Subsistence Living in Alaska
About the Author: Warren Jones' Yupik name is Miaraq, and he is Gwich’in, Yup’ik, and Iñupiaq. His family comes from Nenana, Hooper Bay, and Nome. He was born in Bethel, Alaska, and spent his early childhood in Nome. He now lives in Anchorage with his wife and children, and studies Indigenous philosophy with a focus on the culture and worldview of the Circumpolar North.
Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering all play an important role for many Alaska Natives. In Alaska, subsistence use is prioritized by law. Yet subsistence, in many ways, is a poor word to describe the practice, as these activities are part of an Alaska culture and lifestyle that has existed for thousands of years. This lifestyle and practices predate statehood and play a vital role in maintaining many Alaska Native traditions.
Seasonal Hunting, Gathering, Foraging
Across the state, Alaska Native people are out on the land through all seasons. Winter fisheries are plentiful with ice fishing for pike, trout, and eels. Winter is also time for crabbing and hunting for moose, and folks working new and historied fur traplines in different parts of the state.
In the spring, we gather wild bird eggs. Hunts include birds, bears, whales, walrus, and seal. Early run fisheries like herring, eulachon (hooligan), and sheefish (a large, predatory, white fish) mark the end of a long winter season. Spring greens begin popping up all over the state: fiddlehead ferns, spruce tips, twisted stalk, Tsaas (Indian potato), goose tongue, sea asparagus, lovage, and wild celery. We harvest seaweed, kelp, clams, and mussels.
On the ocean and across river systems, people fish: drifting or setnetting using gillnets and seining, dipnetting – using fishwheels or rod and reel. You’ll see driftwood drying racks and smokehouses weighed down with salmon all along the coast and up the estuaries, rivers, streams, and lakes where the salmon return to spawn. The salmon fishery runs from the spring until late in the fall, with the different salmon species returning at different times.
Beginning in the early summer until late fall, people gather gallons of salmonberries, blueberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, crowberries, and many other wild berries. Fall is a time for gathering medicinal plants, and other late season subsistence, like late season coho salmon and both large and small game hunting.
We could spend a long time listing all the different activities and what they mean to each community. This is what we eat and how we live. These foods are eaten fresh, or processed for year-round consumption, whether pickled, salted, jarred, dried, smoked, or fermented. Oil is rendered from whales, seals, fish, and bears for a variety of uses. Soups and stews are delicious and abundant.
Subsistence is More Than Just Putting Food on the Table
Wild foods are an essential and delicious part of the diet in rural Alaska. And there is a social aspect to the practice. Communities and families work together to harvest and process year-round. Many cultural celebrations include this bounty, and it is ever present at family events too. Elders and others in the community are looked after, and hunts for whales are community events both in the hunt, processing, and allotment that end up shared all across the state. The sharing and eating that happens around the harvest is important and treasured.
This is how many Alaskans live, and how we maintain our relationship with each other and with the land. The people who live here love getting out in the beautiful spaces we call home, and getting out and enjoying the bounty that the land provides roots us in who we are and the places we call home.
These activities are happening in rural communities across the state, from the temperate rainforest and mountains of Southeast, throughout the Gulf of Alaska, to the volcanic Aleutian chain. And from Bristol Bay all up the coast to the North Slope and down into the Interior. This is what subsistence is and means when you hear it talked about in Alaska.
Can Visitors to Alaska Participate?
Subsistence practices, for the most part, are limited to Alaska residents. But, there are activities that are not regulated that you can participate in as a visitor, such as picking berries. Alaska berries include wild blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, and crowberries, and can be found all over the state. Even just enjoying a handful on a hike will leave you with a lasting memory and, trust me, store-bought blueberries just can’t compete with wild berries. But be careful: there are poisonous berries in Alaska, so be certain you know what you are eating. Eating any plants near any kind of pesticide use or contamination is not recommended.
Alaskans tend to eat more wild game than any other state, and fish – like salmon – account for much of this. Fishing and hunting are other activities you can participate in or plan your trip around when you visit Alaska. So, while you can’t participate in subsistence hunts or fisheries, there are opportunities available for a visitor to bring home wild fish and game. And bringing some of the bounty home from your trip to Alaska makes for some amazing meals and even more amazing good memories. It makes for return trips, too – you’ll want to come back and visit us again.
New! Alaska Native Culture Guide
Immerse yourself in Alaska Native heritage and learn how to experience the living culture of the state's Indigenous peoples.