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Native Pathways to Education
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The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs

Small Alaska Native Villages: Are They Worth Saving?

© Patrick J. Dubbs
91st Annual Meeting
American Anthropological Association
December 2, 1992
San Francisco, California

From their first contact with outsiders, Native communities throughout western Alaska (see Figure One) have been increasingly and inextricably drawn into the ever encapsulating Western state apparatus.

As we approach the 21st century, we see that a few of these communities have evolved into large (population >700), mixed-communities in the sense of there being two significant ethnic populations and two co-existing cultural framework Alaska Native and Euroamerican (see Table One).

Table One: Western Alaska Regional Centers

Certified Native Community

ANSCA Region

1990 Population

% Alaska Native

% Non-Native

Median Household Income


Arctic Slope












Bristol Bay

















Naknek-King Salmon *

Bristol Bay






Bering Strait






Bering Strait





* Except for King Salmon, each community is a certified Alaska Native village under P.L. 92-203. 1990 population and income data from Department of Labor, State of Alaska.

These large regional centers, with their borough government and/or school district administrative offices, also serve as the conduits or processing points for most othergovernmental services --- as well as often being the location of the in-region headquarters of the various profit and non-profit Alaska Native organanizations. In effect, they are functionaly equivalent to capital cities in a developing country and, as such "core" places, they link the "periphery" or Native villages with the institutions and culture of the western state. While these regional centers are not immune from the negative pressures and processes described later in this paper, their ultimate existance is not really threatened because of the important fuction they serve within Alaskan society. Additionally, the magnitude of the infrastructure financial investment in these places makes i8t unlikely that they would ever be abandoned. However, the same cannot be said of many of the 140 year-round Native villages within the periphery --- particularly the 34 very small villages or communities under 100 that are examined in this paper (see Table Two). Even wilth population consolidation overt time and a current high Alaska Native birth rate, these very small places still consititute one quarter of all Alaska Native inhabited settlements in western Alaska.

Table Two: Peripheral Alaska Native Communities By ANCSA Region



Arctic Slope


Bristol Bay













































































The Economy of Small Villages

Western Alaska’s smallest villages typically are inland or riverine villages having a population of around 60 people. Culturally, they are most likely to be Athabascan, Yupik, or Yupik-Aleut. Given the inextricable links between these small places and the larger market economy, any examination of their future must primarily focus on their economic structure. However, any description from afar of these economic systems can, at best, only provide a brief glimpse of their structural characteristics. At ground level, they are anything but simple, static systems, as survival - today as well as yesterday --- depends on the ability of individuals and communities to be highly responsive to irregular opportunities. Like all of western Alaska, the inhabitants of these villages participate in a mixed economy buttressed by year-round subsistence pursuits and various combinations of (1) regular wage employment, usually outside of the community (e.g., fire-fighting), (2) seasonal income-generating activities (e.g., trapping ), and (3) periodic transfer payments.


Table Three: 1990 Median Household Income











$10,000 -19,999
























*Includes Inupiaq village of Alatna that is part of the Doyon Athabascan ANCSA region. Source: Alaska Department of Labor (n.d.)


The median household income levels for the small Athabascan communities ranges from $32,500 in a highway community composed predominantly of non-Natives to $5,032 in a Kutchin trapping community, while in the Yupik-Aleut communities it ranges from $41,250 in the commercial fishing area of Bristol Bay to $5,156 in the inland upper Kuskokwim (see Table Three for a frequency breakdown of these income levels by type of place). When you factor in household size, the high cost of transportation, and limited commercial alternatives, well over half of these villages actually are low income places, at least as measured by Alaskan median household income levels. The statewide Alaska Federation of Natives seems to have had non-highway places without commercial fishing opportunities in mind when, commenting on the economic crisis in rural Alaska, it recently stated:

Over the past two decades, the federal and state governments have invested millions of dollars in rural Alaska. Although important improvements have been made (e.g., public works and improved delivery of government services) the investment has not established an economic base sufficient to enable Natives living in rural villages to build an economically self-sustaining future or to prevent the accelerated disintegration of traditional cultures. (Alaska Federation of Natives 1989:1)

The Alaska Federation of Natives further states that:

In western Alaska, as each decade succeeds the last, the idea that private sector economic development is merely a matter of time and capital becomes increasingly implausible. Villages in the region are remote from markets; lack arable land, timber, energy and mineral resources; are saddled with high labor, energy, transportation, and communication costs and must contend with a dearth of local markets and a scarcity of investment capital (1989:47).

Absent a viable private sector economy, most villages in rural Alaska participate in and are highly dependent upon the transfer economy. Huskey's (1992) recent explication of the 'transfer economy' found in Western Coastal Alaska accurately describes the economic situation found throughout village Alaska.

The transfer economy of villages is based on money and services the state and federal governments provide. Transfers are brought into the community, not in exchange for local resources, but as a right of citizenship in the larger [federal and state-added] governments. Alaska Natives also receive transfers as a result of their special relationship with the federal government. Transfers create income for local residents in three ways. First, the state and federal governments provide direct income payments to individuals...Second, transfers can be used to fund [public and private-added] jobs, creating wage and salary income in the villages...Finally, transfers...lower the cost of certain goods and services for village residents...(such as) schools, medical services and housing. (9)

Huskey (1992:10) estimates that 58% of the 1989 $11744. per capita income in communities within Western Coastal Alaska came directly as a result of transfer exchanges and an additional 20.8% might be attributable to transfer related spending in the support sector. Since these data include regional centers as well as small places, my guess is that the per capita income figure is higher than you would find in the smaller communities, but that the import of transfer exchanges would be even higher in the small places.

Communities in Crisis

Almost any observer of contemporary rural Alaska sooner or later begins to frame his or her observations within some type of crisis perspective, be it a language-loss crisis, a social pathology crisis, or an educational achievement crisis. The immediacy and severity of the observed phenomena, the pace of change, and the seeming absence of corrective action all contribute to viewing village Alaska within a crisis framework. These crises do exist and periodically result in sponsored programs of intense study and perceptive recommendations. The current Alaska Natives Commission, a joint federal -state commission dealing with policies and programs affecting Alaska Natives, is but the latest in a long line of well-intentioned attempts to "get it right" in rural Alaska. This section of this paper attempts to briefly describe the major and interrelated economic and political reasons why it might be desirable to view the future of small Alaska Native communities within this prevailing crisis framework.

First, however, it is necessary to indicate that there already seems to be a fairly definite trend of small place population loss throughout village Alaska. Over time, western Alaska has not avoided the worldwide historical trend of small places being merged into, absorbed by, or abandoned in favor of larger communities. In fact, most present day Alaska Native communities are amalgam communities formed around one or more western institutional structures that induced kin based groups or others to move from seasonal settlements and take up permanent residence in these new communities. While contemporary Alaska Native population dynamics merit a separate discussion, it is clear that the size of the 34 small villages has been steadily declining over the last two decades (see Table Four). Similarly, total state population declined approximately 6.2% from 1970 to 1980 and a further 6.8% from 1980 to 1990 whereas the Native American population was experiencing dramatic increases, primarily natural increases over the same period of time --- 26.7% from 1970 to 1980 and another 33.7 % from 1980 to 1990 (calculated from Alaska Department of Labor 1991a:19). Assuming that the rate of natural increase for the small communities does not differ significantly from that of the general Native population, the declining population in the small places is primarily due to a fairly substantial degree of out-migration and, in this respect, the population of small places conforms to the general " . . . gradual movement of Alaska Natives from small rural native villages to larger mainly white urban centers (Alaska Department of Labor 1991a:42)."


Table Four: Average and Median Community Size

Census Year

Total Population

Average Size

Median Size

















There are too many gaps in the pre-1970 data to include them. If the five communities "missing" in the 1970 were factored in at an average size of 67, then the total 1970 population would be 2,357, confirming a declining population trend.


The Alaska economy, as is well known, is heavily dependent on technologically-driven natural resource extraction, with a minimum of value-adding forward-processing linkages. Over 85% of the state’s income is derived from one source --- oil exports --- and in the 1970s and '80s, the state liberally spent this windfall on a wide range of programs and projects that provided benefits to both rural and urban Alaska. However, with the steady decline in oil reserves and little prospect for finding new reserves or a comparable source of money elsewhere, Alaska is being quickly propelled into a budget crisis of massive proportions (e.g., see Goldsmith 1992). Over the next decade, it is quite probable that the state will need to institute some type of individual taxation system, eliminate all or part of its generous but questionable individual dividend program, and/or institute dramatic cuts in the level of state governmental expenditures. All of these will severely impact the economies of village Alaska. We already see that cuts in state expenditures in rural areas have resulted in job losses, the inability of rural communities to maintain facilities built during the oil boom, and some curtailment in services. Given the importance of the transfer economy in village Alaska and the necessity today of having adequate cash resources to engage in subsistence pursuits, it is easy to see that all of village Alaska is at economic risk. In the small communities, this risk is exacerbated by the possibility that the state will require some type of "optimum service-population size" for the receipt of such services as schools, health centers, potable water facilities, or airport runways. The state has already floated a trial balloon about relocating small rural villages and forming new and presumably larger, central places around development projects that " . . make more economic sense [as] the state is pouring millions of dollars into villages that have no revenue-generating economy" (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 1991:5).

If the transfer economy is eroded, residents throughout village Alaska will have to depend on private sector economic activities in order to obtain the cash necessary if they wish to continue subsistence pursuits. Unfortunately, as was previously mentioned, private sector opportunities are not widespread and, in the small villages, they are pretty much restricted to commercial use of renewable resource stocks, particularly fish and fur-bearing animals. These activities, in turn, are regulated by government agencies which often support biological goals rather than commercial ones. Because the smallest villages are primarily inland communities, they are particularly dependent upon seasonal trapping activities for a significant part of their private sector income and, thus, they are uniquely affected by the increasingly strident activities of animal protection movements (see Hansen 1991).

Another and perhaps the most critical threat to small villages is the complex war over whether or not Alaska Natives have preferential subsistence rights on state and federal lands, an area containing 88% of Alaska's lands. Battles are being unabatedly waged on cultural, economic, political, and legal fronts with, as yet, no clear winners. To date, Alaska Native subsistence claims have been recognized by the federal government, but denied by the state. This confusing situation undermines the cultural and economic foundations of village Alaska, and the vitality of Native communities - particularly small communities - demands that it be resolved in a way that is supportable by the Alaska Native community.

Community Survival

While Alaska Native communities have displayed a remarkable degree of resilience in the face of massive changes and indeed are buttressed by their special relationship with the federal government, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for many of the small, inland Native communities to survive if the state transfer cash inputs are diminished, state governmental services are discontinued, and/or subsistence rights are jeopardized. For many in Alaska, this is not a crisis. They would unequivocally respond in the negative to the title question of this paper --- "SMALL ALASKA NATIVE VILLAGES: ARE THEY WORTH SAVING?". This group seems to adopt a Social Darwinian perspective in which Alaska Native communities are no different from other rural communities throughout the world and if they cannot survive on their own merits, they do not deserve to exist. They see nothing inherently "worth saving" and certainly would oppose any public expenditures to "prop up" these communities. As Alaska's internal political power increasingly becomes more urban-based, particularly in Anchorage, and state budget levels continue their inevitable decline, this viewpoint may well win out.

I personally hope not. There are many arguments that can be advanced as to why small villages should not only be tolerated, but actually encouraged. For the purpose of discussion, I have separated these arguments into three categories --- economic, public policy, and cultural.


An often ignored economic argument is that transfer payments to villages ultimately end up as village expenditures that support urban Alaska (Bradner: C-1). This delayed multiplier actually has a "best of all world ‘s effect" as both urban and rural Alaska benefit as opposed to the funds just being transferred into the urban economy. This exchange also provides the potential capital for increased diversification throughout the Alaska economy as opposed to having an economy dependent upon "elephant" sized resource stocks or deposits (Bradner: C-3).

A more direct, if unpalatable argument for many urban Alaskans, is that the economic wealth of the state has been generated solely by rural resources and that economic justice demands that the state should return a portion of those resources to the rural areas. This complex argument proceeds along the lines of the classical center-periphery, development of underdevelopment perspective, which certainly seems to have historical validity in western Alaska.

Public Policy

A basic policy reason for continuing a transfer payment system in rural Alaska is constitutional equity. The state of Alaska has based its opposition to an Alaska Native subsistence preference on the basis that it is unconstitutional since it denies all Alaskans access to resources. At a superficial level, it seems that you could argue it would be similarly unconstitutional to deny individuals benefit of state programs based on their geographical location within the state.

A pragmatic policy reason for not abandoning the rural areas is the possibility, albeit a remote one, of western Alaska achieving recognition as the 51st state. Because of the subsistence bottleneck and a state administration that is perceived to be hostile to Alaska Native interests, investigations are already underway into the possibility of rural Alaska becoming a new state. Should a new state be created, the rural resource wealth that now supports the state of Alaska would primarily be controlled by the new state. This, in turn, obviously would result in a new political economy landscape for the northern most regions of the United States.


For some people, the distinctiveness of the small village simply makes it an attractive alternative to the social context of the regional or urban center. This is not to say that small villages are isolated from the widespread self-destructive behaviors found throughout Alaskan society --- particularly rural society: suicide, homicide, interpersonal violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, child abuse, etc. These behaviors exact a terrible toll on Alaskans and might even be more severely felt in the context of a small village. In fact, one could even argue that these behaviors pose another set of threats to the existence of small villages. Conversely, one could argue that the scale of the small villages might allow folks to manage and eventually eliminate these all too widespread behaviors.

The small village pattern also provides the industrialized world with a positive adaptation model that might be successfully employed by contemporary and future societies (Griffiths and Young 1989). This long range perspective is best articulated by Alaska's Inupiaq people who have stated:

When the development is gone, the tax bases are gone, and the jobs are gone, we are determined that our descendents will survive, just as our ancestors ensured our continuity. This survival depends on the survival and maintenance of our Arctic wildlife and the minimal disturbances of the Arctic environment and wildlife habitats. If we as a culture are not to become a seriously endangered species, Inuit subsistence traditions must continue and be allowed to survive (Brower and Stotts:325).

The small Native village provides optimum opportunities for the effective continuation of a traditional, subsistence-centered lifestyle, a lifestyle which reflects ". . . unique hunting and fishing rights as well as the complex web of cultural practices, social relationships, and economic rewards associated with these rights" (Case 1989:1009). Life in a small village is as close as you will get today to "traditional indigenous" society and, as such, it needs to continue so that the ever increasing numbers of urban Alaska Natives have a cultural mirror to help shape their own identities. This "pattern of culture" (Benedict 1960) is the embodiment of a rich tradition that has existed for thousands of years and which, if for no other reason, should be continued as part of the world’s collective heritage.

In selecting the title for this paper, I was quite uneasy about including the phrase "are they worth saving" as it reflects a colonial arrogance all too prevalent in Alaska's history whereby outsiders, primarily non-Natives, have assumed it was their right to determine what is best for Native communities. However, the phraseology is not mine. As early as 1980, the state of Alaska established a Rural Development Council to consider such questions as "Should rural communities continue to exist even if there is no viable economic base other than state support?" and "How far should the state go toward guaranteeing the survival of rural Alaska?" (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 1980:2). As recently as November 15 of this year, an Anchorage newspaper article raised questions such as "Can we, or should we, really do anything about sustaining rural communities?" (Bradner: C-3).

Unfortunately, in this particular case, the political and economic global realities are such that the decisions by external institutions may have more import for village survival than whatever communities do themselves. Villages can, must, and no doubt will do some things to expand their local economies and thus, their survival possibilities, e.g., ecotourism. But, government has assumed such an enormous role in village Alaska that it essentially will determine the future of the small villages. If government, especially the state government, chooses to respond to the Social Darwinists, small villages will have a very problematic future as self-reliant systems. If, on the other hand, government recognizes the need to support and preserve the cultural vitality and diversity that villages reflect, then it must explicitly acknowledge and advocate this as a desirable goal and, in equal partnership with village Alaskans, it must attempt to further the village as a viable form of adaptation, not as a historical relic. This, in turn, will require a "place oriented" as opposed to a "people oriented" development strategy (Huskey:18) based on a sound understanding of villages and their economies, especially the subsistence foundation.

The theme of the recently completed 26th Annual Convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives was "Alaska Native Survival: A Call for Action". This is not merely rhetoric; it is reality and reflects an awareness on the part of Native leaders of the real threat that is facing Native communities today: their cultural survival as a distinct people. Small villages have a vital role to play in this struggle.


Alaska Department of Labor. 1991a. Alaska Population Overview: 1990. Census and Estimates. Juneau: State of Alaska.
1991b. AKCENS: Bulletin of the Alaska State Data Center. 8 (3). Juneau: State of Alaska. n.d. Median Income for Alaska Places-1990 Census of Population and Housing, STF3A. State Data Center. Juneau: State of Alaska

Alaska Federation of Natives. 1989. The AFN Report on the Status of Alaska Natives: A Call for Action. Anchorage: Alaska Federation of Natives.

Benedict, Ruth. 1960. Patterns of Culture. New York: New American Library.

Bradner, Tim. 1992. Prosperous Bush good for cities, too. Anchorage Daily News. November. 15: C-1 and C-3.

Brower, Eugene and James Stotts. 1984. Arctic Policy: The Local/Regional Perspective. In United States Arctic Interests: The 1980’s and 1990’s. W.E Westermeyer and K.M. Shusterich, eds. Pp. 319-344. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Case, David. 1989. Subsistence and Self-Determination: Can Alaska Natives Have a More "Effective Voice"?. University of Colorado Law Review 60: 1009-1035.

Dubbs, Patrick J. 1988. Another Development" in Rural Alaska. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Regional Science Association. Napa. February. 1991. Arctic Atolls: Small State Theory and Rural Development in Alaska. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Regional Science Association. Monterey, February. 1992. Sustainable Development and Indigenous People: Authors and Actors in Rural Alaska. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Regional Science Association. South Lake Tahoe. February.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 1980. Panel set up to ponder villages' future. November 20:2. 1991. Olds suggests it may make more sense to move villages for economics. May 16:5.

Goldsmith, Scott. 1992. Safe Landing: A Fiscal Strategy for the 1990s. Anchorage: Institute of Social and Economic Research. University of Alaska Anchorage. ISER Fiscal Policy Paper #7.

Griffiths, Franklyn and Oran R. Young. 1989. Sustainable Development and the Arctic. Nuuk, Greenland: Working Working Group on Arctic International Relations. Report 1989-1.

Hansen, Bente, ed. 1991. Arctic Environment: Indigenous Perspectives. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. IWGIA Document 69.

Huskey, Lee. 1992. The Economy of Village Alaska. Anchorage: Institute of Social and Economic Research. University of Alaska Anchorage.


I have arbitrarily defined Western Alaska as the area of Alaska that is separate from the north Pacific Rim. It can be argued that locational factors historically have resulted in the communities of western Alaska being impacted differently than were the Pacific Rim Native societies. These factors may well result in a different future for the communities of western Alaska. As such, it does not include communities in the following ANCSA regions: Aleutian-Pribliof, Cook Inlet, Chugach, Koniag and Sealaska. This distinction also excludes 5 Bristol Bay ANCSA communities from consideration as they are located on the Pacific Rim.

I have elaborated upon a variety of sustainable development considerations related to Alaskan rural communities in other papers (Dubbs 1988, 1991 and 1992) and this section primarily summarizes some of these previous considerations.


The essays assembled in this collection reflect over 30 years of first hand observation of, and participation in Native education and rural development in Alaska.




Part I: Alaska Native Education

Cultural Definitions in Educational Programs

The Log School: A Case for Appropriate Design (with Ray Barnhardt)

Alaska Native Education and Development Ideologies

Part II - Rural Development in Alaska

Organizational Congruence and ANCSA

Another Development in Rural Alaska

Decolonizing Economics

The Whale and the Co-op: The Emerging Issue of Animal Rights in Rural Alaska

Arctic Atolls: Small State Theory and Rural Development in Alaska

Sustainable Development and Indigenous People: Authors and Actors in Rural Alaska

Small Alaska Native Villages: Are They Worth Saving?



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