod to be found, swimming in the cold little river just waiting to be caught. She set a trap made of willows that would prevent fish from escaping once it went inside.

A little further into the tundra, she set a string of snares made of reindeer sinew to catch ptarmigan.

That was our morning trek to get food for the family, but she wasn’t done yet. At home, we sat near the hot woodburning stove to get warm. It was made out of a 50-gallon metal barrel laid on its side with beach rocks for a foundation. A front door was attached so wood logs can be placed inside. Later we would walk out on the Bering Sea ice to catch snow crab and cod fish.

That was our lifestyle. But we didn’t have a name for it. We just called it “nigiqq-ta-paq” time. It was the season for gathering Native food.

Today, it is called subsistence. It sounds legalistic. It is not used in our Inupiat language.

And there are thousands of words being written on paper to try and make people understand what it means. This past week, people gathered here in Anchorage again, perhaps for the thousandth time, to try and work together to please all of the people all of the time – an impossibility. It is a bridge too far.

In the melee of words, English words, white and Native people alike threw sentences around together and spoke them. Once in a while, a smile would break through as if saying, “Oh.” But it’s never enough. The fog of brains not meeting in the middle leave wordsmiths confused and bewildered.

It has been like that for 50 years now.

Here is what Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka said a few days ago during another, yes, yet another, meeting addressing food insecurity, including among Native people, in order to try and bring a new understanding among all of the people there gathered. She spoke about a proposed amendment to the Alaska Constitution on subsistence.

“Subsistence is basically an Alaska Native hunting and fishing and cultural tradition. And to have no mention of our people in the constitutional amendment, or any recognition of our 12,000 years of history in occupying and living on this land on that, really comes across offensive. And I’m being really honest with you,” she said.

Yes, there is a long sacred history of gathering food for the coming winter. Everyone gets involved. There are little kids picking berries. There are moms and dads catching fish, c utting them and hanging them up on drying racks. Folks are mending nets and painting boats.

“When the season for fish happens, we are there – until they are gone. When the season for berries happens, we are there. When the season for geese happens, we are there. When the season for surra — fresh willow leaves — happens, we pick surra and store them in seal oil. We act with the season.”

It’s a rush hour of preparation. All summer long.

Meanwhile, very few non-Natives really know how subsistence works.

To us, it is simple.

When the season for fish happens, we are there – until they are gone. When the season for berries happens, we are there. When the season for geese happens, we are there. When the season for surra — fresh willow leaves — happens, we pick surra and store them in seal oil. We act with the season.

Like the song sings, “there is a season, turn, turn, turn.”

Seasons in the past

After the start of summer, soon the days grew shorter and July came and went. Fishing time was over. It was now the season; the season to hunt ducks, our favorite time of year. My brothers and I were out there on the duck flats, little guys with .22-caliber rifles and shotguns. It was a fun time.

Our fall duck season camp was called Igoagnuq. It had been in the family for generations. Located along the Norton Sound seashore, it was a place of mystery and offered new discoveries of times long past. Here and there we often found flint arrowheads, arrow shafts, mammoth teeth, and tools made by man from stone.

Our people had been there for thousands of years.

As time moved forward, we slowly prepared for the long sea journey home, some 30-miles by boat. Mom and Dad had boxes and boxes of fully cooked canned ducks and geese for the coming winter. Dried salmon had been put away and berries had been picked.

School was about to start. In all we had been gone from the village of Shaktoolik for about three months, all of it to gather and hunt for food for the long, cold winter months ahead. That was our life.

In short, we moved from Shaktoolik to camp sites for berries, then moved again for fish, moved again for ducks, moved again for surra and then headed home.

Every year we looked forward to these priceless experiences where there is a lot of laughter and joy. Fall would soon bring cool weather and sometimes a little snow. It would be the season for learning. School.

When winter came, Grandma Kipo and I would walk out on the Bering Sea ice, cut a hole, and fish for tomcod. And perhaps catch a snow crab or two.

Grandma Kipo came from centuries of time. And in 1953, she passed on, perhaps to see her friends and family from ages gone by, from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. She was herself a book of knowledge and legend.


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