Subsistence: Preserving a Way of Life

Today, as in the past, many Alaskans live off the land, relying on fish, wildlife and other wild resources. Alaska's natural abundance forms the backbone of life and economy for many people in the state, and indigenous people in Alaska have used these subsistence resources for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, handicrafts and trade for thousands of years. Subsistence, and all it entails, is critical to sustaining the physical and spiritual culture of Alaska Native peoples and to making life on the land possible for many of Alaska's rural residents. Helga Eakon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Interagency Coordinator, describes the Alaska Native relationship to the land this way:

Subsistence is a way that Native peoples of Alaska have preserved their cultures. This way of life is not confined to the land. It stretches out to the sky and the waters and rivers. The creatures of the earth give themselves to the people, who in turn share with family and friends, shaping relationships that celebrate life.

Nunamiut Eskimos hunting caribou on a dusky winter's evening.
Three Nunamiut hunters stalk a herd of caribou near Anaktuvuk Pass, 1972.

T. Weber Greiser


First Alaskans

When Europeans first visited Alaska's shores, all the people they met were engaged in subsistence lifeways. As the population grew through the territorial days, many new and conflicting demands were placed on Alaska's natural and cultural resources. Development of various kinds, like the harvest of marine and inland mammals, commercial fisheries, mining operations, agriculture, the development of military bases, and the establishment of cities and towns impacted local resources and subsistence activities. By the time Alaska gained statehood in 1959, subsistence patterns in some of Alaska's more populated areas were greatly diminished.
Lowbush cranberries
Lowbush cranberries

NPS photo by Penny Knuckles

Subsistence Legislation

In the years that followed, the pace of change accelerated and development abounded in Alaska's remote areas. In response, rural residents began to organize, and before long they petitioned government officials in hopes of retaining some protection for their land base and their subsistence way of life. In deliberations leading to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the U.S. Congress acknowledged the importance of subsistence hunting and fishing to Alaska Natives but provided no specific protection on federal public lands.

In 1980, Congress formally recognized the social and cultural importance of protecting subsistence for both Native and non-Native rural residents when it passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). This legislation created millions of acres of new national park and national preserve lands in Alaska and helped to preserve subsistence use and a unique connection to the land fostered by tradition and lifelong experience. The new law defined subsistence as:

Customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of non-edible by-products of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption; for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.

When Representative Morris Udall and others were writing ANILCA during the 1970s, they recognized the importance of people's connections to the land and their need to harvest subsistence resources. As a result, the architects of the lands act included Title VIII to protect subsistence needs for rural Alaskans. The wording of Title VIII reveals the unusual conditions of life in Alaska's rural areas:

The Congress finds and declares that-

(1) the continuation of the opportunity for subsistence uses by rural residents of Alaska, including both Natives and non-Natives, on the public lands and by Alaska Natives on Native lands is essential to Native physical, economic, traditional, and cultural existence and to non-Native physical, economic, traditional, and social existence;

(2) the situation in Alaska is unique in that, in most cases, no practical alternative means are available to replace the food supplies and other items gathered from fish and wildlife which supply rural residents dependent on subsistence uses.

With the passage of ANILCA, the American people made a promise: to protect some of our nation's most splendid natural ecosystems and treasured landscapes while providing the opportunity for those engaged in a traditional subsistence way of life to continue to do so. In this way, the landmark law that created many of Alaska's national park units confirms the strong connection between local residents and the land.

Caribou meat air drying on a wooden rack in Anaktuvuk Pass.
Caribou meat air drying on a wooden rack in Anaktuvuk Pass.

T. Weber Greiser

Preserving Traditions

In Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve nomadic peoples have used and occupied the area for thousands of years, following caribou herds and traveling to regional trading areas to meet with other Native groups. These peoples eventually formed three distinct cultures occupying the central Brooks Range in the 1800s: Athapaskan-speaking Koyukon, and Inupiaq-speaking Kuuvanmiit and Nunamiut. Today local rural residents in established communities and remote homesteads continue to depend upon resources in the park to sustain a subsistence way of life and maintain cultural traditions. Subsistence activities occur throughout the year and are usually concentrated in the northern and eastern portions of the park and along rivers flowing out of the mountains that connect low-lying communities. Winter trapping efforts concentrate on the harvest of lynx, wolverine, wolves, marten, and fox. Hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering in repeated seasonal cycles remains a vital part of evolving subsistence lifeways and an unbroken link to the past for local residents in this region.

Subsistence Resource Commission

Subsistence Resource Commissions (SRCs) have been established for most national parks and monuments in Alaska to provide meaningful participation and involvement of local subsistence users in planning and management decisions. The purpose of the Commission is to recommend to the Governor of Alaska and the Secretary of the Interior a program for subsistence hunting within Gates of the Arctic National Park. Learn more about the Subsistence Resource Commission


Last updated: July 28, 2016

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