Alaska Native Wisdom for Modern Times

The Roman Empire lasted for 500 years; southwest Alaska’s Aleuts for 9,000. As the economy crumbles, what can Alaska Natives teach us about sustainable economics?
Inuit couple, photo by Douglas Brown

Photo by Douglas Brown

There is a single place in the United States where indigenous peoples still live on ancestral lands, consume over four hundred pounds of wild foods annually per capita, and indigenous elders still remember the arrival of the first Westerners in their regions. That place is Alaska. Despite daunting challenges to cultural integrity and ways of life, Alaska’s Native peoples retain vast storehouses of their traditional knowledge, wisdom, and lifeways. Thus, many traditional Alaska Native lifeways and understandings about how human beings fit into the bigger matrix of creation remain relatively intact. These ways have allowed our cultures to survive and thrive for thousands of years, even in the face of many daunting ecological and economic crises. In today’s challenging times, such ways, having evolved through an intimate and profound relationship to lands, waters, and all life, have much to offer the American people and the entire human family.

Alaska’s vast lands are home to many indigenous nations. One, in Southwestern Alaska, is the Yup’ik nation. Yup’ik elders call modern society the “reverse” or “inside out” society because it has reversed the laws for healthy and sustainable living. These reversals include many of the constructs and paradigms that have brought this country and the world to its economic knees in recent months and years. For example, multinational companies and large profit-making corporations collectively are the driving force behind the U.S. economy and the source of many of the challenges that are pushing the planet’s life support systems to the edge. These companies operate under the widely accepted economic paradigms of growth, market share, competition, and profitability. Such paradigms ignore the reality that the basis for endless economic growth (as currently defined and practiced) is overutilization and exploitation of finite resources.

By contrast, Alaska Native cultures survived and thrived for millennia based on cultural and economic systems that recognized and lived within natural limits. These cultures embodied respect, reciprocity, cooperation, sharing, and harmonious relationships between the individual human being and his or her family and community, as well as the fish, wildlife, and habitat upon which human communities depend. Human societies “exploited” the ecosystems in which they lived, but recognized at all times that natural laws trump human ambitions and that humans must fit themselves into natural systems rather than the other way around. These ways have outlasted the boldest and strongest of empires throughout the world by an order of magnitude. One of the most famous, the Imperium Romanum, or Roman empire, which provided the basis for many of the principles and constructs of modern Western economies, lasted a little less than five hundred years. The Aleuts of Southwestern Alaska, by contrast, maintained a continuous and uninterrupted culture and economy for over 9,000 years. Policies that aim to foster lasting economic renewal in the U.S. and around the world must similarly reflect an awareness that all economic systems ultimately depend upon, and must protect and function within, the dictates of natural systems.

How did Alaska Native cultures manage to sustain cultures and economies over thousands of years without inviting economic catastrophe, depletion of natural resources, or societal collapse? Do the lessons derived from the long-term successes of Alaska Native economies have any applicability to the economic woes facing our country and the world? Perhaps so.

First, let’s examine the concept of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. GDP, which ostensibly measures economic activity in a country, is currently employed as one of the primary indicators of a nation’s economic health. It is calculated by adding up the total value of a country’s annual output of goods and services. In a money and profit-centered world, GDP ignores more traditional measures of societal health: individual, family, and community cohesion and well-being; sufficient food supplies; little sickness; peace; a clean environment; abundant fish and wildlife; a vibrant culture. Most U.S. and world citizens would probably agree that the traditional measures of health are more meaningful than simply counting production in terms of goods and services; nonetheless, we keep using this arcane measure to gauge our national economic well-being. Alaska Native cultures over the millennia have always viewed economic, social, and environmental elements as interdependent. The Native community can best participate in the process of economic renewal by consistently pointing out this fundamental interdependence.

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The Alaska Native community can also emphasize the need for a collective vision of economic renewal. Under our current economic system, even in a recession, citizens are basically expected to function and survive completely on their own, except for the occasional offer of help from the government in the form of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or mortgage assistance. Alaska Native cultures have always recognized that adversity is best faced collectively—that, as the famine-acquainted Irish say, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Historically and cyclically, Alaska Native cultures have faced their own versions of recession in the forms of diminished food supplies and other things caused by adverse natural events. During these times, because of the deeply embedded ethics and values of sharing, reciprocity, and communal focus, families shared their provisions with others in the band, clan, and extended families, regardless of shortages they themselves may have suffered. In times of region-wide shortages, Alaska Native peoples utilized sophisticated trade routes and inter-relationships with other groups and subgroups from other regions to assist them. Foods, technologies, stories, songs, games, and healing ways were always shared first with the elders and widows, then with one’s extended family, and then one’s own immediate family. The “pain” was spread out to the collective so that suffering by any individual, family, community or cultural group was minimized as much as possible. These systems of support and collective economics still exist in Alaska today. When fishermen, hunters and gatherers bring home natural foods, they always share their harvest with others, starting first with those most in need.

Traditionally, Alaska’s Native peoples have also always exercised reciprocity and cooperation with nature. Our “resources” came from what the lands and waters provided, but this is not a one-way relationship. We strongly held to the principle of being givers, not just takers. Whatever we received from the lands and waters, we found ways to give back. For example, the Tlingit peoples of Southeastern Alaska developed highly sophisticated systems to not only protect the salmon in surrounding waters, but also to enhance and strengthen their stocks in ways that were consistent with environmental dictates. As a result, when Westerners arrived, they found the rivers in Tlingit country teeming with so much life that a person could not walk across a stream during the annual fish migration upriver without stepping on a salmon. Athabascan peoples of Interior Alaska developed sophisticated techniques for burning vegetation and controlling apex predators to help the land be more balanced and productive; consequently, just two generations ago, it was not unusual to see a caribou herd, stretching a mile wide, crossing the Yukon River for three days non-stop. These highly evolved economic systems of management and harvesting all considered future generations and did not destroy the ecosystems; to the contrary, they increased their vitality and productivity.

U.S. and international economic systems could benefit from these indigenous values and principles; indeed, to ignore them is to place our collective future in great peril. Economic recovery and sustainability go hand in hand. If we continue to deplete the world’s resources and give nothing back, we will continue to face increasingly severe and longlasting economic recessions and depressions, while creating increasingly permanent conditions of scarcity, hardship, and destitution around the world. What is missing in the U.S. formula for economic recovery and sustainability are community-centered and reciprocal approaches. We need systems whereby people help people, give back to our ecosystems when we take from them, and base our decisions on deliberative forums that gather our collective thinking for the good of the whole and coming generations, not just the good of the individual or the corporation with short-term planning horizons based on the bottom-line.

Albert Einstein said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” and “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” If we look to the same old formulas to solve the daunting problems facing us, we are using the same consciousness that spawned this crisis in the first place. What is needed is not more government “fixes,” but new approaches, deliberative processes, and fresh thinking that government can facilitate in partnership with mobilized communities, utilizing, as a guidepost, the principles, values, and ways of indigenous peoples who retain and practice traditional ways that have served them so well for countless generations. Perhaps instead the “new manner of thinking” that can help us survive will involve honoring and utilizing ancient wisdom for modern solutions. Perhaps then, like Alaska’s Native cultures, all of humankind can survive and thrive for thousands of years to come.

Editor's note: Llarion Merculieff 's essay was one of of the finalists in Native Insight: Thoughts on Recession, Recovery & Opportunity, an essay contest that asked competitors to offer their perspectives on the current economic and political landscape, as well as thoughts and ideas related to economic renewal.


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