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SPRING, 2001: Volume 6, Issue 1

Alaskans Listening to Alaskans About Subsistence: AFSC peacemaking initiative in Alaska by Cynthia Moore

Alaska is being torn apart by the question of subsistence, which has become the catch-all word for a complex legal and political situation around who should have priority when hunting and fishing rights must be rationed. Alaska State law and Federal law on subsistence are different, and both the State and Federal governments manage vast areas in Alaska, making the situation more complicated. Increasingly, public debate over the question is becoming less tolerant and is breaking down on racial lines.

In concern over the growing rift and its potential for violence, Alaska Quakers have developed a project we hope will bring peace and healing to the deteriorating situation. With help from American Friends Service Committee Pacific Northwest Region, a working group of Friends and friends turned to the compassionate listening work of Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman to find a model on which to build.

Compassionate Listening makes use of the transformative power of listening and being heard to open the minds and hearts of those in conflict to the humanity of their opponents. At the same time, it gives individuals not directly involved in a conflict a way to become active participants in the process of making peace. Although advocacy can be an extremely important avenue of helping to establish a more just society, Compassionate Listening does not advocate for any one side or solution in a conflict. It seeks to find the truth in all sides, and, by hearing and trying sincerely to understand, to help those in conflict become ready to hear one another. Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman says, “An enemy is one whose story we haven’t heard.” In this spirit, a compassionate listening project seeks to hear the stories of people in conflict—and make it possible for those in conflict to hear one another—so that no one looks like an enemy.

For many Alaska Native people, the word subsistence is a new label for a timeless way of life that pre-existed the United States of America and continues today. It encompasses not only livelihood but spirit and identity; it is an inherent right that cannot be taken away. Many non-Native Alaskans living in rural areas share these views, and believe that all people in rural communities should be able to pursue a unique and treasured ‘bush’ way of life.

In contrast, many urban Alaskans—and especially those who hunt and fish—view subsistence quite differently. Some see giving rural residents a preference for access to hunting and fishing rights as a violation of the equal access provisions of the Alaska State Constitution, as simply discrimination based on ZIP code. Many of these are lifelong Alaskans who grew up hunting and fishing. Others came to Alaska because of their love of the outdoors. To some, drawing distinctions between urban and rural Alaskans is a violation of everything Alaska stands for. Hunting guides and commercial fishermen, who make their living from fish and game, also have a stake in the question.

In the past eighteen months, Alaskans involved in this project have been building on Knudsen Hoffman’s work in compassionate listening, learning how to put aside our own reactions and listen for others’ truths. We have been listening to other Alaskans—those with a direct stake in the subsistence debate—to understand the essential concerns of all involved. We’ve videotaped all sessions and, with the permission of the speakers, have begun to introduce different ‘sides’ of the issue to one another. We are asking about experiences, values, concerns, hopes and fears. We are not looking for a particular outcome, but are working to build understanding and peace. Thanks to Gene’s personal guidance, and to the wide range of experience and wisdom among Alaskans who have dedicated time to this project as planners, listeners and participants, we’ve been learning a great deal.

From speakers who live in Anchorage and Fairbanks, we’ve heard that the term ‘sport’ hunting is a misnomer. It does not express the depth or complexity of the experience. Although it is fun, it is not the same as a game of tennis or a trip to the movies. Hunters look to their time outdoors and to the act of hunting for a vital connection to the land. Many urban hunters are not against some kind of rationing of resources, and feel it is important that bush communities be protected, but find the current system to be fundamentally flawed. This is an important distinction, because this side of the debate is often understood as being ‘anti-subsistence,’ and that turns out not to be true. For instance, they are troubled by the discrepancies whereby a family living a land-based way of life within urban boundaries is denied access to resources. In the subsistence debate, urban-based hunters are afraid of losing an activity which is extremely important to them on many levels, and which often has been passed down from generation to generation. And like their rural counterparts, the split between Alaskans distresses them.

From rural residents, we’ve heard that theirs is a way of life under siege. Native villages are afraid of losing everything. Terri Walker, in rural Buckland, expressed the loss of subsistence as comparable to a city person losing house, job, car, children—everything. No reason to go on. We have heard that Alaska Native people were told at statehood, and again when land claims went through, that subsistence hunting and fishing rights would be protected. Instead, they have seen the State go back on its word, in declaring the rural preference ‘unconstitutional.’ Villagers are frustrated with regulations—made by outsiders—which often do not match up with the reality of the subsistence hunting and fishing cycles. Speakers have expressed a strong interest in cooperative management schemes, and hope that joint management will come to pass.

For everyone we have heard from, the possibility of coming together across the divide comes down to respect. From a number of different people, we have heard that mutual respect founded on real understanding of one another is the key. Dick Bishop, of Fairbanks, summed it up this way, “Yes, we are going to find that there are differences that we can’t reconcile, and probably we don’t need to. What we do need to do is respect the others’ values.” Percy Ballot, Sr.’s words and Dick’s echo one another. In Buckland, Percy spoke about the difference between raising stock animals and hunting, and said, “So I want you to understand that what I do is just a little bit different. I have respect for what you do, and I want you to have respect for what we do.”

From the beginning, we’ve been hearing areas where people can connect across the cultures. A story from Anchorage about wild meat being the best gift one hunter could give to his extended family, resonated with viewers in Buckland. Concern for the land, the values developed by being part of it, and the continuance of land-based ways of life are common threads.

As the project continues, we are building on these experiences, holding more small gatherings, and preparing to host in late January our first joint session where Alaskans from different walks come together in person. As listeners, we are finding ourselves humbled by learning to set ourselves aside and by the chance to hear the true expressions of others. It is our heartfelt wish that we will not be the only ones to change and benefit from this experiment, but that we will be led forward on a path that opens the participants to one another, and also brings the stories we are hearing to a wider Alaskan community. This hope is what draws those in conflict to participate in the project, and those of us conducting the project want to live up to that hope.

If you would like to know more about this project, about Compassionate Listening as a practice, how it is being applied in an Israeli/Palestinian project, or to learn about the Compassionate Listening Network, please contact:

Cynthia Monroe
Alaskans Listening to Alaskans about Subsistence
American Friends Service Committee
Pacific Northwest Region
1783 Morningtide Court
Anchorage AK 99501
tel: 907 278-2582
e-mail: altas@alaska.net

See also Same Language, Different Worlds



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