North Alaskan Eskimos - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The entire economy was based on hunting and fishing and, to a much more moderate extent, on the gathering of plant products. Whales, seals, caribou, several species of fish, and a variety of fur-bearing animals, small game, and birds provided them with all the raw materials they needed for food and clothing and, to a significant extent, for tools, weapons, and utensils as well. Wood was used in house construction and in the manufacture of some weapons and tools; leaves, berries, and some roots were collected for food. Hunting, fishing, and gathering continue to be important sources of food today, but are significantly supplemented by foodstuffs imported from regions farther south. Gardening is carried on to a very Limited extent in a few villages where soil and summer weather conditions permit. Cash income is derived from welfare payments and by employment in a variety of private commercial enterprises—particularly in the oil, mining, and service industries—and government agencies. Traditionally, the only domesticated animals were large dogs. In winter they were used to pull sleds; in summer, to track boats along the seacoast and rivers and as pack animals. For about half a Century, beginning in the 1890s, imported reindeer were raised on a relatively large scale, but that industry has declined to only a few small herds today. Cats and dogs are now kept as pets; teams of sled dogs are kept only for racing.

Industrial Arts. The North Alaskan Eskimos were noted for the quality of their work in ivory and flint. Skin sewing was developed to a high level. Beautiful birchbark baskets were made in the southern interior. Except for work in flint, these traditional manufactures are perpetuated today, skin sewing primarily for personal or family use, ivory and bone carving and basket making as a source of cash income.

Trade. Aboriginally there was a well-developed intersocietal trade network in North Alaska. It was based upon trading partnerships and implemented through two major Summer fairs and a system of winter feasts during both of which partners from different societies came together. The whole system was connected by similar links with Athapaskan Indian societies in the Alaskan interior, with other Eskimos in the Bering Strait area and southwestern Alaska, and with Eskimos and Chuckchees in easternmost Asia.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally there was a sharp division of labor based on gender. Men hunted big game, built houses, and manufactured weapons, tools, and utensils. Women looked after most game from the time it was killed: retrieving it, storing it, and performing whatever processing chores were required prior to ultimate consumption. Women also did the sewing and child rearing. Fishing, trapping, and hunting birds and small game were either men's work or women's work, with regional and seasonal variations in the precise allocation of duties. The traditional division of labor based on gender persisted with only a few modifications until the 1960s. Since then, although the pursuit of large game is still carried out Primarily by men, the great increase in the opportunities for local employment in teaching, government, and service industries has changed the primary basis of the division of labor to one's level of education and technical training rather than gender.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, land ownership was vested at the societal level; it was owned in common by all the members of the society. Within the territory of a society, its members were free to live, hunt, and fish where they wished, subject only to the provision that people who first occupied a place had the primary right to use it until they abandoned it. There was no other private ownership of land, nor were there Individual or family hunting or fishing territories. Today land ownership in North Alaska follows the pattern that exists generally in the United States; the region is a patchwork of properties owned by individuals and corporations—much of it by native corporations established under ANCSA, local governments, the state of Alaska, and various agencies of the U.S. government.

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