When we were first developing our company, we at ACE had to convince the Native Corporations that: 1) not developing their lands to bring benefit for all their shareholders (Native Corp. shareholders are the original inhabitants of the land) was a benefit to the shareholder base; and 2) this will help with the changing climate. Akiachak Ltd. is our first client, and first early adopter of using ACE as a tool for the community of the Native Corp.
Alaska is a vast land of many different peoples, from many different landscapes and cultures. In Western Alaska, about 70 miles up the Kuskokwim River from where it feeds in to the Kuskokwim Bay, the Kusquqvagmiut of Akiachuk, a Yup'ik people (or Yupiit for plural), build a community rich in the traditions of the culture and experienced with in modern concepts. The village was recorded as "Akiakchagamiut" in the 1890 census and at the time, was used by the Kusquqvagmiut as a seasonal subsistence site, and had a population of 43. A post office was established in 1934 and, the community incorporated as a second-class city on February 7, 1974. The people that inhabit the village are more widely known as Eskimo. The name probably originated from an indigenous people's language in north eastern Canada known as Montagnais of the Innu. Although the belief that it was an uncomplimentary term meaning "eater of raw flesh" is erroneous, the exact meaning is unknown with 3 other possibilities. The people refer to themselves as Kusquqvagmiut (People on the Big River), Yup'ik (the real people). This self-designation derives from the word for "person" (yuk) plus the post-base “piak”, meaning "real" or "genuine."
The physical environment that the Akiachuk, Yup'ik live in is a rich and varied one, and not at all the frozen wasteland of popular imagination. The abundance and relative predictability of western Alaska's natural resource allowed the Kusquqvagmiut to establish permanent settlements along the river. The population moved annually, but within a fixed range and was thus relatively settled, even in pre-contact days. Today, about 700 people are enrolled tribal members of the Akiachak Native Community.
Traditional, Alaska Natives live a life of hunting & gathering nutrition sources in what is known as subsistence. In modern times, subsistence activities still provide most of the food, but Akiachak village residents rely on seasonal employment as well to help meet modern needs. Commercial fishing, construction, and BLM fire-fighting are some cases that provide the financial resource. Living off the land has taught much to the village residents, and in some instances, that subsistence knowledge helps to provide food and income. Fishermen need permits to fish, and in 2011, 69 residents held commercial fishing permits to use what they know to provide an income. Some use the familiarity of working with fish to help as they worked at canneries in Bristol Bay. People live on the fish they've caught, the moose they've killed, the paycheck they earned, and the box of cereal that can costs as much as double what most of the nation pays. Poor fish returns since 1997 have significantly affected the community.
In June of 2012, Alaska State Troopers seized 21 nets and 1,100 pounds of salmon from subsistence fishermen in Southwest Alaska. The seizures came during a subsistence fishing closure on the Lower Kuskokwim River due to the low salmon runs that have hammered cash-poor village residents who rely heavily on salmon. State and federal wildlife officers issued 33 criminal misdemeanors citations in all. Two nearby communities -- Tuntutuliak and Akiak -- issued resolutions or statements encouraging residents to fish despite the government ban. Part of ACE's commitment is to protect land, but allow for traditional uses that don't affect the sequestration value of the land. It is our hope to be a part of the solution for subsistence use sustainability.
Naturally subsistence involves harvesting, distributing and consuming resources. These activities included important social and religious components; one of the most important is the distribution and exchange of subsistence products within families, between families and groups, and with Native groups outside a group's territory. This almost morally mandated action of helping others perpetuated the interdependence model that the community developed over its history, vs. the independent model that modern western thinking incorporates into its thought process.
Today, the community still holds strong ties to their relatives up and down the Kuskokwim. Families join other families from different villages to create new families; sometimes people just move, and year round extracurricular activities, like sport competitions keeps personal interaction flowing. The youth and adults from all the Kuskokwim River villages have teams that compete with other village's team in modern indoor sports such as basketball and volleyball; outdoor sports like snowmachine races and snowshoe race, and also the old traditional games such as the Alaskan high kick and the ear pull. The relations can be documented since the initial settlement of the Kusquqvagmiut, and it is maintained with the continued natural movement of a people.
According to archeologists, around 1,900 B.C a band of Yup'iit, now known as Kusquqvagmiut, started to move in from the coast and up the Kuskokwim as far up as Crow Village. Overall, the Yup'ik community in general is quite large and includes the lowland delta of western Alaska, including the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Togiak, and Nushagak rivers, as well as the Bering Sea coast lying between them. Innumerable sloughs and streams crisscross the coastal tundra, covering close to half the surface of the land with water and creating the traditional highways of its Native peoples.
In the case of interregional hostilities between bands, two or more villages might form an alliance against the opposing group. Although interregional alliances changed over time, the relative stability of the Kusquqvagmiut prior to the arrival of the Russians indicates their strength and importance in organizing interregional relations. The arrival of the Russians did little to alter the principles of village and regional political organization, although the subsequent population decline decreased the size and influence of leading families.
Akiachak has always been a strong, traditional community, and in 1987, it became the first city in Alaska to dissolve its city government in favor of a more traditional tribal council. The tribal members agreed that this would help them maintain native customs like; the language, the care and respect for elders, and the refusal to waste food like salmon and caribou, which is important in a fishing and subsistence lifestyle. To show an example of the significance of these resources, take the Yup'ik word for salmon 'neqa'. The literal translation means food.
Part of having a strong community is to develop the youth by investing in them. Some urban Alaskans sometimes complain about how much money gets spent on education in the Alaskan Bush schools, but it is difficult for anyone not from a remote home to comprehend what it's like to struggle with off-the-road freight costs, crumbling facilities, high teacher turnover and disheartened students. It's not like residents can go to a hardware store to get tools needed to fix problems. It's important to always be thinking a year ahead. Rural residents have different components of the same goals. We all want to provide strong tools for our youth to grow.
Educational planning for the village's future involves daily challenge of preserving the Yup'ik culture, while preparing the youth for their future in the 21st century. In the modern setting of a western American school, all instructions, from kindergarten through second grade, are taught in the Yup'ik language. In third grade, a transition to English will begin. This gives the youth a perspective that is strong in the Yup'ik understanding of the world.
On the other end of the educational scale, the Yupiit School District board has mandated that staff take a university-level course in Yup'ik thought and culture. The program, dubbed "Yaaveskaniryaraq" -- "moving forward" – is an accredited program based on the Clemente Course in the Humanities that originated in New York. The Yupiit School District consists of three Native villages east of Bethel: Akiachak (site of district headquarters), Akiak and Tuluksak. An approach like this helps teaches to be strong proponents of the local culture, a role that wasn't always filled by government educators.
Culture is prevalent throughout the village. On many levels, you can find a unique blend of Yup'ik & modern America. A local elder was part of a federal lawsuit demanding that election ballots and referendum questions also be provided in the Yup'ik language. In education, it is not at all unusual to hear lessons being taught to a first grader in Yup'ik, and then to watch that child go to the computer lab and function fluently in English on the Internet.
Even in the decision making the community looks to the Yup'ik values & culture for direction. Traditionally, Yupiit had no formal organization to make political decisions. Leadership was vested in the respected Elders of large and well-respected families and individuals. When major decisions were required or serious problems arose in a village requiring the village members to respond in unison, they did so, but only when numerous extended families were affected. Today, decision making system still involve the values by voting for respectable village members to sit on the tribal council, Native Corp. Boards, and, civic leaders. One of the prevalent advantages of this leadership system is the familiarity brought on by knowing the prospective leaders from the time they were kids.
The Yup'ik moral guidelines of life, if taught from the earliest years, teach children how to live as a good person, and it produced a high degree of social control within the traditional society. In the old days, if these rules were broken or ignored, mechanisms of social control, such as; gossip, ostracism, teasing, ridicule, and social withdrawal were traditionally important, and still are today. And we all thought gossiping was just a waste of energy.
As life progresses and changes, these values and guidelines will help the people of Akiachak to meet new challenges with unity and understanding. Challenges like the rising prices of gasoline and heating fuel that have forced some families to double up or move away, and the erosion problem that threatens the land under the village itself. In the Army Corp. of Engineers ALASKA BASELINE EROSION ASSESSMENT, Erosion Information Paper - Akiachak, Alaska the community has periodic erosion along the Kuskokwim River that is reportedly contribute to by melting permafrost and periodic high river flow and water level fluctuations, flooding, ice jams, and spring break up. The riverbank has reportedly been eroding at an average rate of 10 feet per year. The erosion area is along a 10 to 15-foot-high bank 500 to 2,000 feet from most of the community. Potential structures and facilities threatened by erosion include fuel tanks and pumps, drying racks, smokehouses, road sections, power poles, telephone poles, cable poles, power generators, local sewage lagoon, sites of significant cultural and archeological value, and the airport runway and facilities. Many are less than 100 feet from the active erosion area.
Today, tribal customs and the Internet contend for the attention of the younger & older generations. In some ways, they mix. On Facebook & Twitter, live updates can show what is going on in the lives of our people statewide. Videos of dance performances, family events, Native game competitions, and anything else the people feel is relevant to post can be seen by the whole community, even if they couldn't attend. But in other ways, it pulls many apart. Many kids and adults meet online to talk. It used to be that they had to visit each other for a status update. Everyone used to check on each other with an appearance to their home. Now, many of the younger generations and some of the older ones inbox a message or tag each other in posts to show others what they have been doing. The culture and community do mix with the online tools of the village, and ACE, hopes to be an addition to the community toolbox to provide for positive outcomes. ACE can work with the Alaskan Native Corporation to incorporate corporate obligation with the traditional obligations to provide for the community (shareholder base).