Subsistence living?

When I started writing this I thought I was asking the question “Should a subsistence lifestyle be subsidized by society?” I began to realize that first I had to ask the question, “What is a subsistence lifestyle?”

I have been reading Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes by Dan Everett. It is about an Indian people in the Amazon who are almost complete subsistence livers. They cook and light the night with fire. Their water is the river. They hunt and gather food. They do have shotguns and some manufactured tools which they trade for jungle products. There are no roads in their villages, just footpaths in the jungle, and their houses are rudimentary. There is no modern medicine and no school. They do not seek outside help. They live out their lives at virtually no cost to the state.

Yesterday Jerry was chopping wood outside, and inside I was baking bread. We were pretending to be pioneers.

People who live out here in the bush all practice some sort of subsistence living. We can’t have all the conveniences of the city, or even of the country in less isolated places. Nevertheless, Manley is connected to modern conveniences by a road; there are much more isolated parts of Alaska.

Our friends who live across the road and raise sled dogs chose a subsistence way of life. While Jerry and I have indoor plumbing, they have none. They have an outhouse and a well. Pam, a tiny, attractive woman in her 60’s, carries about 30 gallons of water from the well to clean and water their 40 dogs every day. In addition she carries water for washing dishes, household cleaning and personal use.

Every year, in season, Joee shoots and butchers a moose. One moose lasts the year for meat. Most of the rest of their dietary protein is salmon. Joee fishes for salmon for humans and dogs. They freeze it, can it and smoke it.

In the summer Pam has a garden. She grows peas, carrots, squash, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes and cabbage. She cans vegetables for winter use. Joee knows where to gather morels and Pam picks cranberries and blueberries in the fall. She shops in Fairbanks once a year for things like flour, salt, canned goods, mustard, pasta, and household cleaning and personal items.

Pam and Joee don’t reject all things modern. They have electricity. Jerry put in power for them when he owned the power company 30 years ago. When Pam told him she would like to have electricity he agreed, so long as she supplied telephone poles from the main road to their house on Tofty Road. So she cut the trees and limbed them. Then Jerry put them up and ran the wires.


They have a telephone, also first installed by Jerry who started the telephone company. In Joee’s studio there is an oil heater (their house is heated by a woodstove.) Pam cooks on a propane stove. They have 2 or 3 pickup trucks, 2 four wheelers, 2 or 3 snow mobiles. They have a chainsaw and various other electric tools. Joee fishes with an outboard motor boat. They have a large TV, and they have internet.

They use the internet to publicize their sled dog business, and their business of showing tourists the dogs and demonstrations about their subsistence way of life. And they advertise Joee’s carvings and the native-style dolls he makes.

Here in Manley many houses do not have indoor plumbing, but most have electricity. Everyone here has at least one motor vehicle. There is a family in Manley living in the woods without electricity or plumbing. They burn wood, but they eat only food bought in Fairbanks because they don’t like fish and moose. Most people who are here in the summer have gardens and grow a good portion of their vegetables. Most spend some time in the fall picking berries.

For year round residents salmon, other fresh water and ocean fish they can catch and moose are staple proteins. Jerry once told me that he lived on moose for 6 years of his life when he was studying at the University of Alaska. He kept a frozen moose on the roof of his homestead in the winter and sawed off pieces as needed. Moose makes a better pot roast than beef. Caribou, elk and bear are also used for food. I have not tried any of those.

People here build their own houses, including plumbing and electrical. There are no building permits and no inspections. There is no property tax. People cut their own wood for fuel. Many repair their own vehicles.

Jerry can do all these things. He builds houses, he repairs engines, he has built 2 airplanes. He bought the electric company here and started a telephone company, which he ran, for the most part, without help. During the long dark winter he taught himself computer programming so that he could automate the telephone and electric bills. Since Jerry and I were married we have not employed a repair man of any kind. He fixes all appliances, cars, plumbing and electrical.

Last night we heard “Alaska News Nightly” on the radio. They were discussing the village of Shishmaref on the Seward Peninsula. The people are Inuit and theirs is a subsistence culture. Melting ice in the arctic is causing the ocean to wash away the edges of the village, and it is gradually disappearing.

Before long, if the village is to survive, it will have to be moved. That will cost the state (or the Federal Government) about $120 million. If the people were moved to Nome it would cost a lot less. There are 600 people in the village, and there is continuing cost to the state to maintain them now, and in future if they move. There are medical services, schools, various subsidies for income and housing, mail service, and whatever infrastructure exists (an airport, road, bridge, etc.) is provided by the state with federal help. Native communities in Alaska have a much better deal that those in the lower 48.

The people of Sishmaref don’t want to move to Nome. They would lose their subsistence culture. Much of their livelihood comes from hunting caribou and fishing. The knowledge that their grandparents handed to them would be forgotten, though much of their ancient culture is already lost, or is history. Today the people of Sishmaref hunt with guns, use outboard motorboats and fishing equipment that is purchased. They speak English, and their children go to school to learn lessons similar to those other American children learn.

As I wait for the snow to melt and listen to the grim economic news on the radio, I continue to ponder the subsistence way of life.

Recently Sarah Palin’s first nominee for attorney general of Alaska was rejected by the legislature, and one reason given was that he was not sufficiently friendly to using the power of the state, and it’s funds, to preserve subsistence culture.

The preservation of native culture is one justification for supporting subsistence living. It is argued that settlers, miners, hunter-trappers and missionaries did native people great wrong in the past, and we owe them recompense. Many believe that native people have a right to keep their historical culture and should not have it swallowed by a rapacious need for economic growth.

Non-native people are also drawn to subsistence living. I know people in Manley who spend their summers in fish camp. They live all summer beside the river in primitive camps reached only by boat. They catch hundreds of fish, preserve them by canning or smoking (some for sale), and use them for human or dog food. I know Manleyites who spend time both summer and winter on trap lines, trapping animals of all kinds. Almost any animal skin can be sold, even coyote. There are still miners here. A few actually have commercially profitable mines, some are individuals who are still hoping to strike it rich. All these are, at least in part, hobby occupations. Everyone I know who works in fishing, mining or trapping has some other form of income.

Subsistence living is praised as teaching the values of self-reliance and independence. There are lessons to be learned, especially about growing food for home use. In many ways living in the back woods requires skills that urban and suburban dwellers often don’t have, and self-reliance is a good thing.

Manley Hot Springs has a population of 80, and many are not full time residents. Ten children attend the public school. All of us here depend on the maintenance of existing roads and airports, health care clinics and schools. The airport is about to have a $12 million dollar upgrade.

When Jerry first came here in the 70’s the road, the Elliot Highway, was unpaved and generally closed in winter. The school was a fraction of its present size. Health care had to be obtained elsewhere. In the last 30 years additional services have gradually been provided. There is a health clinic and a trained EMS worker. A visiting nurse comes regularly. The school is enlarged and has a big gym. Some of the children are special needs and require expert teaching.


Fish and wildlife regulations favor subsistence living, and native people are given preference by these rules. The government provides financial assistance to maintain native lifestyle. Native villages are maintained and houses are built at government expense for the people who live in them. In some cases the government even provides things like snowmobiles and other equipment, such as animal traps.

There has been controversy for a long time over who should have priority to use dwindling renewable resources. Ronald Smith, in his book Interior & Northern Alaska: a Natural History comments: “The arguments get especially troublesome when there are cultural and/or racial overtones. For instance, on the Yukon River, does subsistence use by villagers automatically trump commercial harvest by Native fishers downstream who are living in a cash (rather than subsistence) economy?” And, he adds, “Additional pressure from urban and nonresident hunters and fishers will further complicate these issues.”

I go around with the question, and I haven’t been able to answer it. What is the responsibility of the wider community? Should we subsidize subsistence living? Does real subsistence living still exist in Alaska? If so, who should benefit?
















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6 Responses to Subsistence living?

  1. anne says:

    Wow, very interesting post and good question. I would not have thought the issue of subsistence living was so complicated, you are enlightening me. Now I’m going to be thinking about it too!

  2. I agree, a fascinating piece especially for an urbanite like me who knows little of this type of life. It will give me something to ponder today.

  3. This is an incredible, thought-provoking description of a world that’s completely foreign to me. I really, really enjoyed it.

  4. dale says:

    I find these sorts of questions very difficult, and they get harder when times get harder. Alaska’s state revenues are the envy of many of us, but even Alaska can’t afford everything: and who says a third-generation white Alaskan’s subsistence way of life is really any less important, authentic, worthy of support, than a 30th generation Inuit’s?

    Basically here, as often, I don’t think “fairness” is necessarily what we ought to be shooting for. “All other things being equal”…. but all other things are never equal. I do have undefined but still strong feeling that moving these folks to Nome is a bad idea. People who are turned out of subsistence livelihoods into cash economies often fare really badly. And that can be expensive to the state too, even if we’re being totally bottom-line about it.

  5. Colin Cote says:

    When it all boils down to it. The entire world is going to have to learn to live sustainably while doing as little harm to the environment as possible.
    Global warming will either teach us how by necessity or destroy us eventually.
    There is no room for stubborn attitudes or hanging onto culture for traditions sake. There are things that will work for all and things that will not and the things that work for all, including the planet, have to take priority.
    Fortunately for those who have to hang on to sentimentality,some of the old ways are the best.
    But the days of 3500 pound automobiles to carry 200 pound bodies 60-70 miles per hour while consuming 150,000 watt hours of energy per hour,,, are through or people are done for.

  6. RW says:

    It is the way of life, subsistence it self, that must be saved. It is for every one and any one who chooses the lifestyle. Subsistence folks are living on what is provided by nature, spending less, using less energy, and eating healthier isn’t this truly going green? Caring for the planet by only using what you need?

    When ever someone says the state is loosing money they are really saying the state could be making money but they can’t because of those pesky subsistence folks. Let me ask some questions that I already know the answer to. What is money? What’s wrong with living without money? What is the bottom line items that one “earns” money for? If money is a representation of our labors, who is telling us what we are worth. If you are getting rewarded based on you efforts, what has greater return than that? (Certainly we do not see this as consistently in our )

    Who is John Gault? (Sorry couldn’t resist.)

    To summarize, if we as a country were more involved in a subsistence life style. We would be in a “better” and more sustainable situation across the board.

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