Native Alaskans Defend Tradition

Rights groups efforts depress prices; members contend saving animals is worth cost of lifestyle. FUR TRAPPING

FORT YUKON, an Athabascan Indian village on the Arctic Circle in interior Alaska, is more than 2,200 miles from the glitter of Hollywood. But fur trappers in that Yukon River village say they feel the sting of that city's celebrity-led anti-fur movement close at hand. In the past three years the animal-rights movement has depressed prices for furs like lynx and fox, causing great hardship in interior Alaska, says Clarence Alexander, Fort Yukon's Athabascan chief.

The native people get their food and clothing from the land, but use cash for staples like fuel, ammunition, and flour, says Mr. Alexander, who grew up tending family trap lines that stretched into the Arctic wilderness.

``We don't have any economic base, other than the industry that we're involved in, which is fur,'' the chief says. ``Eighty percent of the people in the rural communities out there are totally dependent on that.''

Now native trappers, who say they are angry at being portrayed as savages who kill innocent animals, are fighting back.

The 500-member Yukon Flats Fur Cooperative plans to sell furs trapped and sewn in traditional native fashion with special ``Authentic Alaska Native Product'' labels. The parkas, hats, mittens, and other items will be marketed to those who want to support Alaska's native culture.

Alexander, the co-op's president, and other Alaska native leaders are traveling the world to argue that fur trapping is an essential element of living off the land in the North. They are making speeches, planning talk-show appearances, and mapping out museum exhibits to teach the world about the North. It is an uphill battle for the natives, who lack the animal-rights groups' funding, media savvy, and celebrity endorsements.

``They have millions of dollars to combat who we are and what we are,'' he says. ``It's our whole way of life that they're challenging.''

Some Alaska natives deeply resent what they say are the efforts of urban whites to impose a foreign value system.

``People are sitting back there getting donations. ... They don't have to live off the land,'' says Matthew Iya, a Nome Eskimo,

In Alaska, where trapping is a repected tradition, even city residents defend the beleaguered fur industry, worth about $10 million to the state.

Small bands of fur fans, proudly wearing fur garments, carried pickets to demonstrate that support at February's Fur Rendezvous, a two-week Anchorage winter carnival. They also clashed with small groups of anti-fur demonstrators at the festival.

In this state, where rural schoolchildren, North Slope oil field workers, and others wear fur daily as protection from the cold, arguments that fur is a vanity item are quickly countered with claims that fur is necessary for survival. In Fort Yukon, temperatures this winter plunged to more than 50 degrees below zero for a month and a half.

``You won't walk around out there with a nylon outfit, no way,'' he says. On the other hand, ``anytime you wear a native garment you are guaranteed to survive.''

But animal-rights activists contend the arctic environment is irrelevant to their cause. ``People in New York City do not need to wear fur coats,'' says Ann Chynoweth, a researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The organization's position is that the natives' trapping-based subsistence lifestyle is not worth saving, Ms. Chynoweth says. ``If they have to change their lifestyle to protect those animals, it's not a great loss,'' she says.

Native trappers say they are mystified by animal-rights activists' claims that they are environmentalists. ``Animal-rights groups are to protect all animals and stop all killings. Environmentalists are to protect the environment,'' Mr. Iya says. ``There's a big difference between animal-rights groups and environmentalists.''

Native leaders also point out that the synthetic fibers animal-rights activists urge on consumers are petroleum-derived, while fur is a renewable and recyclable resource. Trappers who live off the land have an incentive to protect the environment, they say.

``They manage the land, they manage the resource and at the same time they don't deplete the resource because it is their livelihood,'' Alexander said. Alaska's environmental leaders, too, stress that they are not anti-fur.

``We usually, at Greenpeace, look at the ecosystem as a whole,'' says Cindy Lowry, who heads that organization's Alaska chapter. ``We're not anti-trapping or anti-hunting, although we do have positions on certain practices.''

Cliff Eames, issues director for the Anchorage-based Alaska Center for the Environment, says his organization supports trapping in rural Alaska ``as long as it is managed so animal populations are not threatened.''

Larry Merculieff, Alaska's commissioner of commerce, is an Aleut who grew up on the Bering Sea's Pribilof Islands. Animal-rights groups, he says, promote polluting activities that destroy wildlife habitat. He points to the successful campaign in the early 1980s to ban the fur-seal harvest off the Pribilof Islands, which threw the Aleuts there into years of poverty.

Eventually, the islanders settled on bottomfish processing as their only economic alternative to the fur harvest. A processor, scheduled to open this year, will bring 2,000 workers, industrial development, and further depletion of bottomfish stocks to a once-pristine environment.

``That alone may be more disruptive, more destructive to wildlife habitat and lifestyle than any disruption that may have occurred over 10,000 years,'' he says.

But Tom Morse, an Anchorage anti-fur activist and a University of Alaska-Anchorage physics professor, says natives who use snowmobiles and surround themselves with other trappings of the cash economy have forfeited their right to kill animals for fur.

``Once they start selling it to the white man, then it's not subsistence,'' Mr. Morse says.

Natives who claim special subsistence rights, including the right to trap animals for fur, should live off the land without cash and modern technology, as their forefathers did, he says.

Such arguments do not impress natives like Merculieff.

``Any culture, no matter where it is in the world, cannot be stagnant,'' he says. ``There has to be an economic link between that culture and the rest of the world.''

He plans to work full-time to unite the world's aboriginal peoples in a cultural-preservation campaign after his term as commerce commissioner expires. A worldwide political and educational program is needed, he says. Anything less is doomed to fail.

``Within 20 years I could see the entire system for use of animal byproducts totally destroyed,'' Merculieff says.

One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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