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common ground

Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  The Case for Subsistence: Essence of Identity, Symbol of Survival

(photo) Grandmother and granddaughter, both members of British Columbia's Heiltsuk tribe.

"Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are being passed on to children. [Without intervention] all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades. "

Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

by Rosita Worl

Native Americans throughout the United States continue their quest for food in ways similar to those practiced by their ancestors for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before them. The survival of subsistence hunting, fishing, and farming economies is remarkable given federal policies that sought to eradicate traditional ways of life and assimilate native people into the dominant economy and culture. That their cultures continue today is more remarkable still with the continuing conflict between developers and traditionalists, the political maneuvering by those who covet native resources, and animal rights activists who would eliminate hunting.

The number of hunting and gathering communities in North America has been significantly reduced since Europeans arrived on the continent, and some anthropologists predict they will soon be extinct. However, the fact remains that subsistence economies remain vital in the United States, and enclaves of Native American communities cling tenaciously to their ways of life. They have demonstrated that they intend to pursue all political and legal measures to protect their ancient ways.

The question may be posed why native people, from Arctic whalers to Pueblo farmers, continue to maintain subsistence economies, which are almost universally cast as indicative of poverty or underdevelopment. From an anthropological perspective, the answer is simple. Subsistence economies are eminently successful, demonstrated by the fact that for about 99 percent of the time humanity has existed—approximately two million years—it has been supported by hunting, fishing, and horticulture. The shift to industrialized economies is relatively new—fewer than 400 years—and given catastrophic events such as Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill and Japan's recent nuclear accident, it is not even certain that humankind will survive it.

To Native Americans who continue to depend on natural resources, subsistence is more than eking out a living. While it is important to the economic well-being of their communities, the subsistence lifestyle is also perceived as the basis of cultural existence and survival. It is a communal activity rather than an individual pursuit. It unifies communities as cohesive functioning units through collective production and distribution of the harvest. Entire families participate, including elders, who assist with less physically demanding tasks. Parents, rather than educational institutions, teach the young to hunt, fish, and farm.

Food and goods are also distributed through native cultural institutions. Some groups have formalized patterns of sharing, while others do so in more informal ways. All distribute subsistence foods without regard to economic return. Some subsistence communities give special allocations to elders or households with single mothers. Most require young hunters to distribute their first catch throughout the community. Ancient trading patterns established untold years ago continue among some tribes in the same fashion as they once did.

Subsistence embodies cultural values that recognize both the social obligation to share as well as the special spiritual relationship to the land and resources. This relationship is portrayed in native art and in many ceremonies held throughout the year.

While non-natives tend to define subsistence in terms of poverty or the minimum amount of food necessary to support life, native people equate subsistence with their culture. Among many tribes, maintaining a subsistence lifestyle has become the symbol of their survival in the face of mounting political and economic pressures. It defines who they are as a people.