ANILCA: Helping to Preserve Alaska Native Culture

For thousands of years, Alaska Native people have lived with and on the land, relying on fish, wildlife and plant resources for their sustenance and basic needs. In 1980, when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), it recognized the importance of protecting Alaska’s splendid natural ecosystems and landscapes, while preserving the opportunity for traditional ways of living on the land to continue. Congress acknowledged the exceptional and unique conditions of life in Alaska's rural areas in Title VIII of the Act, noting that:

“The Congress finds and declares that 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 …”

Federal law does not define the term “subsistence” directly, using only the phrase `subsistence uses,' and states:

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.

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. However, the word, "subsistence," means more than just putting food on the table. It includes the identity, culture, customs, traditions, values and beliefs that define Alaska Native peoples. This subsistence lifeway is strongly rooted in a sense of place that endures over time through the passing of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. It also involves the social and economic ties that bind families and communities together.

Subsistence, as codified in ANILCA, helps to sustain not only the physical, but the spiritual culture of Alaska Native peoples. Recognizing that this is an important tradition for many non-Natives as well, Congress established that local rural residents be given precedence for using fish or wildlife resources. This "rural preference" prioritizes subsistence uses over other uses, such as sport hunting and fishing.

Alaska Native culture is about much more than subsistence and ANILCA plays an important role in helping to affirm and perpetuate those cultural values. Today, traditional Native customs and ways of living still thrive in park areas throughout Alaska from the rainforests of Southeast to the tundra of the Arctic.

Learn more about the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA):

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    Last updated: August 22, 2023