George Tretikoff, a 20-year-old Eskimo, went fishing last January, he said, "to survive."
But he and a friend were arrested by Alaska fish and game wardens for catching 77 rainbow trout out of season. He spent 19 days in a crowded Anchorage jail, far from his wilderness home. "I was going to commit suicide," he said. "All I could see was bars and walls."
Tretikoff says he has eaten "all kinds of food you wouldn't touch. Fishheads with maggots in them. They taste pretty good when you clean them. I have eaten moldy fish. I have experienced hunger before."
His story is the story of Alaska's aboriginal peoples - Eskimos, Indians, Aleuts - caught between two cultures. Alaska's 250 native villages are the only places left in the United States where a subsistence lifestyle of hunting and fishing remains tenuously dominant.
The alternatives are visible among Indian societies in the Lower 48: alienation, alcoholism and welfare. Yet the natives' hunger for modern amenities, the white Alaskans' maze of laws and competing interests, and the federal government's Americanization programs - all are rapidly destroying native self-sufficiency here.
Now Congress is stepping in with controversial legislation to designate 146 million acres - more than a third of the state - as wilderness to protect wildlife and scenery and to guarantee subsistence.
The bill, sponsored by House Interior Committee Chairman Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), has precipitated outbursts from both private and commercial Alaskan interests which see themselves being locked out of the land.
However, in recent congressional hearings at a dozen villages, natives spoke of federal guarantees as their only hope of survival.
Tretikoff, who traveled 40 miles to a hearing here in Nondalton, said the state manages wildlife with a series of ever-changing regulations set up to benefit the sportsmen that he calls "the headhunters." In his area, moose season is open during mating time when the antlers that look good on a hunter's wall are largest, but the meat is least suitable for eating. Fishing is legal in summer when many natives are away from villages on seasonal jobs.
The issue of hunting for subsistence has heightened racial tension in the state. Sports hunters - which includes a majority of Alaska's white males - consider their moose an unalienable right and find its meat cheaper than imported beef. Sportsmen's lawsuits have successfully prevented the state from excluding them from subsistence hunting areas, even where game is dwindling.
Tularik Creek, where Tretikoff and his friend caught the 77 fish in five days in the January incident is a choice stream.
Sports fishmen viewed the massive killing of rainbow trout as a classic example of native abuse. But Tretikoff says the village custom of sharing the catch means it would only last a week or two.
"There's a big conflict between whites and natives," Tretikoff said. "Whites have jobs. They have it made. But the natives know what they want. We will poach for food when we need to. Don't be surprised if someone gets shot."
Under state law, "natives have to be literally starving to death to harvest an animal out of season," said Harold Sparck, adviser to an association of Eskimo villages. "The Eskimo is becoming a criminal in his own life-style."
As the natives see it, whites are the criminals. "The state sends millions of hunters to small areas," said Charles Kairainak, a young Eskimo from Chefornak. "They kill the moose, cut its head off and leave the meat. That is not justifiable. In a subsistence village, the people go out when they have to. We think [sports] hunters have something missing in their head."
Natives want the federal government to take over game management. "We don't trust the state," Kairainak said. "They get all their money from hunters."
The village of Nondalton, 250 miles by air southwest of Anchorage, is typical of the Alaskan bush - a half-world of incongruities, neither primitive nor modern.There are no roads leading here, only a gravel air strip where the mail plane lands three times a week with supplies. (People watch Charlie Chaplin movies brought in from Anchorage and, on Christmas, Santa Claus flies in on a helicopter - courtesy of an Air Force base miles away.)
There are few jobs in Nondalton, no telephones, no doctor, and the shelves of the co-op store are almost bare. The supplies that arrive are mostly canned goods, at triple the Lower 48 prices because of freight costs and Alaska's high inflation.
The 250 village residents, mainly Athapascan Indians, survive on salmon caught in crystal mountain streams, on moose that roam in the forest, on the Arctic summer's fleeting berries. But they rely on the cash economy for clothes, fuel to heat their homes, coffee - which is as much a habit here as in Washington - and other supplies. Ninety per cent receive government assistance.
For subsistence hunting, dog sleds have been replaced by snowmobiles. Fishing is with nylon nets and by motorboats. Food stamps here can be used to buy gasoline.Subsistence hunting that utilizes mechanized transportation usually forbidden in federally protected wilderness would be allowed in Alaskan parks, under his bill, Udall said.
"I don't think we can go back to bows and arrows," he added, "although I'd like to. It used to be a fairer fight for the moose before rifles and snow machines."
Physically, the village is a speck of chaos on a serenely beautiful landscape. Its several dozen houses and trailers are scattered at random along a rutted dirt road. Litter, rusted oil drums, abandoned machine parts decorate every yard. Electric generators owned by a few families rattle loudly.
But around the village, the glacier frosted mountains of the Alaska range enclose the turquoise waters of Lake Clark, centerpiece of a proposed 7.5 million-acre national park, larger than the state of Maryland. This scenic northland nourishes caribou, wolves, Dahl sheep, brown bears.
Adolph Jakinsky, descended from a Swede, a Russian and two native grandmothers, has one of the plush jobs: postmaster. But working four hours a day, six days a week isn't enough. Three pounds of coffee cost $23.75, gasoline sells for $1.36 a gallon, and a package of four fresh pork chops went for $29 last week.
Like everyone else in Nondalton, Jakinsky and his native family rely on subsistence hunting and fishing. "You can't get enough meat legally," he said. There are only three refrigerators in town and "when someone gets an illegal moose, everyone in the village shares," he added.
Without subsistence, natives say, there would be no community, "Subsistence is the basis of our culture," said John Schaeffer, an Eskimo from Kotzebue in northwest Alaska. "It is not just food for the stomach, it is food for the soul."
The seasonal rituals of berry-picking, fish-drying and hunting "strengthen the family unit and provide meaningful work for natives," according to Dr. Bob Hurwitz, director of an Eskimo health clinic in Bethel. Interfering with subsistence, he said, lessens self-esteem, resulting in "boredom, alcoholism, welfare, crime and suicide in a cultural wasteland."
Increasing dependence on a cash economy is for many natives a curse that came in the guise of charity. Before white men arrived, native communities migrated from season to season, following the game. But Russians, and then Americans, built schools and churches and told the natives that to be civilized they should stay in one spot.
Now the game around the villages is depleted. People must travel 30 miles to get food, so they need snow machines and motorboats, requiring gasoline - and money.
The federal government replaced Eskimos' sod huts with poorly insulated, above-ground houses and plumbing. The plumbing freezes if the house isn't heated, so natives must earn money, or go on welfare, to buy oil.
But for all the hassles and hardships, the people who live in the northland seem to like it. "We are lucky to be in this community," said Gust Evanoff, a Nondalton Indian. "We have all the room we want. We don't go by scheduled times.
"I can go down to the beach, throw in a hook and catch a grayling. That's what we want to protect."