Research scientist Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon calls subsistence ‘a preventive and protective cultural practice for well-being.’
Research released today highlights an issue rarely discussed in the field of child welfare, but vital to the health and well-being of Indigenous children and families: their stewardship of the natural environment.
The unique study focuses on many generations of the Alaska Native Ninilchik Village Tribe, and the harmful impacts of colonization and federal and state mismanagement of traditional homelands. Tribal members contributed to the research, conducted over 12 months in South Central Alaska.
“Subsistence is a critical part of Alaska Native cultures and that the ability to pass subsistence practices to children is an important protective factor for their well-being,” reads a policy brief outlining the findings.
The report is authored by Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon, a research scientist with the nonprofit research and policy institute Child Trends. Gordon, 38, is Iñupiaq and an enrolled member of the Nome Eskimo Community. She defines Indigenous subsistence as reaching far beyond hunting, fishing, and gathering food.
“Indigenous Peoples see subsistence as a way of life, a connection to their ancestors, part of their spirituality and ceremonies, an aspect of their relationality to the world and their role as protectors and caregivers to the earth, and a contributor to their overall well-being,” her study states.
Food sovereignty also defines Gordon’s approach, the right of Indigenous people to “define their own hunting, gathering, fishing, land, and water policies,” and to maintain practices guaranteeing tribal communities’ access to traditional cultural foods.
The Child Trends report is aimed at state and federal policy makers, heads of land management agencies, tribal organizations, researchers and environmental advocacy groups. It encourages audiences to broaden the definition of child well-being among Indigenous populations. To date, most research in the field has been far narrower, focusing on poverty and the legal definitions of child abuse and neglect.
A return to local subsistence practices, even on a small scale, can be a source of healing and cultural reclamation for Indigenous people.
Subsistence plays an essential role in Indigenous child and family well-being as well, Gordon writes, fueling — or perilously limiting — cultural connections. “Familial connectedness,” nutritious foods, Indigenous languages, relationships with elders and the natural world, and the ability to engage in spirituality and ceremony all serve to nourish and protect Alaska Native children.
Subsistence — practiced through harvesting, processing, and sharing food — fuels cultural, spiritual and social connection through singing, dancing, and telling stories.
“Cultural continuity is important to Ninilchik residents, and youth learn subsistence practices from their parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and the Tribe,” the report notes. As a result, “subsistence serves as a preventive and protective cultural practice for well-being.”
Commercial hunting and fishing have had devastating impacts, and the degradation of the earth and air are widespread in the community studied — conditions worsened by climate change.
That has resulted in vastly depleted traditional food supplies relied upon for centuries in regions throughout Alaska — including salmon and herring eggs in the Yukon River and in Ketchikan, and clams on the beaches of Ninilchik.
Colonization has created “systemic and institutional” barriers preventing Alaska Natives Peoples’ involvement in decisions around land and water stewardship, interrupting the passing-down of subsistence traditions that protect the well-being of the community’s children.
These issues are close to home for Gordon. She spent her childhood on her grandmother’s reindeer ranch outside of Homer, Alaska, set-netting for salmon on the Kenai River, berry-picking in the hills and chewing leather to make it soft — subsistence activities that connected her to Iñupiaq family values and spiritual customs.
“I grew up expecting that during the summer, you work really hard to harvest and preserve foods to have nice things to eat during the winter when everything’s frozen outside,” she said.
Gordon’s research was inspired by her grandmother, Mary Jean Kaguna Yenney, who along with Gordon’s mother, raised her. Although Kaguna passed away in February, Gordon said it would be impossible to forget her grandmother — or her teachings.
Indigenous people in Alaska comprise 231 federally recognized tribes speaking over 20 languages. The population carefully shepherded the land and water for over 10,000 years before the invasion of first Russia and then the United States. Colonization in the past included Russians enslaving Indigenous Aleutian Islands populations, warring with the Tlingit, and bringing devastating diseases that nearly wiped out entire communities. It also perilously depleted the earth of whales, sea otters, seals and walruses. As early as the mid-1700s, species such as the Steller’s sea cow were driven into extinction.
Ongoing colonization, after Alaska was purchased by the U.S., resulted in Native people in the region losing 90% of their traditional lands, and thus the ability to sustainably live off that land and waterways.
Currently, 60% of the land in Alaska is federally owned and 30% is state-owned, Child Trends notes, with the vast majority of subsistence resources managed by state and federal agencies with varying access to Alaska Natives. This government land ownership and management has had dire consequences for Indigenous people in Alaska, where one in three children live in poverty, according to the Academic Pediatrics journal.
Ivan Encelewski, executive director at Ninilchik Traditional Council, contributed to the report released today. He too came to the work with personal experience. Encelewski, 45, grew up in his remote village — a community of less than 800 people — learning from his relatives how to live off the land.
“Through generations, our children lose that opportunity to hear their grandparents’ stories of the happiness in processing fish, clams and moose.”— Ivan Encelewski, Ninilchik Traditional Council
Along with his grandfather and older brother, he fished for razor clams that once could fit in a gallon-sized Mason jar. At that time, the tribe couldn’t hunt or gather culturally relevant food sources without a permit — but they risked arrest anyway, he said, because they had to feed their children, elders and families.
After the tribe sued the federal government in 2016, its members won rights to fish in the Kenai River with a gillnet — a curtain of netting that hangs in the water. But they can pay as much as $100 for fishing permits.
As a result, Encelewski said, some Alaska Native children have never seen a clam. If they do, it’s half the size of what it once was, diminished from a diameter of five inches to two-and-a-half or less.
“It’s just so hurtful for the continuity of our culture and traditions to have our children not even know and understand what that is,” he said.
Encelewski, 46, acknowledged these environmental concepts may be unfamiliar or even seem irrelevant to social workers, foster care agency directors, family court judges and child welfare attorneys. But cultural connections to land matter more than ever to Indigenous children and families, he said.
“Almost vicariously through generations, our children lose that opportunity to hear their grandparents’ stories of the happiness in processing fish, clams and moose,” Encelewski said. “That mismanagement and lack of partnership with Indigenous peoples to sustain resources has led to what I feel is generational historical trauma that our children are directly affected by.”
Subsistence is crucial to Alaska Native communities for two primary reasons. Many are accessible only by plane or boat, so grocery costs are high, and tribes’ ability to sustain themselves is dependent on their land and resources. Alaska Natives’ exclusion from land management decision-making poses “the greatest threat to Indigenous children and families’ food security,” the report states.
The most meaningful remedy is an ideal, Gordon notes: “Ideally, the Alaska state and federal government would restore decision-making power over lands and waters to Alaska Native Tribal Nations,” facilitating “sustainable stewardship, co-management, nurturance practices, self-determination, and sovereignty. This sovereignty includes cultural and political sovereignty.”
In Ninilchik Village, such rights would allow tribal members “to manage their lands and waters so that clams, salmon, and other populations they harvest will exist for generations to come.”
Gordon also outlines the more likely, and more incremental, strategies. Those include increasing the funding that tribes receive, and expanding tribal representation on the Alaska state boards of fish and game. The report also calls for state and federal lawmakers to better acknowledge and incorporate Indigenous ecological knowledge — information passed down through generations — into policy.
“Subsistence serves as a preventive and protective cultural practice for well-being.”— Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon
A return to local subsistence practices, even on a small scale, can be a source of healing and cultural reclamation for Indigenous people. This is especially true for adoptees, foster youth or survivors of boarding schools and their descendants. For these children and adults, traditional foods such as Alaskan ice cream can be part of finding a way home, Gordon said. She offered as an example whipped caribou fat mixed with pieces of dried meat and seasonal berries known as akutaq or akutuq, both spellings derived from Yupik and Iñupiaq words.
It can also contribute to a powerful spiritual reconnection, she added. In many Alaska Native cultures, water is poured into the mouth of a hunted animal after it dies as a sign of respect to quench its thirst and honor its life. The spirituality of subsistence dates back millennia and has been passed down orally since well before colonization, Gordon said. An example can be found among her Inuit people, with the story of Sedna, a woman who fell into the sea and sprouted marine mammals from her fingertips.
“Keeping that relationship as one of kin, love and nurturance is what’s so important for survival,” Gordon said. “You don’t see your own survival as separate from the survival of anyone, or any other animal or plant.”
While foster care, adoption and boarding schools have caused intergenerational harm, there is also healing underway — connections both personal and spiritual to the land, cultures and Tribal communities in Alaska.
In many Indigenous families, children were given up for adoption as babies and taken to the lower 48 states, losing touch with their kin. Some, including Gordon’s relatives, are today reconnecting with their families, cultures and land.
These days she’s meeting cousins in Washington State and on the East Coast who have had no connection to Alaska or to who they are, “and they’re hungry for it,” Gordon said. “They want to come visit and fish with us. They’re trying to get back in touch with their culture and give their children that chance to know who and where they come from.”