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We Americans really love our independence, don’t we?

Or at least the thought of it!

Independence can be measured in any number of different ways, but in American politics, it typically means you earn your keep. Maybe you start a business and make a profit, or maybe you have a job and earn your pay, or maybe you speculate on the stock market (without or without the benefit of insider knowledge) and turn a profit without really contributing much of a product or service. Either way, the point is that we typically define our economic independence in terms the ability to pay our bills without asking for help (or at least not asking for that help through any medium short of the highest paid corporate lobbyists). Anyway, the point is, we pay our own bills right?

This is an incredibly ironic measure of independence.

This measure enables a real-estate tycoon to say that he built a structure when he didn’t lay a single brick. It also enables the average person to find shelter without building a house, to cloth himself without making the fabric or fashioning it into a shirt and pants, and it enables us to feed ourselves with all manner of meats and vegetables that we neither grow nor harvest ourselves. We have no idea where most of these things comes from or how it got to the stores where we bought it, not our food, our tools or any of the essential supplies we used for much of anything. Some folks may know a thing or two about fixing a car or building a table, but the fact remains that most people in the developed world lives our lives surrounded in mystery at the very nature of the stuff we use to get through the day. This we count as independence!

Because we paid for it!

It is ironic.

Contrast this with the indigenous peoples of the Alaska who until relatively recent history would have housed themselves, clothed themselves, and feed themselves. To varying degrees, many still do. In times past, the skills necessary to do so were common knowledge in any of these communities, and those skills turned what non-native Americans have typically called a ‘wilderness’ into a wealth of resources ready and waiting to be transformed into food, clothing, tools, and even housing. Small wonder that people so often described by outsiders as living in poverty would see themselves as wealthy. To someone without the skills to hunt, a caribou on the hoof is nothing until it finds its way into his freezer. To someone with the necessary skills, it is fine just where it is, at least until it is needed.

I do not mean to paint a utopian picture here, not by a log shot, but my point is that this is a very different vision of what it means to be independent. Here, the question is not whether or not you can pay for your stuff but whether or not your stuff becomes yours by your own hand, or at least that of your friends and family.

I also don’t mean to suggest that this is entirely unique to Alaska Natives. I reckon it would be true of indigenous people all over the world, depending to one degree or another on the impact of colonization.


One sees this conflict between a world of consumerism and a world of subsistence activities and play out quite regularly in the relations between Alaska Natives communities and outside institutions. Also in cultural conflicts between Alaska Natives and non-natives with or without the involvement of government entities. Sometimes, you have to look carefully to see it; sometimes, it is loud and clear for all to see.

The Barrow “duck-in” is one such time.

This story is told best by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, I think, in her documentary, The Duck In. Michael Burwell’s article, Hunger Knows No Law, is also an excellent source. If the quick & dirty version I am about to offer interests you at all, then by all means, check out either or both of these sources.


What happened?

In 1916, the United States entered into treaty with Governing governing the hunting of migratory waterfowl. A similar treaty was signed with Mexico in 1937. In 1918, Congress passed passed a law enacting the term of the first treaty into Federal law. This in effect made it illegal to hunt migratory waterfowl in the U.S. from March 1th, to September 1st.

Why is that a problem?

Because that’s when those birds are here on the North Slope of Alaska.

I mean a duck or two may head south a bit late, but no, for the most part, that’s when migratory waterfowl are present in this area. To say that hunting ducks and geese are a substantial part of the native subsistence economy is putting mildly. It does not appear that subsistence hunting was ever contemplated in the treaty negotiations, nor in the Congressional actions which codified the treaties in U.S. law. Both were intended largely as a means of controlling sport hunting, much of which would take place in the lower 48. So, a law passed for the purpose of controlling the leisure activities of weekend warriors who mainly feed themselves store-bought food had effectively banned the hunting activities of people who actually need that meat to get through the year.

Alaska Natives were out of sight and out of mind when the laws were made.

Luckily enough, they were also out of sight and out of mind (for the most part) for many years when responsibility for enforcing these laws fell upon federal officials. Thus selective enforcement helped to correct the errors of selective attention, for a time anyway.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, things started to change.

To make a long story short, state officials decided to enforce the law, even in the North Slope of Alaska. According to Burwell, some of these officials were convinced that the Iñupiat population of the north slope had become less dependent on hunting as local stores made produce available. The prospect that the Iñupiat community might be using the stores in limited ways while seeking to remain self-sufficient in others (and particularly, with respect to food) does not seem to have occurred to them. Resistance, they figured, they could be resolved by educating the population (which reminds me of the Navajo livestock reductions, but that’s a story for another post). In 1961, Wildlife officials began to arrest people caught hunting waterfowl during the proscribed period of time.

As it happens, that was a rough year for the North Slope insofar as the annual whale harvest had yielded only a two catches and other likely sources of game were not yet available.

…just the birds flying overhead.

To make a long story short, one of these agents, Harry Pinkham, emerged from his room at the Top of the World Hotel to find; “every man, woman, and child standing in front of my door with a duck in his hand.” Flustered to find an entire town demanding that they be arrested, he went to the local Magistrate Judge, a native woman, named Sadie Neakok (who provided the quote above). Neakok instructed him to follow the law. In all, 138 hunters self-reported their crimes and Pinkhman ended up confiscating 600 pounds of eider ducks (it took two separate plane trips to transport them out of town). State Senator, Eben Hopson (also a local Iñupiat) wired then Governor Egan to ask for welfare personnel to take care of the children once all the adults were taken into custody. Thus, what wildlife officials had hoped would be a matter of handing out fines and lecturing a few natives quickly escalated into a case threatening to overwhelm state resources.

Nobody actually spent time in jail for this, of course.

Instead wildlife rediscovered the virtues of selective enforcement, providing advanced warning whenever their officials were coming up to the North Slope and staying only for 3 days at a time. With these measures in place and well publicized, they really couldn’t have done much more to help hunters avoid getting caught. In time, of course, the laws and treaties were changed to accommodate the cycles of subsistence hunting.

For the indigenous community of the North Slope, this was a win.

A damned good one!

Don’t get me wrong! Conflicts over subsistence hunting rights are a still common, here and in the rest of Alaska, but in 1961, at least, the Iñupiat community of North Slope successfully fought off a threat to their subsistence activities by means of civil disobedience.


One of more interesting things about Rachel Edwardson’s work on this comes at about 16-minute mark in her documentary wherein she includes a series of public statements on the issue, all of which foreground the different political economies in question. Outsiders, of course, assumed that hunting, or at least subsistence hunting, would simply cease at some point along the inevitable march toward civilization. Was it not time, even past time, for folks to simply give up the hunt and buy their food?

“The Eskimos have claimed that the ducks leave their northern area before the legal hunting season opens. They also use such phrases as ‘hunger knows no law’ to justify their taking the ducks illegally. In this age of assimilation, where is the point at which the natives must forfeit must forfeit their old rights in favor of the rights of modern civilization?”

(Anchorage Daily Times, Editorial, June 15, 1961.)

“These people were from established communities where ample food is available. The basic conflict is the desire of the natives to continue certain primitive customs and yet live in civilized communities. All of us, including the Eskimos, must realize that the development of any country in the world brings with it advantages and disadvantages. This is true in any civilization, and it must have become obvious already to many of the native people of Alaska. Sincerely, Ralph A. Duncan, Special Assistant to the President.”

(Extract from Whitehouse Response to the United Presbyterian Church, Barrow Alaska)

Edwardon answers these statements with Eben Hopson’s statements on the subject (from his wire to the Governor, I believe). For his own part, Hopson begins by telling stories about people who feed themselves, whether by hunting or farming. He then turns the whole issue, on its head, he asks if anyone would accept a law forbidding the buying of meat at the store?

“We have survived from this land by hunting, just as any other John Dick and Harry have survived from the land by plowing the fields where they could raise crops. If there was law enacted without your knowledge making it unlawful for you to buy meat at your local store, and you continued to buy it because you needed it, I can see and hear you screaming up and down about that law being unjust, and discriminatory, the minute you found it out. If the meat was a matter of survival for your, would you stop eating meat for 3 months out of the year and wait for some disinterested person to come along and try to amend it for you without having assurance that the problem would even be solved.”

– Eben Hopson, State Senator.

I really don’t think the different visions of independence could be more clear than they appear to be in these letters. Those expecting the indigenous community of the North Slope to simply accept the laws in question clearly envision a future in which “Eskimos” buy their food at the store, just like the rest of us. This of course means that people will also get a job instead of spending their days out hunting or preparing for the hunt. It is a world in which people satisfy their needs by first first earning and then spending money. Those organizing and supporting the duck-in consistently envision a world in which they feed themselves. The modern world complicates both visions, of course, but this was a moment wherein the outside world appears to have forced the issue; as if to say; “Stop hunting and buy your food at the store.”

And the native community said ‘no.’

‘Hell no!’