Alaskan Inuit Food Sovereignty Summit held in Nome
Traditional foods and how they come to the table is central to the cultural identity of the Inuit people. In Alaska, Chukotka, Canada and Greenland Inuit people have survived for thousands of years by hunting and fishing, living in harmony with the natural environment. How to preserve that relationship with nature in the face of increasing pressure from outside forces was the reason representatives from 97 Alaskan communities met in Nome Sept. 10 through 12. The goal of the Alaskan Inuit Food Sovereignty Summit was to take steps toward protecting this essential element of the Inuit culture by setting a framework to create an action plan.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council launched the initiative in order to secure the right to manage fish and game, to gain management control over food resources on Inuit lands and waters. The practice of Inuit customs and spirituality depend on Inuit management of food resources.
“This is not a new issue, we have been discussing hunting and fishing rights around our dinner tables for the past fifty years,” said James Stotts of Utqiagvik, President of ICC Alaska. “Hunting and fishing is the basis for our traditional culture and economy. It defines who we are as a people. Without guaranteed rights to access and manage our food resources, our culture and way of life are at jeopardy.”
The forces presenting a threat to the culture include a changing climate, fragmented management systems among the many government agencies charged with overseeing the natural world and the politicization of traditional food resources. With the receding ice in the far north comes the potential for exploitation of mineral resources, a force, which in recent history has often devastated Native communities. “We are being harmed by policies and decisions often made without the benefit of consultation with our people,” said Stotts. “These decisions are often made solely on western science and are not place-based or culture-based. This top down approach to fish and game management forces us to use different cultural standards while dismissing our way of life and indigenous knowledge. The Arctic needs to be managed holistically, from the perspective of the whole ecosystem, including the people living in the ecosystem.”
At the summit was a guest from Canada, from a village just across the border near Kaktovik. He told how in Canada they’ve built a true co-management system, which brings Inuit and the government to the same table where they can decide which research projects are needed and they can set bag limits. “They have what I call mutual veto authority over each other,” said Stotts. “It forces consensus. Because you can’t make any progress without everybody agreeing.
“Talking to some of the folks over there in Canada it started out kind of rough. But over time they met each other and they built trust with each other, came to respect each other. So this is a model I’ll call a true co-management model that we in ICC Alaska are interested in.”
“Without food sovereignty, food security is not possible.” So reads a page from the packet given to each of the delegates at the summit. Two years ago delegates from the Alaska Whaling Commission travelled to Brazil to lobby for automatic annual renewal of quotas. They were successful in convincing the international body that the whales are plentiful and the taking of a certain number is not a threat to the population. But when they set out, success was not guaranteed. They were at the mercy of a foreign entity heavily influenced by powerful organizations opposed to whaling.
Consultation with local people on fish and game issues doesn’t always happen. “Often times when we interact with the different agencies that have management authority and they’re missing that component,” said Vera Metcalf of Nome, Director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission. “And then they come up with these risk assessments for harvest that could impact our quotas. A lot of times they call for science and it’s only western science, not including our science. So one of the discussions and themes that you’ll see in our papers is the recognition and use of indigenous science, our local knowledge.”
“I think the scientists who’ve been around for a while and have had an opportunity to know us and need us, a good trust has been built over the years,” said James Stotts. “Mutual trust. Sometimes I think research and data gathering has gone to remote sensing and satellites, to modeling. It’s a different type of science compared with when the scientists were actually down in the dirt learning things.”
“I think a lot of the research being done is not involving tribal members from the start of the research. So they’re not asking or including us in asking exactly what the research should be on,” said Vera Metcalf. “That’s an issue we have here in the Bering Strait region. We actually have a project at Kawerak titled “Research on Research.”
“I think a lot of research has been done without having benefits for us. What’s in it for us?” continued Metcalf. “We haven’t benefitted from some of the results. Sometimes the results are not brought back in a timely manner so we know ‘What did you find? What was the result of this?’”
“Food security pretty much encompasses everything,” said Stotts. “Health issues, cultural issues, social issues, suicide issues. We’re known as a hunting society. We follow the seasons. It’s not like going to the store and buying a steak, it’s community activities, rewarding in so many different ways to us. It’s pretty much central to everything.”
“It’s everything that we eat,” said Willie Goodwin Jr. of Kotzebue. “The different season, the different migrations. The different times. We know when it’s the best time to get the food.”
The action plan for addressing food sovereignty is a work in progress. There are different components to work out. There’s a political action plan, a plan for management structure. “What were trying to do is not take management away from anybody but rather maneuver ourselves and get acknowledged from everybody concerned that we have a right to be at the table and have a real say, a right to say no to the management,” said James Stotts. “Another element to it is it would be based on our culture, our beliefs, our approach, our understanding of nature which is quite different than they’d have in Wyoming or Iowa, for example. So we need them to understand as best they can our culture and to accept it. We want them to accept it.”
“The plan will be well thought out,” said Vera Metcalf. “The beauty of this summit is there was representation from all four of our regions. There were different views. There were hunters, elders, there were people who prepare food. The discussion involved the view points from many different angles.”
The next meeting of the Alaskan Inuit Food Sovereignty Initiative will be in Kotzebue in March. There they will come up with a definitive draft action plan. “It has to go back out to our regions and communities for their concurrence,” said James Stotts. “First of all we need to take this initiative to our 97 communities that ICC Alaska represents and build support and get their support. Having that we’ll feel much stronger, the base will be stronger.”
In 1983 the ICC engaged Justice Thomas R. Berger to review the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. From the work he compiled, titled “Village Journey,” comes a quote from Edgar Ningeulook of Shishmaref.
“We are the only ones who can save ourselves. We keep looking to the outside world for someone to come and do it, and it’s not going to happen. I think our people ought to understand that it is possible to maintain their identity and their spirit and their language and their history and their values and still function in the twenty-first century. We know what we need to know, how to make decisions, how to analyze situations, how to speak many languages and understand technology.”
“We don’t want the government and other outside influences telling us what’s best for us,” said James Stotts. “We don’t want to continue down a path that minimizes our knowledge, our culture and doesn’t bring us any closer to co-management. We want to be self-sufficient, able to take care of ourselves, especially when it comes to food security and feeding our families.”