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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Subsistence: Nurturing body, spirit, community

When Luci Eningowuk went to Washington, D.C., last summer she told a Senate committee on Alaskan Native villages: "Our way of life is centered around subsistence; it's the driving force of our existence. ... Our grocery store is out there in the water and on the land."

Subsistence is the traditional harvest of wild fish, game and other natural resources for personal use--most often food. In Alaska, where many people who live in remote areas depend on fish and game for their basic food supply, subsistence is given the highest priority among resource uses.

Subsistence relates to both economy and culture.

In Shishmaref, as in many Alaskan villages, only a few full-time jobs are available. Household incomes are often supplemented by part-time or seasonal work and by selling traditional arts and crafts.

While opportunities to earn money are limited, the cost of everyday items is very high. Prices for food, gasoline and heating oil may be double, triple or more than the national average due to the high cost of shipping supplies to the village by barge or flying them in by bush plane (weather permitting).

For most Shishmaref residents, subsistence is an economic necessity.

Subsistence is also a system of social and community relationships, binding neighbors and generations together as skills are passed on and food is shared.

"I see subsistence as a social order mechanism," Kelly Eningowuk says. "It connects parents with their kids. ... It plays a vital role in how our community operates."

Additionally, subsistence involves a relationship to the natural world that is often absent in a wage economy. As Luci Eningowuk's testimony explained: "We are hunters and we are gatherers ... we value the environment as it sustains us; it provides for our very existence."

Traditional Inupiat values emphasize respect for all aspects of God 's creation. (For more information on Inupiat and other Alaska indigenous cultures, visit the Alaska Native Knowledge Network at www.ankn.uaf.edu/values/Inupiat.html.


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