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

The Whale and the Co-op:

The Emerging Issue of Animal Rights and Alaska Native

© Patrick J. Dubbs

Land, Economic Development and Cultural Survival Panel
Committee on Environmental Issues in Anthropology
Council on Anthropology and Education
American Anthropological Association
1988 Annual Meeting - November 18, 1988
Phoenix, Arizona

For three weeks or so in October, the saga of the attempted rescue of three gray whales trapped in the ice off Barrow, Alaska became an on-going, ever-expanding news event which provided many of us with a welcome relief from the rhetoric of the election campaign. Yet, the rescue itself quickly generated its own rhetoric. For example, Newsweek magazine entitled its three page story "Just One Mammal Helping Another" (October 31, 1988) while one of James Kilpatrick's nationally syndicated columns was entitled "Whale rescue showed best of humankind" (November 2, 1988). The otherwise restrained Christian Science Monitor even captioned its short photo essay as "U.S., Soviets join in whale 'summit'" (October 27, 1988).

I realize that, for many onlookers, the presumed rescue of the whales was indeed an uplifting, "best of all worlds" type of activity —especially since they are such magnificent creatures who now are on the endangered species list. My guess is we probably would have seen a different scenario had they been the three hummingbirds of Fresno. Nonetheless, the event occurred, countless hours and well over one million dollars were spent on "saving" two whales and we are now in a position to assess the event from a multitude of perspectives.

In the interest of brevity and to avoid what syndicated columnist Jim Fain has alluded to as the pointless moralist perspective, i.e., Moralists who denounce the expenditure of millions on a brace of whales ignore the fact that we lavish more on professional wrestling. The argument is as pointless as it is ancient. If show business and social work competed in a perfect society, Madonna would not make more than Mother Teresa. We have to deal with isness, not oughtness. (October 28, 1988).

I will restrain myself and not focus my remarks on the ironies inherent in the tragedy of the three young Inupiaq children who were trapped in a house fire in Barrow and who died while the rescue of the three whales proceeded nearby. Rather, I will direct this paper to an area I have been concerned with for several years of sustainable local level development for small rural northern communities and more specifically, how I perceive this type of animal-media event to be both a direct threat to this type of development as well as to indigenous Alaskan cultures as we know them. Any schema for sustainable development in rural Alaska that will meet the needs of the current and next generation as well as "preserve" and/or continue the evolution of Alaska Native rural cultures must be inextricably tied to the land. These indigenous cultures were and, more importantly, are land-based cultures whose practitioners gain both physical sustenance and spiritual definition from the land. Today's mixed rural economy of subsistence consumption and local harvesting for export is inescapably dependent upon access to land-based renewable resources. It is also, as Ross and Usher (1986:148) point out, ...increasingly vulnerable to events and decisions beyond its knowledge and control. Commodity price instability, inflation, resource-management policies, environmental alteration or degradation, economic development and social welfare policies, technological innovations--all emanate from the dominant industrial economy and can have profound effects on the local economy as well.

In late 1985, in the Upper Yukon (Yukon Flats) area of Interior Alaska, the tribal government organizations of ten small communities [with a total population of around 1500] got together to form the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments (CATG) for the purpose of reducing the region's historical vulnerability to external events and decisions. Their goal was and is to develop an appropriate, locally controlled approach to sustainable development in their region which will allow for the continued viability of both their communities and their culture. Quite naturally, CATG decided to focus its initial efforts on the enhancement of components within its existing land-based mixed economy and decided to concentrate on the fur industry because " is an integral part of the subsistence way of life in the Yukon Flats, it utilizes a renewable resource that is readily available,...the technical skills required by the industry are already in place [and it] will bring more immediate benefits to the trappers who represent an economic distribution network that reaches every family in the Yukon Flats region (Stanley quoted by Hansen 1988:19)." Given the historical price volatility of the fur market and the capriciousness and monopolistic tendencies of the transient fur buyers, CATG decided its most appropriate response to the fur industry would be to form a marketing cooperative to act as a middleman between the fur market and the trapper and thereby realize better prices for the trapper. With support from an Administration of Native Americans grant and a loan from a Canadian fur auction company, the Yukon Flats Fur Cooperative was incorporated under state law in June of 1987 (Hansen 1988:19). In addition to achieving market equity and stability, the cooperative's long term goals include such activities as providing cheaper supplies, building storage and tanning facilities, developing a local fur garment production capability, and, in conjunction with the local school district, carrying out educational programs geared to training people to be better able to participate in existing and new economic opportunities within the region (Hansen 1988:20). In this region, the fur cooperative clearly is intended to be the cornerstone of a locally controlled sustainable development strategy.

Ironically, the fur cooperative and the local mixed economy which supports the cultural base of the region are threatened by the very system that created them. The dominant Euro-american system which introduced and strongly encouraged the commercialization of fur trapping, which created widespread dislocations in northern indigenous systems, and which fostered an interlocking, pervasive system of dependency, is now the same system which is attempting to drastically alter trapping practices and/or stop fur trade altogether. If these efforts are successful, they will severely curtail attempts by indigenous Northerners to finally overcome the pervasive web of dependency as well as their attempts to begin exercising real control over their own lives. This attempt to destroy indigenous economies and cultures is carried out in the name of preserving the rights of animals, generally by those who reject "...the use of animals for any purpose that causes them suffering or death (Herscovici 1985: 19)." As an apparent member of the Animal Protection Institute of America who wrote a letter to a Fairbanks paper states: "Trappers trap for money. Destroy the fur market and I think that would end 95 percent of the trapping (Classen 1986)."

While I have no desire to see any species eliminated or "intentionally abused", I do have a desire to see the essence of cultures thousands of years old preserved. I feel animal-media events like the whale rescue, because of their distorted anthropomorphizing and misplaced sense of priorities, lend fuel to the creeping animal rights movement in Alaska and thus, become direct threats to the cultural existence of many Alaska Native societies. One need only look at the current dependent situation of the Eastern Arctic Inuit seal hunters to see how devastating the uninformed actions of the animal rights activists can be (Wiedemann 1987).

While it may be too late for the Eastern Arctic, indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic are responding to this serious threat to their existence. Indigenous Survival International, a pan-Arctic organization founded in 1984, is actively attempting to explain the indigenous position with regard to:

  1. their respect for the land and its living resources,
  2. their right to harvest the land's bounty,
  3. the traditional benefits of a spiritual and cultural link with nature and its gifts, and
  4. conservation of the land and its resources for future generations. (Indigenous Survival International [Alaska]1988).

The European Parliament recently passed a declaration of intent to support legislation that calls for "†.†.†.†a ban on leg-hold traps in Common Market nations and the labeling of imported products made from furs stripped off animals caught in steel-jawed traps (O'Donoghue 1988:1)." While this specific legislation does not call for a total boycott of trapped furs, I suspect it is the first step toward such an end. If the labeling legislation is enacted, it will directly impact indigenous Alaskan trappers as Europe is the ultimate market for many Alaskan furs and most trappers use the affordable, efficient and portable steel-jaw trap.

However, I do not think the real question here is simply the ethnocentrically-determined humanness of specific trapping devices. Rather, it is a long-standing and much larger question of whether or not the words of tribal peoples will continue to fall on deaf ears in the industrialized world. They will if the cultural and subsistence activities of indigenous Northern people continue to be viewed within the cultural framework of western nation-states. They will if indigenous cultural practices are not differentiated from the practices of the western industrial system which have despoiled the global environment. They will if people believe that the subsistence way of life is not a dynamic, responsive adaptive system anchored in the land. And finally, they will if people continue to simplistically place the rights of animals equal to or above the rights of humans.


Adler, Jerry, Lynda Wright and Bill White. 1988. Just One Mammal Helping Another. Newsweek (October 31):74-77.

Christian Science Monitor. 1988. U.S. Soviets join in whale 'summit'. October 27:3.

Classen, Thomas J. 1986. Letter to the Editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. December 16:4.

Fain, Jim. 1988. Trapped Whales a Whimsical Media Event. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. October 28:4.

Hansen, Kenneth. 1988. Community Based Enterprises In The North: Cooperatives. Unpublished Rural Development Senior Project. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Herscovici, Alan. 1985. Second Nature: The Animal Rights Controversy. Toronto: CBC Enterprises.

Indigenous Survival International. 1988. Invitational Letter to Fourth ISI Assembly. Anchorage: ISI-Alaska Steering Committee.

Kilpatrick, James. 1988. Whale Rescue Showed Best of Humankind. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. November 2:4.

O'Donoghue, Brian. 1988. European Fur-labelling Policy Would Put the Bite on Trapping. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. November 12: 1 and 8.

Ross, David P. and Peter J. Usher. 1986. From the Roots Up: Economic Development as if Community Mattered. Croton-on-Hudson, New York: The Bootstrap Press.

Wiedemann, Eric. 1987. Is Saving the Seals Killing the Eskimos?. World Press Review (July): 35-37


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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Last modified August 14, 2006