Ethnographic Portraits: Inupiat of Arctic Alaska

The Economics of Dependency

By the mid-1960s, there was general agreement that while religious institututions could help a great deal in providing a sense of identity and purpose for the devout, they were simply not designed to address the mounting economic problems facing indigenous Arctic Alaskans and other Native peoples within the state. Just how serious were these problems? At this time, the federal government undertook a comprehensive study to find out. In a lengthy 1968 report entitled Alaska Natives and the Land, the U.S. Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska concluded that:

Among Alaska Natives generally, more persons are unemployed or are seasonally employed than have permanent jobs. More than half of the work force is jobless most of the year; for them, food gathering activities provide basic subsistence. Only one-fourth of the work force has continuing employment...50 to 60 percent are jobless in March and September...At these times only half of those employed have permanent jobs. In the summers, when no estimates are compiled, joblessness among Natives across the state may drop to 20 or 25 percent...

Year round jobs in most villages are few. Typically the opportunities are limited to positions such as school maintenance man, postmaster, airline station agent, village store manager, and possibly school cook or teacher aide. In these places, other adults gain income through the sale of furs, fish, or arts and crafts; find seasonal employment away from the villages as firefighters, cannery workers, or construction laborers; depend upon welfare payments, make their National Guard income stretch mightily; or, as usually is the case, (1) provide for the bulk of their food supply by fishing, hunting and trapping, and other activities of food gathering; and (2) rely upon a combination of means to obtain the cash needed for fuel, some food staples, and for tools and supplies necessary to the harvest of fish and wildlife.

Other state and federally sponsored research undertaken at the same time came to a similar conclusion that high levels of poverty found among the Inupiat and other Alaska Natives in the 1960 census continued through the decade while income levels for non-Native Alaskans grew steadily. Even taking into account public health and social services available to Native Alaskans and the value associated with subsistence hunting and fishing, the economic position of the Inupiat and other Alaska Natives continued to drop precipitiously behind increasing statewide averages.

Possible solutions to this problem were viewed as being closely tied to the potential contained in exploiting Alaska's natural resources. In the next few years, as the projections for Alaska's oil and gas resources became more clearly understood, the state's future economic growth appeared highly promising. However, this positive outlook did not include the state's rural segment, most of whom were Natives. According to the 1968 Federal Field Committee Report:

The leading growth industry - oil and gas - is one of the most capital intensive and technology intensive of all commodity-producing industries and employs almost no unskilled or semi-skilled labor.

Although Alaska's economic growth would create new jobs at minimum entry levels, the report went on to state that:

These new positions may well be more than offset by the disappearance of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in declining industries or trades, and resulting from automation, modernization, and upgrading of work in general. Under these circumstances, programs to place additional Natives in minimum-entry jobs may succeed only to the extent they redistribute unemployment rather than alleviate it.

The results of this study made it very clear that the geographical mobility of the Inupiat to new growth centers would not insure their active involvement in Alaska's economic development. To fit the occupational needs of a rapidly modernizing state, the Inupiat and other Native groups had to have at least the equivalent of a high school education. While such an education was not seen as a sufficient condition for effective Inupiat and other Native participation, it was regarded as a necessary prequisite.

The severity of educational needs for the Inupiat and other Alaska Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts was highlighted by a report of the Governor's Commission on Cross-cultural Education of 1970 which stated that due to improved comprehensive health services and an increased birth rate, the median age of the Native population had become 16.3 years. Of the approximately 16,000 elementary students, over 11,000 were located in predominantly rural Native communities. In these localities, school overcrowding was endemic. At Barrow, for example, buildings which were constructed to expand the secondary school program had to be used for primary-level students.

Secondary educational facilities were even more limited. As reported by the Governor's Commission, of the 77 village schools operated by the state, only six offered work beyond the eighth grade. Of the 73 federally operated BIA village schools, only four offered ninth grade courses, and only two offered tenth grade courses. Thus, high school education for almost all rural youth had to be obtained away from home. By the late 1960s, of the 4600 Alaska Natives attending secondary schools, over 1,000 were sent outside the state for their education - primarily to Oregon and Oklahoma. As increased pressure was placed on the two in-state BIA schools to accept more secondary students, Inupiat and other Native youths were forced into already overcrowded boarding home programs for borough high schools in Fairbanks, Anchorage. Considering the mounting interest of Inupiat and other Native students in attending high school and the lack of adequate facilities, the prospects for a minimally adequate secondary education were far from satisfactory.

In order to improve the quality of existing schools, personnel at the senior levels of the BIA and state operated school systems became increasingly interested in supporting new teacher preparation programs, introducing bicultural and bilingual materials into the schools, and encouraging more Native participation at the local level. However, even when participation was sought, effective consensus was often hampered by significant cultural, historic, and generational differences that limited cooperation between Eskimo, Aleut and Indian. In addition, wide ranges of opinion were expressed regarding the nature and purpose of education. So too, state and federal policy makers, operating in a central bureaucracy and only minimally influenced by recommendations of Inupiat and other Native advisory school boards, found it difficult to evaluate the degree of importance of these diverse perspectives in undertaking their long-range planning.

However, by the mid-1960s, one could feel the Arctic's political winds beginning to blow as the Inupiat offered new, articulate, and more militant proposals in support of improved education for their students. Typifying this trend was following statement put forward by Barrow's town leaders:

We, the people of Alaska's Arctic Slope Region, wish to point out the greatest needs of our people...We have societal needs in the areas of communication, transportation, economic viability, health and sanition, political recognition, social welfare, recreation and many others. We have, however, a rich resource. Our resource is the people of the Arctic Slope Region. On the basis of their character and ability, our needs and problems can be met. This greatest need, therefore, and the key to solving many of our own problems is the need for community-wide, quality education. The terms "adequate," "minimum," and "basic" are not acceptable in the general sense when referring to the pre-school, primary, elementary, secondary, and adult education needs of our people.

Ever since the Organic Act of 1884, governmental efforts to assimilate the Inupiat by providing an education that could enable them to enter the wage economy on an equal footing with Whites had failed. Prospects for participation in Alaska's economic future appeared minimal at best. Social problems within the villages were increasing. And most important of all, following statehood in 1959, Native land holdings were being challenged. The Statehood Act specified that the state should select approximately 103 million acres within 25 years. Since Congress had never determined conclusively the status of Native land rights, this action posed a severe threat of land expropriation. It countered the Organic Act which stipulated that Natives would not be disturbed in the use or occupancy of their land and that the determination of their title would be reserved to congress.

What should be done? The answer was clear - organize politically. If the Inupiat and other Alaska Natives wanted to keep their land, they would have to fight for it. Some Native leaders went further stating that the question of land ownership was only part of an even larger struggle involving the right of political and cultural `self-determination.'

On December 26th, 1967, in windy 30 degree below zero weather, an event occurred that would bring these issues together. For on that day, after previously drilling 13,517 feet without success, an Exxon geologist at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, struck 'black gold.' As he described it, "We could hear the roar of natural gas like four jumbo jets flying right overhead...as flare from a two-inch pipe shot at least 30 feet straight into that wind. It was a mighty encouraging sign that something big was down below." That something big was oil-rich sadlerochit sand that had been deposited 200 million years before when the North Slope was a tropical wilderness. It represented the largest petroleum deposit even encountered in North America, with an estimate of 9.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Today, on Flaxman Island, 50 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, one can still find the weathered cabin built by Ernest Leffingwell from the timbers of the ship, Duchess of Bedford. On he outer wall of that structure, a cedar sign placed by the Alaska Division of Parks states: "From this base camp geologist Ernest D.K. Leffingwell almost singlehandedly mapped Alaska's Arctic coast during the years 1907-1914. He also identified the Sadlerochit - main reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay field."

The Inupiat who travel to this area in search of game occasionally stop and observe the plaque on the cabin's weathered wall. Their relatives were the ones who helped Leffingwell map the Arctic coast, making it considerably more than an "almost singlehanded" effort. They also reported oil seeping from the ground near Barrow and Kaktovik. But neither that generation nor those following had any indication of the changes that would occur on the North Slope and elsewhere following the 1967 discovery of petroleum in the sadlerochit sands of Prudhoe Bay. Among those many changes was the assurance that settlement of Alaska's Native land claims and other indigenous rights would now be addressed with much greater urgency.


For an analysis of the impact of the oil discovery on the Inupiat at this time, turn to Alaska Natives and the Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971 located in the History and Culture section of Arctic Circle.


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