An Explanation of Dependency and
Subsistence: Village Economics
We define village economics as a full system of production. We have demonstrated how deeply the subsistence economy is embedded in the larger system of production: cash is required for myriad technological itemsâfrom CB radios to 18-foot outboard skiffsâto assist subsistence harvesting. We have also demonstrated how Eskimo goods, as commodities, and Eskimo labor, as a commodity, became integrated into the peripheries of the world market. Here we explain the village economic systems themselvesâmodes of production that subsume subsistence economies into dependency relations. In chapter 7, we explicate the details of the contemporary modes of production in the three villagesâinfrastructure, ownership and control, employment and income, and the Eskimo as "economic man."
Before the seventeenth century, the residents of what are now Unalakleet, Gambell, and the North Slope villages were engaged in complex trade networks that connected the Athapaskans in the interior to the Chukchi in Siberia. In the seventeenth century, the Chukchi and Siberian Eskimos extended the network to include Russian traders at Anadyr and at other places along the Kolyma River and its tributaries. The Russian merchants, then, intercepted the existing network. In so doing, they began to transform some native goods into commodities, while encouraging the natives to trade those items that were commodities on the European market. I define commodities as being anything, from mineral rights to a human's productive capacities, that is sold in the marketplace. I call the Eskimo economy of the Russian period both pre-capitalist (i.e., subsistence) and semimercantile (i.e., some goods were sold for gain to foreign merchants, but there were no native Eskimo merchants whose sole support was earned as merchants). Thus, in the seventeenth century, Eskimos began to become integrated into a hierarchical, worldwide economic system. But their base was still subsistence.
By 1833, the czarist-state-owned Russian-American Company had established trading posts in Norton Sound. It sought to dominate the trade in which Alaskan goods of considerable value were exchanged for European-produced commodities of considerably lesser value. The Russian-American Company was never successful in controlling all of the trade. Natives continued to pass many of their goods through existing networks all the way to the Kolyma region.
The resources extracted by Eskimos and Athapaskans were naturally occurring, renewable items of traditional useâpelts and hides for clothing, drums, bedding, and the like. The European merchants reaped the benefits of commodity circulation throughout Europe and the world, while delegating the risks of production to the natives (the extractor-producers). Thus, without help or credit against projected returns from the merchants, natives set, baited, checked, and cleared their trap lines during the winter months and skinned, prepared, and transported their pelts to trade partners or directly to trading posts.
The first point is that in the seventeenth century, Russian merchants plugged themselves into a flourishing native trade network, while plugging natives into a growing world market. The second point is that the risk bearers, that is, the natives, received considerably less for their goods than did the Russian merchants for those same goods. And a third point, albeit speculative, is that the Russian trade market influenced natives to shift their harvest schedules so as to focus more of their time and energy on the trapping of fur-beating animals. In so doing, they may have increased the actual risks of the subsistence life. That is, normal extraction pursuits may have been slighted in favor of the pursuit of peltries during the winterâhunters moving inland in pursuit of foxes, for instance, rather than to the sea in pursuit of seals. The following discussion is not directly related to Alaska. It is introduced as an analogy, because only analogies sustain the argument that I wish to make about increased subsistence risks and activities in the fur trade. Increased subsistence risks were surely the lot of many of the Algonkian, Siouan, and Iroquoian speakers who became engaged in the fur trade in the subarctic and Great Lakes regions. Hickerson (1965) demonstrates that One of the effects of the trapping and trading engaged in by the Siouan and Algonkian Indians of the Upper Mississippi Valley was the sharing of a large territory that these erstwhile enemies had formerly treated as a buffer zone, or "no-man's-land." When neither group let the other use the zone safely for extraction, game remained plentiful and was extracted with caution. When Siouans and Algonkians forsook their old enmities and shifted their extraction practices so as to reside, hunt, and trap in a common region, not only were the fur-bearers depleted from the zone but the Virginia deer, too, were depleted, causing hunger among both groups alike.
Although Eskimo trapper-traders had maintained indirect contacts with Russian traders for about two centuries and direct contacts for two or more decades, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century, when Eskimos came in contact with the whaling industry, that marked changes occurred to their organization of labor. Before 1848, the productive capacities of the natives, that is, their labor, were not sold as commodities. Natives extracted resources, prepared foods and by-products, and either consumed, shared (gifted), or, for some items, traded the goods that were produced. Native labor was subsumed in a kinship-friendship nexus. It was a part of life itself and not separable from it, as are other commodities for which careful accounting is made. Efforts to acquire food, dress skins, build shelters, harness dogs, and the like, were not separated from obligations to kinspeople or from supernatural beliefs.
A scant nine years after the Russian-American Company established its trading posts in Norton Sound, nearly nine-hundred whaling vessels were plying the Bering Sea in pursuit of bowhead whales, whose oil brought high prices on the world market (Scammon 1968). Six years later, in 1848, the first whaling vessel passed the Bering Strait and entered the Arctic Ocean. Bowheads were taken as they migrated to and from their summer feeding grounds, and this triggered a rush to the Arctic Ocean in 1849 (Bockstoce 1978).
The residents of St. Lawrence Island began selling whale oil and baleen to commercial whalers by the 1850s, if not earlier, and they were being hired onto whaling ships as guides and hunters by the early 1860s (Foote 1964). As hunters, the natives provided food for the whaling crews. Compensation took many forms, including barter of goods for labor, credit advances to natives for shares of the catch, and monetary compensation.
This transition is important, because the natives began selling their labor, as a commodity, to assist in the harvesting of whales, a naturally occurring resource on which the natives themselves depended for subsistence, also to be sold as a commodity. The ownership of the resource and the profit from the sale, of course, belonged to the firm that owned the ship and provisioned the crew. By this point in the Industrial Revolution, capitalism was experiencing rapid growth, and the residents of the three villages in this study were being incorporated into it both for the goods they produced and for their labor (providing expertise and service as guides, providing food for crews, etc.).
Thus, the indigenous subsistence economies that were basically precapitalist now also became semicapitalistâwith labor and some goods being sold for gain to the capitalists who had organized the venture. The Eskimos became integrated into the periphery of the economy. Subsistence remained their base. Sharing with kinspersons and friends and trading with partners remained the major elements of the organization of distribution.
Soon after the United States purchased Alaska from Czarist Russia, the Alaska Commercial Company replaced the Russian-American Company as the firm that sought, with federal blessing, to become the monopsonist in trade to the natives. And soon after that, in the early 1870s, the whale oil industry went into decline with the growth of the petroleum industry, putting native laborers out of seasonal work and providing them with no market for the whale oil that they had rendered from their own harvests. It is the nature of the capitalist use of peripheries, of course, to purchase goods and labor only when it is deemed profitable to do so.
In the late 1870s, the whaling industry experienced a resurgence, when the fashion industry began using baleen for corset stays, skirt hoops, and some other items. Commercial whaling survived, even grew, for another three decades. In 1887, for instance, there were at least thirty-two whaling vessels plying the Arctic Ocean. These vessels carried more than one-half million pounds of baleen to San Francisco alone (Van Stone 1962: 23-24). Shore-based stations were created along the Arctic Coast, fifteen between Point Hope and Point Barrow, thereby reducing transportation costs. Hughes (1984: 263) thinks it likely that a shore-based station was established on St. Lawrence Island as well.
Eskimos residing in the vicinity of what is now Wainwright sold their labor on the whaling crews, but with the advent of shore-based stations, they increased their hunting to provide for the ships' crews and began to mine the outcroppings of coal near Wainwright for use by the commercial whaling vessels. Whaling vessels had been steam powered since the 1880s. So at Wainwright, as at Gambell, natives sold their labor at the price commercial whalers were willing to pay, and only when there was a market for it, much as they sold the subsistence goods and by-products for which there were commodity markets. St. Lawrence Island Eskimos also sold carved ivory to the commercial whalers, but this was only supplementary to the sale of their labor and baleen.
A few Unalakleet natives began selling their labor to the local missionary, Axel Karlsen, at the turn of the century. Karlsen had several small businesses in the village, including ownership of the reindeer herd. Natives worked as herders, and some joined a few of Karlsen's employees to move the herd to Nome during the gold rush. Others served as guides, translators, and even prospectors (Correll 1974). Some Unalakleet natives stayed in Nome for several years to sell their labor in whatever ways they could.
The bottom had fallen out of the baleen market by 1908, when only five vessels worked the Arctic waters (VanStone
1962: 24). BY the same time, the gold rush had subsided. A lean period followed, although many natives traded pelts with men whom they had formerly known as whalers but who had shifted their commercial interests from whaling to fur trading. During this very same lean period for the sale of goods or labor, the three villages experienced more contact with federal agents and representatives of various kinds. Schools were built, teachers came to the villages, and representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs began providing some services, while offering some very limited employment to natives.
At the conclusion of World War I, the worldwide fur trade rallied, and again natives were drawn into the market. They sold fox pelts to the Alaska Commercial Company but also to traders who resisted the Alaska Commercial Company's federally approved monopsony. Many of the traders who worked the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas were large operators who had converted their steam whaling ships to trading and transport vessels for the fur trade. The trappers received about $60.00 for a fox pelt at the peak of this trade (Hughes 1960). Some of the most successful hunters could earn several thousand dollars a year at those prices (Spencer 1959:361; Hughes 1984; 264-265).
By the 1920s, natives used the rather large sums that could be garnered from running trap lines to capitalize their subsistence pursuits. Motor launches, shotguns, rifles, and binoculars were purchased and used to harvest and transport some sea mammals and to take birds and land mammals. Many portable camping goods, from teapots and thermos bottles to stoves and fuels, soon came to be used. St. Lawrence Island carvers continued to sell ivory artifacts, but those sales were dwarfed by the sale of fox pelts.
The stock market crash and the Great Depression caused the price of a fox pelt to plummet to about $5.00. Retrenchment in Gambell, Unalakleet, and Wainwright followed the collapse of the fur market. The subsistence economy and its precapitalist form of organizationâincluding cooperation, sharing of catches, the use of blubber and rendered oil for cooking and lighting, the collecting of driftwood and coal (at Wainwright) for heating, and even a renewed sense of community solidarityâcharacterized all three villages (see Spencer 1959: 361-362; Hughes 1960).
The BIA and the federal schools that had been built in all three villages during the early 1900s brought some menial public sector employment to the natives. But it was World War II, postwar defense policies, and the federal actions taken to develop the infrastructure of Alaska to accommodate energy resource extraction that drew the native villagers most deeply into public sector dependencies. Men were conscripted, served in the territorial guards, or volunteered. Small bases were built near Unalakleet and near Gambell during World War II, and soon after the war, a DEW line base was built near Wainwright. The few jobs that were available to natives were completely dependent on public sector funds (defense, education, law and order, etc.).
In the past five decades, contacts with church, government, and, on a more limited scale, private sector businesses have drawn residents of the three villages ever more tightly into the nation's political economy. Their aboriginal lands have been expropriated for military bases, then returned to them, in recognition of the fact that any claims they might make to still greater amounts of lands, water, or other resources have been extinguished. Their rights to harvest naturally occurring resources, on which their subsistence lives are based, as they have been for millennia, have also been extinguished. Control over and regulation of those resources have been appropriated by federal and state governments.
In recognition of the extinguishing of claims to land, the villages of Wainwright and Unalakleet and the respective regions to which they belongâthe Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the Bering Straits Regional Corporationâhave received public monies from ANCSA to conduct their affairs. Gambell and Savoonga, because they claimed the entire St. Lawrence Island, have not. Regardless of Gambell's choice, the control of the naturally occurring resources on and around St. Lawrence Island is vested in the federal and state governments. The public sector has come to play an increasingly important role in the economies of the three villages since 1971.
The structures of the dependencies of the three villages vary.The village with the most meager access to public sector funds, Gambell, has the lowest per capita income. The village most dependent on public sector funds, Wainwright, has by far the highest per capita income. Although Unalakleet villagers generate greater private sector income than residents of either of the other two villages, they, too, are overwhelmingly dependent on public sector funds for their maintenance.
Welfare payments and government transfers of funds and services, too, are of crucial importance in all three villages as supplements to resources procured from the environment and to job and sales income. It is likely, however, that if the three villages were required to develop self-sustaining economies, devoid of major public sector involvement, either primary or secondary, then Wainwright would have the lowest per capita income. And eventually, when the income derived from oil is exhausted, the technology employed in the Wainwright subsistence economy will not be petroleum dependent, because of the high costs involved. Relatively large social dislocations, probably including migrations, will occur.
The Native Niche in the Political Economy
The natives of the Alaskan arctic and subarctic have few avenues to the market. The naturally occurring, renewable resources and the by-products from them that are available to Eskimos to sell on the market are regulated by state and federal governments. The naturally occurring, nonrenewable resources in the vicinity of Eskimo villages that can be or are sold on the marketâspecifically, oil, gas, and coalâare owned either by the state or federal governments or by regional corporations. In the former case, natives are restricted in their access to the resources that provide the basis for their existence. In the latter, multinational corporations are encouraged to extract the resources that benefit the growth of those corporations and, presumably, the growth of the national, state, and regional economies but not the economic and social well-being of the natives. This presumption is part of the "trickle-down" theory, which holds that capital accumulation by a corporation will also entail the demands for more services and goods for that corporation, which, in turn, will create openings for persons and companies to supply those goods, and so forth.
Ivory carving and the sale of excavated, mineralized ivory, some of which is not carved and some of which consists of pre-nineteenth-century carvings ("ancient ivory"), are the principal means by which St. Lawrence Island Eskimos penetrate the private sector in production. Commerical salmon and herring fishing, herring roe collecting, and trapping are the principal means by which Unalakleet natives do so. Trapping is the principal means for Wainwright natives.
Whereas more than 50 Unalakleet men, 46 Gambell men, and a few Wainwright men run trap lines on a fairly regular basis, little income is generated from this pursuit. The most successful trappers in Unalakleet (15 in 1982) and Gambell were single men who camped away from the villages during most of the winter and checked their lines. The value of pelts has remained low for several decades. This endeavor offers little prospect for growth.
Ivory carving and the sale of ancient ivory that has been excavated from former village sites on St. Lawrence Island engage at least one person in almost every Gambell household, yet the per capita income from ivory sales of all kinds is estimated at $500 annually. Although this ivory income is a tiny sum, it is a necessary addition to the other funds that make their way into family coffersâthat is, from employment, welfare, and trap-pingâfor the purchase of technology to assist in subsistence pursuits. In an even less remunerative craft, many Gambell women and men are skin sewers and produce native garments. Most of the garments are worn locally, but some garments are for sale. Few sales are registered, and there is no cooperative or agent to find markets for them.
Commercial fishing, conducted on a haphazard basis by some of the persons who owned outboard motorboats at Unalakleet after World War II, was revived in 1961, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stimulated it and after fish buyers agreed to purchase and process catches in Norton Sound. For twenty years, with one or two exceptions, a single buyer controlled the catches at Unalakleet and eastern Norton Sound, much as a single oil distributor, Standard Oil, located at St. Michael, controlled and continues to control all oil distributed in the eastern Norton Sound area. The coastal regions of the north have been divided among the major oil distributors. Monopsonies of trade, in which a single firm monopolizes all exchange in some commodity market, have been as common in the arctic after statehood as before. The prices at which people can sell, as well as the prices that they must pay for basic commodities, are set by the monopsonist. The state and federal governments guaranteed the new order by providing support for the capitalist enterprises.
The Role of the State
The state (federal and state governments) plays several important economic roles in Alaska that affect natives, including their subsistence economies. It provides public support for their enterprises, it provides services to individuals, and it controls their resources.
Support for local enterprises has come in several ways but principally through actions that benefit capital without demanding excessive outlays from it. Central among them are the development of the infrastructure (transportation systems, utilities, communication systems), services (fire and police protection, research), laws (such as those that inhibit foreign competition or that create and protect private property and private accumulation), and assistance and subsidies to get nascent industries moving.
For example, the federal government not only paid for the infrastructure that has made drilling and pumping of Alaskan oil possible but also extinguished the Alaskan natives' claims to land. And when native corporations were formed, as required by law, an old monopsonist (under new ownership in Seattle), the Alaska Commercial Company, appealed to the federal government against the "unfair practice" of allowing native corporation stores to receive start-up money from ANCSA. To rectify the problem, the federal government has provided subsidies m the Alaska Commercial Company.
In modern Alaska, the public sector of the economy looms very large, paving the way for capitalist investment and capitalist extraction of the naturally occurring, nonrenewable resources (oil, gas, minerals) and of the renewable resources (chiefly fish, shellfish, furs, and timber). Native corporations have been established to extinguish land and water claims, on the one hand, and to encourage participation in capital investment and accumulation, on the other. The public sector economy, providing infrastructural development, services, subsidies, and assistance, is also evinced in the transfer payments and services that are provided to the people who have suffered most or who are least able to operate successfully in the private sector or in that part of the public sector that provides earned income for employment (local, state, or federal employment, IRA employment, employment derived from state or federal block grants, borough taxing authority, contracts, and the like).
Villages in modern Alaska, and the three villages in this study are not exceptions, have become dependent on public funds to maintain and expand their municipal and IRA functions. At Wainwright, the North Slope Borough, with its taxing authority over Prudhoe Bay oil revenues, is the dominant conduit of public funds. Public funds are used in all three villages to provide cash to families in the employ of local, borough (Wainwright), state, and federal institutions or in the agencies and programs that have been funded by those institutions. Since all such funds are ultimately dependent on legislation at the federal, state, and borough levels, they can grow, shrink, or disappear, depending on legislative decisions and the ideological predilections of presidents and governors. Moreover, because oil sales are the principal source of state and borough revenuesâhence the principal source of state transfers to native villagesâemployment, construction, and the availability of cash in villages are also especially sensitive to the price of oil, the demands for it, and, eventually, its depletion.
This is not to say that there are no private sectors in the three villages. But except for trapping in Wainwright and Unalakleet, commercial fishing in Unalakleet, and ivory carving and sales in Gambell, supplemented by a little skin sewing, all other private enterprises are directly dependent on public sector expenditures for their very existence. Even commercial fishing requires federal assistance in some forms, if natives are to engagein it. Furthermore, fishing and trapping must comply with state regulations, whereas walrus hunting requires a federal variance to the Marine Mammals Protection Act in order for Eskimos to harvest walrus and their ivory.
Constant public expenditures are required to maintain small trucking firms, air service, small inns, private grocery-dry goods-garage operations, taxi services, videotape rentals, and all other enterprises in each village's economic superstructure. The distribution of public fundsâearned and unearnedâis the arctic/subarctic multiplier.
It is again noteworthy that commercial fishing, trapping, and ivory sales are based on the harvests of naturally occurring, renewable resources. Walrus have provided a staple in the Gam-bell diet, as fish have done in the Unalakleet diet, for over two millennia. Fur-bearing animals have provided, until recently, the bulk of native clothing and bedding for the same period. Furs have also provided exchange values with Eskimo, European, and American traders for hundreds of years. So the key items of subsistence are also the key items of commerce in Gam-bell and Unalakleet. At one time, of course, naturally occurring resources were the key items of commerce in Wainwrightâfirst, whales and caribou, and later, furs. But federal laws and international restrictions preclude trafficking in whale and whale by-products, whereas federal and state laws prevent both the large-scale extraction and the sale of caribou.
Wainwright is the exception. Its principal item of commerceâfursâis insignificant in the economy of the early 1980s. Subsistence resources are used for subsistence and not substantially for sales. The massive role played by the public sector in the local economyâincluding state restrictions on the harvests and/or by-products from whales, polar bears, and caribouâand the high per capita income it provides are undoubtedly the reasons Wainwright villagers have not sought to sell naturally occurring, renewable resources, or by-products from them, on a larger scale. And it is undoubtedly the major factor that allows Wainwrighters to be especially discriminating in the species that they choose to harvest for subsistence.
Unalakleet and Wainwright Eskimos have been propelled into regional corporate ventures by virtue of the ratification of ANCSA's provisions. All three villages have been required by ANCSA to establish village corporations. But in so doing, none of the villages was transformed into a corporate capitalist entity, bent on accumulating capital, saving, delaying gratification, economizing scarce resources so as to maximize their financial benefits, and withdrawing support from others as they compete in the marketplace. Rather, Eskimos in all three villages, prior to and subsequent to ANCSA, hold values about the land, the air, the water, and the animals and plants. These values differ in some important ways from commodity valuations of naturally occurring, renewable and nonrenewable resources. Eskimos in the three villages certainly sell labor and such commodities as pelts, fish, and carved ivory, but they also give and share those same items and their labor; and they engage in cooperative and helpful associations and gestures in extraction and transportation of those items when otherwise competitive behavior would be expected.
The three villages are incorporated into the nation's political economy, a political economy that is controlled by the capitalist mode of production. For at least three decades, it has been argued that Native Americans have been emerging from underdeveloped tribal cultures and that modem technologies and organizations ("modernization") and universalist achievement orientations would eventually bring about the economic development of those tribal societies. Economists have generated a large number of variations on this theme. "Dualism," "stages of economic growth," "diffusion," and, for want of a better term, "psychological inadequacy" are some of the themes that have been proposed to account for why tribal economies are under-developed and how they will become more fully developed. In general, all of these arguments contend that if infrastructure is developed, modem theories of organization put into operation, and tribal people taught universalist achievement orientations (i.e., to save, delay gratification, economize scarce resources so as to maximize future benefits, compete for personal and family gain, dissociate from restrictive entanglements with wider networks of kinspeople, friends, and tribal mates), then such tribes will experience economic development.
A second body of political economic literature has critiqued such themes of economic development and found them wanting. It is not our purpose to review either of these large literatures. The forces of the political economy have expropriated native land, appropriated control of the resources thereon, dominated native governments, and salved some of the wounds with earned income from the public sector and with the dole that these compelling forces have themselves inflicted. So, I seek to show how the three villages have become drawn into the complex hierarchical system that is controlled by the capitalist mode of production and how the villages combine the capitalist mode with other modes.
Whereas the capitalist mode of production is dominant in Alaska and in the rest of the United States, it is an articulated system that does not transform all persons and communities within its embrace into industrial producers of surplus value. To the contrary, for its own growth, the system encompasses semicapitalist and precapitalist forms of production. In the United States, the public sector has provided the means and the economic transfers to integrate semicapitalist (some sales for gain, as in trapping and carving) and precapitalist (subsistence) modes within the larger political economy. Many forms of dependency result from this integration.
Capitalism is a disciplined pursuit of profit, forever renewed, but it is much more than that. The development economists are surely correct when they point out that technologies and the techniques of their useâlabor-time, universalist orientations, need-achievement, and wealthâare prerequisite to capitalist development. But they are surely wrong in thinking that if these factors are in place, ipso facto, tribal economies will transform into capitalist economies. Ownership and control of a resource base on which production, in turn, can be based are crucial. The state has denied native claims to ownership and control of most naturally occurring resourcesârenewable or notâin Alaska. This factor more than any other limits capital accumulation by natives in the arctic. But powerlessness and dependence on dole, in addition to limited access to resources, jointly restrict the development of viable market economies and capital accumulation by Alaska's natives.
Ideological factors, too, are crucial. Neither human propensity for profit nor greed are universal, and the residents of the three villages in this study, in their economic behavior, provide dear evidence that they are not. Furthermore, the complex hierarchy that is capitalism has integrated the three villages, while expropriating most of the natural resources within their former domains, providing the rules and regulations by which their public and private sectors will operate and providing the funds and the dole through which public sector dependencies are maintained.
Capitalism in arctic and subarctic Alaska is capital intensive rather than labor intensive, and the capital is invested in the extraction and production of nonrenewable resources. Indeed, arctic capital is the capital of multinationals. Representatives of the oil, gas, and mineral industries made several public presentations in each of the three villages during the early 1980s, informing the residents not to expect jobs in those industries when those resources are extracted from below the waters of Norton Sound, the Navarin Basin (of the Bering Sea), and the Chukchi Sea. But the residents have also been told to become familiar with people in the industries because Unalakleet and Wainwrightâbeing situated as they are and in view of the infrastructure that each village hasâwill be seeing them on a regular basis. Many advances have been made to Gambell to establish staging areas, communication centers, and the like, for the oil industry. But they have all been rebuffed.
If economic development is to spin off in Unalakleet, for instance, as a multiplier from the extraction and transportation of raw materials by multinational corporations, the spin-off will be to the major and minor air carriers and to a local entrepreneur and the village corporation, as they respond to new demands for limited goods and services. And should Wainwright become a secondary staging area for Chukchi Sea oil operations, perhaps providing a pumping station to connect Chukchi Sea oil to the trans-Alaskan pipeline, the spin-off will be likewise limited to the provision of more goods and services.
On Competition: The Oil Age Eskimo in the Private Sector
I have asserted above that whereas competition between and among persons and firms is expected in the private sector of the economy as a part of democratic capitalism, it is not apparent in the villages in this study. I can add here that the public sector that accompanies, services, and absorbs many of the infrastructural costs of the private sector is also suffused with competition. This is attested by the meritocracy system, through which persons gain influence and power in the public sector and its departments, offices, agencies, and bureaus. Again, the Eskimo villages in this study provide exceptions.
The exceptional behavior of Eskimos in both the private and the public sectors is not caused by any backwardness or by any psychological inadequacy. They understand how the market works. They understand costs. And they understand that benefits accrue from larger incomes. The interesting thing is how natives perceive such benefits.
In early 1982, when writing up the results of a multivariate and rather complex analysis of social indicators of community well-being in eight Alaskan villages, four in the Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association and four in the North Alaskan Native Association regions, I was struck by the importance of two factors: the amounts that native Alaskans invested in their subsistence pursuits and the amount and kinds of things that they shared within and between households, among wider networks of kinspeople, and among friends. Sharing extended from one's home village to associates in distant villages. And an interesting fact that should not go unnoticed was that the more people earned, whether in public sector jobs or as successful private sector fishermen, the more widely they shared. I referred to this widespread phenomenon, the "cement that holds the structure of Eskimo villages together," the persistence of traditional subsistence pursuits and the organization of labor and distribution, especially sharing, as "the tie that binds" (Jorgensen, McCleary, and McNabb 1985).
During the field research for this study, and after I had written about Aleutian and Northern Alaskan sharing, I asked a knowledgeable Unalakleet hunter-fisher whether there was a single native person or a single native family in the village who did not participate in subsistence pursuits. The question had been asked of other residents, and all had been puzzled by its obtuseness. It had never occurred to anyone that some family among them would not be so engaged. This hunter, however, was asked whether, if a person or a family seldom hunts or is incapable of engaging in a variety of subsistence activities, subsistence products would be distributed among them. Not with exasperation but with a desire to inform, the hunter said, "Sharing is the tie that binds, the aspect of our life that is Eskimo, that makes us, that maintains us." The native's summary phrase was identical to the metaphor I had selected for the same phenomenon in different villages.
Little and Robbins (1984) and Luton (1985) did not hear the same words in Gambell and Wainwright, but the sentiments that natives expressed there about sharing were similar. In Gambell, natives said, "You give until it hurts, then you give some more." In Wainwright, sharing was described as the opposite of the market's assumption of scarcity, to wit, "The more you give, the more you get."
It is the concept and the activity of sharing that blunt the tooth-and-claw competition that characterizes so much of the entrepreneurial and capitalist activity. Indeed, Protestant ethic individualismâin which the individual is besought to save, delay gratification, develop worldly talents, and accumulate worldly possessionsâhas not fully caught on, even after over eighty years of evangelical activities in each of the three villages. And even in Wainwright, where large incomes were earned and money flowed quite freely in the early 1980s, prayers were not offered for one's personal success but for those who gave to the community (Luton pers. comm.).
Natives share and maintain wide-ranging ties with kinspeople and friends, and the persistence of native views of their obligations to one another in the subarctic and arctic homelands makes it difficult to shun those obligations and to supplant them with closer, personal ends. People who hunt whales, walrus, caribou, or hares together, or who share warm homes or their skills and labor to repair a damaged snowmachine, do not make good competitors against one another in the commercial fishing or trapping arenas. The people who convene to rejoice in a successful whale hunt, or walrus festival, or Fourth of July feast of native foods are all friends and relatives, and they honor together the resources on which their personal and communal lives depend. The Alaskan arctic and subarctic region remains a demanding and challenging place, where several millennia of adaptations, highlighted by sharing and helping, have been the mode.
Some examples of competition in the Unalakleet commercial fisheries will make the point even more dearly. Commercial fishing, per se, in Unalakleet is more fully discussed in chapter 7. In discussions about what technology is considered appropriate for Unalakleet herring and salmon fishing, commercial fishermen regularly reported that a fisherman needed a boat about 24 feet to 26 feet in length and a single outboard motor in the 100- to 115-hp range. I often commented that twin 50-hp motors, although costing more, would last longer, run at about one-half throttle, be more fuel efficient, and be much safer when on the sound. Visions of rough seas during late May, when, at night, fishermen are trying to find or trying to clear their herring nets while watching for moving ice, can make for anxious moments, the kind of moments when a non-Eskimo would feel safer with two motors rather than one. Eskimo responses were instructive. I was told by the fishermen that 100-to 115-hp motors were best, because they provided full power when that power was needed. But more important, the fishermen replied that a fisherman with one motor, in the words of one man, "is never out on the water alone." He meant, of course, that another Eskimo will always help a person in distress.
There were discussions among Eskimo fishermen of thoroughly un-Eskimo behavior, such as native commercial fishermen checking their nets only to find that they had been stripped. No one for a moment thought that an Eskimo had stripped a fellow fisherman's net. On hearing this, the trappers among the fishermen were asked (and practically all fishermen engage in at least some trapping during the winter months) whether their traps were ever cleaned of their quarry by another native. That, too, was unheard of, and furthermore, no trapper will exhaust a riverbed or creek of all its fur-bearing animals, no matter what the pelts are fetching on the market, because "no one wants to think that he has destroyed the life of a place." The environment is shared with those animals.
The native view of competition cannot be divorced from the native view of helping and sharing. This view of competition proved absolutely perplexing to a nonnative representative of a large, Seattle-based firm that was buying fish in the Unalakleet fishery in 1982. The firm, which had formerly been the monopsonist in the Unalakleet fish trade, was locked in competition with a buyer from Minnesota who had entered the Unalakleet fishery (see chap. 7). The Seattle firm had contracted with a local native to act as their agent in procuring fish from Unalakleet fishermen. The firm sent the nonnative along to keep in touch with them and to look after the firm's interests.
The nonnative agent was working long hours, thoroughly engrossed in the competition between his firm and the Minnesota buyer's firm for the catch of each fishing period. (The ADF&G divides the commercial salmon fishing season into several sessions, usually about twenty-five.) He would press on for nearly an entire forty-eight-hour period, icing fish, putting them into containers, and shipping them to Anchorage by aircraft at a rate of three 28,000-pound shipments during each two-day period. His firm was beating the Minnesota buyer but could not quite knock him out, even though his own firm's salmon prices to the fishermen were higher than the worldwide market could bear.
The knock-out opportunity came during one July fishing period, presumed to be a pink salmon session, When an unexpected and very large run of chum (dog) salmon materialized. The native concept and practice of sharing and helping, of never leaving someone alone on the water, deflected the punch. Around midnight during the last day of a session, two of the Seattle firm's tenders loaded with chum and some pink salmon headed from Shaktoolik to Unalakleet. A tender belonging to the Minnesota buyer headed back at about the same time. The biggest of the three tenders was owned by the Seattle firm and piloted by a native. En route, the Seattle firm's big tender lost one engine, and its little tender broke down completely. The Minnesota firm's tender, laden with 6,000 pounds of salmon, also broke down.
Rather than hurting the competition and helping himself, helping the native buyer, and helping the Seattle-based firm for which he worked and to whom most natives were selling their fish, the native piloting the big tender heard the distress call from his companion boat and slowly worked his way back to pull it in to Unalakleet. When he got to his sister ship, he saw the disabled boat of the competitor. So, on one engine, he pulled both of the boats back to Unalakleet, thereby threatening all of the fish in all three tenders, because they surely would rot before he got them back to the village. One of the Seattle firm's boat loads was iced, the others were not.
Soon after the two tenders were pulled to Unalakleet behind the larger but partially disabled big tender, the slough smelled of rotting fish. All but the iced fish were rotten, so both firms suffered. The Eskimo pilot refused to leave the other tenders on the water without help. Eskimo values, not market values, prevailed.
In another example, the representatives of the Seattle firm installed an ice machine in Shaktoolik for the sole use of fishermen selling to their firm. The idea was that with this ice, fishermen would lose fewer fish before moving them to Unalakleet and that the Seattle firm would be able to buy all of their fish, thus denying them to the Minnesota buyer. A village official was left in charge of the ice machine. In that capacity, he sold ice to all who wanted to buyâthose who sold to the Minnesota man as well as those who sold to the Seattle firm. The Eskimos simply continued to share, while for the first time enjoying the benefits that competition among white-owned firms brought to them.
There is a subplot to all of this. The native fishermen belong to the Norton Sound Fishermen's Cooperative, or Co-op. They share joint liability with the Co-op, and, by and large, most are in debt to it for loans and monetary assistance. The Co-op, which is predominantly a native organization, had contracted with the Minnesota buyer to use the Co-op's modest fish processing plant and to have exclusive right to Co-op fish.
When it was clear that half or more of the Co-op members were selling their fish to the local native, who himself was serving as agent for the Seattle firm, the Co-op's leadership was not miffed. They felt that competition among nonnative buyers was especially healthy, even if local fishermen were not paying back their outstanding obligations to the Norton Sound Fishermen's Cooperative during the 1982 fishing season. They pointed out that in past years, the fishermen had to accept the price offered by the monopsonist who controlled the local market. For many Unalakleet residents, commercial fishing is the major, if not the sole, source of revenue, so they sought the best price available. In fact, many fishermen immediately switched to the Minnesota buyer during the first thirty-six hours of a period when the local native could no longer afford to buy pink salmon on his own (without the backing of the Seattle firm).
I ask, perhaps rhetorically, whether there is a competitive side to Unalakleet Eskimos in their commercial fishing. That side may be expressed in each fisherman's unwillingness to share precise information with other fishermen on the whereabouts of especially productive net placements. In another vein, however, Unalakleet fishermen take great pride in their skillsâincluding knowing where to place their nets, knowing how to negotiate stormy seas in tiny skiffs, and bringing in the largest catches. The Co-op posts the names of the fishermen who are on the water for the longest periods or who have the greatest catches per period, per species, and per season. Awards are given for such accomplishments, and the awarded fishermen as well as their less successful fellows take pride in the personal competence of the winners. Personal monetary gain is not the issue. Most of the village community was buzzing with respectful comments when a lone fisherman brought in a 1,600-pound catch of chum salmon in his 16-foot Lund skiff, powered by a 35-hp engine.