Commentary: Our land sustains us

By Ken Johns
For The Cordova Times

Since the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the Ahtna people have learned and applied new ways of managing the food and resources that sustained us for a millennium. In one lifetime, we went from being the only inhabitants of our region to co-managing the resources of our homeland alongside state and federal actors. With the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, new options for protecting our peoples’ resources appeared, but also accompanied challenges for preserving subsistence and traditional knowledge.  

During World War II, highways were built providing access to the Copper River Basin. As a result of this and other development, Ahtna, Incorporated is the only Alaska Native regional corporation whose villages are all road accessible. At times, that accessibility has proven helpful, but it has meant increased traffic through our lands from non-Indigenous residents and pressure on the area’s limited fish and wildlife resources. We set out to solve this problem with the knowledge that securing our traditional food sources is an integral part of our culture. Subsistence is more than putting food on the table; it is who we are. Similarly, traditional knowledge is more than history; it is essential in maintaining the resources of our lands for future generations.

After the passage of ANCSA, Ahtna was entitled to 1.77 million acres. The question of how to manage resources was at the forefront of their minds as our elders carefully selected our lands to sustain our traditional foods for future generations. Today, the remainder of our traditional homelands are accessible to state, federal, and private landowners, underscoring the need for a comprehensive resource management approach that recognizes the fundamental truth behind ANCSA: these lands were ours, and our knowledge is essential to sustaining them.

Today, we continue to work with state and federal authorities to fulfill the promise made by Congress, that our traditional hunting and fishing rights would be recognized. There has been progress and setbacks, but Ahtna is heartened by the growing recognition in academic, political, and economic circles of the importance of traditional knowledge in sustainable resource management.

Both state and federal governments use the word “subsistence” to define Alaska Native hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. Social scientists often refer to it as an economic process, but we do not define these activities solely in economic terms. Instead, we view them as all-encompassing cultural activities that are spiritual, social, political, and economic in nature, and prefer the language of customary and traditional use. For elders who grew up living with the land, customary and traditional use is fundamental to their cultural identity and critical to their physical and psychological well-being. It is an indispensable asset in a region where full-time employment is scarce, incomes are low, and the cost of living is high.

It is important that we educate the next generation of leaders about the lessons of our past and their importance for the future. If we don’t educate them about our history, how will they know what to fight for? A changing climate and shortened fish and game seasons make it difficult for our people to teach our traditional ways of hunting and fishing. We must look at the whole picture and work to ensure fish and wildlife resources have healthy populations that remain available for future generations. Our ancestors taught us to never waste food, treat animals with respect, not to be greedy, and only take what we need. Alaska Native traditional knowledge is now considered quantifiable in scientific terms; we know how to balance harvesting and when to stop hunting or fishing for both to thrive.

The Ahtna people are no strangers to working together and being united when faced with challenges or threats. For any strong culture, these are survival tactics. Over the years, we have worked respectfully and productively with our federal and state partners to manage these lands, and will continue to work cooperatively for resolutions that allow us to maintain our way of life, put traditional foods on the table and in freezers, and pass on our traditional ways. 

Ken Johns is the chairman of Ahtna Incorporated.