Kenai Gillnets Will Strangle Culture of Subsistence


February 11 , 2007

Where did the noble idea of preserving subsistence opportunities in Alaska get so far off track?

I was a flunky, junior aide to an Alaska senator in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s when Congress started writing a law designed to help protect food resources for a handful of people in rural Alaska with access to little else, along with a thimbleful of latter-day back-to-the-earth hippies with dreams of living off the land in one of the harshest landscapes on the planet.

Then political activists hijacked the show, and look where we are today.

We deny the average Alaskan a chance to hunt road-accessible Nelchina caribou in favor of creating a private hunting preserve for predominately old, well-to-do, often overweight guys from Anchorage and the Susitna Valley who tow their four-wheelers north to Eureka Summit or the Denali Highway and camp out (I use that word liberally here) in their luxury motor homes complete with refrigerators for the beer and DVD players for nightly entertainment.

And now we're planning to let the people of Ninilchik put gillnets in the Kenai River near Cooper Landing to pursue their "customary and traditional rights" to salmon.

If they also happen to catch a bunch of rainbow trout vital to the area's tourism economy, so what?

This is the Ninilchik, it is worth noting, on Cook Inlet where it is pretty easy to net salmon in the salt, the Ninilchik some 90 road miles from Cooper Landing, the Ninilchik right close to the mouth of the Kenai River where even a city boob like myself can go down with a gillnet in July and net salmon by the truckload.

That gillnet, it is also worth pointing out, is little changed from the tool aboriginal inhabitants of the Kenai Peninsula used for fishing.

And the Kenai dipnet fishery might well represent the most ethnically diverse gathering of people you'll find anywhere on the globe.

On any given day during the dipnet season, not only can you find Alaskans of every race, creed and color dipnetting; you will usually find them chattering in a half-dozen or more languages.

That the ultimate American melting pot exists here seems of no matter to the federal subsistence board, which has determined that people within the Ninilchik ZIP code are somehow so different from these dipnetters, and from the rest of the residents of the Peninsula, not to mention the people living here in Anchorage.

The Ninilchik ZIP code should get special fishing privileges as it already gets special moose-hunting privileges, the board determined.

Not even Congress, which created the whole subsistence mess out of a tangle of good intentions, was willing to go this far.

Recognizing the importance of the Kenai to the residents of Alaska's largest city and the rapidly growing communities on the Peninsula itself, Congress actually tried to head this off by making the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge the only refuge in the state on which subsistence was not a designated priority.

No matter.

A lawyer for Ninilchik Natives seems to have rattled his briefs and the next thing you know, the feds are talking about allowing a monofilament gillnet in the upper Kenai to somehow, some way create a customary and traditional fishery for somebody.

Who? Dupont?

Dupont invented monofilament back in 1939. Then came Corian, Teflon, Mylar, Kevlar, Nomax, Tyvek and more.

Dupont has long been a leader in the Industrial Revolution, which would seem somehow anathema to the whole subsistence idea.

That's how crazy things have gotten.

Look, if the people of Ninilchik were proposing to re-create a spruce-root gillnet and catch Kenai silver salmon in the manner in which Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas has discovered some prehistoric Kenai residents fished, I'd be all for it.

I'd personally love to help in the construction of such a net just to see how it is done. This is culture.

Culture exists not in the killing of wild creatures -- an activity shared by the members of nearly all cultures -- but in the tools and rituals that surround that killing.

In that vein, having lived in Alaska for more than 30 years now, it is ironic for me to look back and realize that deer hunting in Minnesota, where I grew up, is far more culturally significant than any of the hunting I've ever done here. The deer season in Minnesota was marked by ritual and anticipation because one got only a matter of days in which to find and kill a deer.

Subsistence hunting is more like going to the grocery store to buy meat, or it least it was back when I still qualified for a Nelchina caribou permit. Now, there are so many people in front of me in line for those permits -- some claiming longer hunting histories, some claiming preferential residences, some just lying -- I'm with the masses who can't hunt Nelchina.

Maybe it is this sort of exclusion that feeds the mistaken believe among rural Alaskans that if they were to lose the subsistence priority, they wouldn't be allowed to hunt and fish at all.

Conveniently overlooked is the reality that subsistence -- by denying the masses in favor of the few -- might be the greatest threat to the hunting and fishing culture.

Cultures stay vibrant and alive by broadening their base, by being inclusive rather than being exclusive.

Thus the Irish welcome everyone to Saint Patrick's day. Mexicans encourage everyone to join in on Cinco del Mayo. Martin Luther King Day becomes a national holiday, not a black holiday.

"I have a dream,'' the Rev. King said. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ...

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.''

I am not of the Rev. King's faith. But I share the Rev. King's belief people should be treated equally, judged not by the color of the skin or the number of their ZIP code.

But there's more to this than that. Subsistence as it exists in Alaska today isn't just about prejudices that divide people; it's about the threat to cultural vestiges of a way of life.

It's foolish to deny the majority of the people opportunities to connect with the land through hunting and fishing in order to make it easy for a minority. That's a formula for disaster.

It plays into the hands of all the distractions of the electronic age, which are today the real threat to hunting and fishing across the country.

The Bush is not immune from this.

How many kids want to go get all wet and dirty huntin' and fishin' when they can join the "in crowd'' in entertaining themselves with an X-box? Microsoft certainly understands you don't promote your culture through exclusion.

You promote it through inclusion, which is where the whole subsistence program has gone awry.

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