Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2004

Bridging Cultural Differences

By Nancy K. Long
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Nancy Ratner

“Personally, I like to eat close to the land, and also enjoy learning about and trying new things. I just got a recipe for pudding made from chum eggs and high bush cranberries," she said. "When you mix the two together you actually get a custard. It’s surprisingly very good.” Nancy Ratner

Nancy Ratner spent her childhood in a Chicago suburb, but for 26 years she has worked in bush Alaska where she feels at home in Alaska’s remote settlements. Her enthusiasm for subsistence foods, coupled with her personality and professional skills, creates an exceptional combination for her line of work. She conducts research in traditional communities throughout Southeast as a Resource Specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Division of Subsistence.

Ratner is well-suited for her job. She seldom hurries a conversation, is an open, keen listener, and quick to smile. “I learn a lot sitting down and talking to active traditional harvesters and elders. Don’t waste, share, and respect. Those are the main themes I get from the communities I’ve worked in. Their customs and generosity of spirit enrich my life.”

Ratner strives to understand people and their ways of living by conducting confidential interviews, mapping, surveying, and through direct observation and participation in customary practices. “Sometimes I get blasted about some regulation that doesn’t fit,” she said. “But that’s just part of the work.”

The Subsistence Division provides information on the traditional uses of wild resources to meet resource management goals, aids in regulation development, facilitates collaborative agreements, assesses environmental impacts, and documents the unique role of wild resources in the lives, communities and cultures of Alaskans.

One fairly recent project took her to Klawock, a small traditional community in Southeast Alaska. “I was interviewing an elder who expressed frustration at not being able to selectively harvest pink salmon using spears,” she said.

The gristle in the large hump of a spawning male pink salmon makes particularly good “boil fish,” a traditional meal enjoyed in Klawock. Spearing allows harvesters to target male fish with the largest humps. However, ADF&G did not allow this method of harvest for salmon in this area.

“After digging into the regulatory history and talking with the regional Fish & Game management staff, it became clear that there was no real conservation concern for not allowing spears,” Ratner said. “It was simply an oversight and communication disconnect between Klawock and the management office in Ketchikan. The area management biologist, who had the discretion to change the regulation, wasn’t aware of the problem. Once they understood, they were able to remove the restrictions and allow the use of spears to get these humpies.”

This example of the Division of Subsistence providing a fairly quick fix isn’t always possible. Managing and regulating resources for an area that serves both traditional communities and mainstream urban populations is difficult, especially when mandates from elders conflict with regulations.

“One man told me, ‘I’m 50 years old, but if my uncle told me to get a hair cut, I would get a hair cut. That’s just how it is.’ Elders are important authority figures," Ratner said. "When your auntie tells you to harvest in a certain way or to provide fish to someone, it’s pretty tough to ignore, you don’t want to get in trouble with an elder.”

Directives from elders, plus state regulations and federal regulations, create a triple management paradox. Who does the harvesting is one of the greatest dichotomies. State and federal managers provide harvest opportunities for individuals providing for themselves or their own household. In many traditional communities, certain individuals are responsible for harvesting and sharing, providing for numerous households and cultural ceremonies.

“Sharing and providing is a huge responsibility for these harvesters,” Ratner said. “I talked to one person who did pretty well and was able to harvest a good supply of fish and provide for his extended family and others. Then a family member died and his entire personal supply went to the 40-day party honoring the deceased. That’s the level of sharing. Most of us just don’t do that - handover a freezer full of fish - your winter food supply.”

These insights help to provide understanding for addressing differing mandates between traditional customs and government regulations. Another important aspect of Ratner’s work is in gathering ecological knowledge.

“Tlingit people have been intimately involved with these resources for thousands of years," she said. "So, I always ask about abundance, if they perceive declines or what they think may be causing a decline. You get some interesting observations and information about ecological systems and interactions. It provides us with information and ideas that we might not otherwise consider.”

Jesse Dizard, Statewide Research Director for ADF&G Division of Subsistence, said today’s scientists are realizing much can be learned from traditional methods. “We are finding that traditional resource conservation practices and theoretical knowledge are more holistic," he said. "Consideration is given to interrelationships for all components in the ecosystem. Their methods and management support resource sustainability. Whereas, until recently, most western approaches have been largely geared to attain maximum extraction.”

Historically, Natives in Southeast Alaska developed very sophisticated salmon management practices, similar to Alaska’s present-day sustainable fisheries program. Clans had stewardship responsibility for specific salmon streams. The clan leaders acted like area management biologists. They were responsible for managing harvests, monitoring abundance, and forecasting run strength. They determined when and where to fish. They knew who needed fish and could provide harvest rights to another clan in some circumstances. In at least one known case, they transplanted fish into a stream that had failed returns.

“Research like Nancy’s is a very important step down this road towards understanding and integrating traditional ideas and practices with insights of modern resource management," Dizard said. "She’s part of a small group on the forefront using ethnographic research and making significant contributions to revolutionize resource science.”

Dizard said that she is very well respected in the field. People really like her respectful attitude and style of interviewing. By virtue of Nancy Ratner’s skills, important traditional knowledge can be shared in a wider arena.

“I feel like this research can make a difference by providing understanding between the agency and the active traditional harvesters. It’s all about bridging cultural differences to resolve issues,” Ratner said. “We can have an impact on people’s lives and on our ability to manage by providing more accurate information and valuable ecological knowledge.”

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