Dynamic Subsistence Societies
By Paul Ongtooguk
Subsistence societies were dynamic. They made decisions and changes within their cycle of life based on experience and new knowledge. Continuous settlements in Wales and Point Hope, where there are several major marine mammal populations that migrate according to normally predictable patterns, may date back for eight thousand years. Barrow and St. Lawrence Island share similar migratory populations and similar histories of settlement.
Over time trading patterns developed. For example, people would leave in the summer from Diomede and trade in locations as far away as Athapaskan territory. Smoked moose hide and copper were highly valued on Diomede and seal oil and ivory were offered to the Athapaskans in trade. At Onion Portage on the Kobuk River there is a pass between the mountains that can be used to cross the river. If the caribou are killed on the river banks, they can be transported by water to the campsite. Caribou have been hunted at this location for hundreds of years. The gathering of sea bird eggs followed traditional rules. If there were four eggs in the nest, you took only two; if only one egg then you took every other one. Only dynamic societies, societies that develop and change in response to changing circumstances and knowledge, survive and prosper over the ages.
Changing technology also impacted cycles of life. For example, in the far North, the development and refinement of the design of the kayak changed the possibilities for ocean travel and harvesting. The kayak allowed hunting in broken sea ice conditions, and this led to new places and times for hunting in the cycle of life. Another example is the invention of the throwing board. It increased the leverage of a hunter using a spear so that that the efficiency and range for hunting were improved and expanded. The bow and arrow, probably first learned from the Siberians, were adapted over time by reinforcing the wood with hide to make the bow stronger and more powerful. Bolas with several weights, one of which would wrap around the bird, and harpoons with detachable points, one of which would float and serve as a marker for more strikes are more examples of the creativity of these nomadic, subsistence societies.
Each of the traditional Alaska Native cultures developed systems of sophisticated knowledge related to cycles of life. To truly understand traditional cultures these dynamic patterns and networks of knowledge must be uncovered and explored.