Living Off the Land

Posted February 26th, 2009 at 10:00 am.

Barbara Cellarius ’85

Visitors to the northern part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve may come away with memories of a spectacular mountain wilderness with glacial rivers, snow-covered peaks, elusive wildlife and brightly colored wildflowers. Underlying these spectacular vistas, however, is a landscape of indigenous human habitation.

“To the Native peoples of the upper Tanana region, this area is not wilderness but rather their historic home, an area crisscrossed by trails and travel routes where they and their ancestors lived, traveled, hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered …” writes Barbara Cellarius ’85, a cultural anthropologist and subsistence specialist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, with two colleagues in their summary of an ethnographic overview and assessment of the Upper Tanana people.

After she completed her bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in geology, Cellarius worked as a research analyst at the Washington Research Council before earning a master’s degree in environmental studies at the Evergreen State College. With an interest in the relationship between human society and environmental preservation, she pursued a doctorate in cultural anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Looking at conservation through the lens of a cultural anthropologist, her dissertation and a subsequent book presented the results of her ethnographic study of resource use and management and biodiversity conservation efforts in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains.

“After the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly state-owned forests and agricultural lands were re-privatized in many areas of Eastern Europe,” Cellarius explains. Her research examined relationships between resource management institutions and practices, access to and control over land and other resources, and local residents’ environmental knowledge, use, and concerns.

While Cellarius was in Germany as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, she received an e-mail responding to her application for the post at Copper Center, the headquarters of Wrangell-St. Elias N.P.P., and she seized the job offer. It was an opportunity to return to Alaska, where, on Kodiak Island, she had conducted research for her bachelor’s thesis.

Way of Life As coordinator of the park’s subsistence program, Cellarius helps manage subsistence use of the wild game, fish, and plants in the park by Alaska Natives and other rural Alaskans and coordinates research on resource use patterns.

“When Congress passed the enabling legislation that allowed establishment of many national parks in Alaska, it recognized that use of the natural resources is very important for the people who live here, and it allowed residents to have the opportunity to continue a subsistence way of life,” she says. “In some cases there are no alternative resources. For example, if I go to the local grocery store, it’s hard to buy fish, so I get it out of the river next to my house.” (Some readers may be familiar with Copper River salmon.)

As long as resources and their habitats are maintained in a natural and healthy state—the park’s first priority—traditional subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering are allowed in the park and preserve under the provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which was passed in 1980. Moreover, ANILCA provides that rural residents with knowledge of local conditions should have a role in the management of subsistence resources on public lands.

So as part of her role, Cellarius works with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Subsistence Resource Commission, a committee of local residents established to advise the park on subsistence. She also works with the 13 federally recognized Indian tribes that are affiliated with the park, and she organizes regular meetings with the tribal councils of the three tribes with which the park has formal government-to-government agreements.

As the park’s cultural anthropologist, Cellarius manages research on the people who are associated with the park, including ethnographic overviews and assessments of Alaska Native groups. As Cellarius and her colleagues write in their study of the Upper Tanana, “Although many adults are employed and patterns of resource use have changed, subsistence hunting and fishing continue to contribute substantial amounts to their diet and to sustain profound cultural values of sharing, the appropriate treatment of animals, and respect and appreciation of elders.”

Forging Bonds Cellarius compares the strong links between food and Alaska Native cultural identities to the traditions most Americans can appreciate. “Sometimes I use the example of serving turkey at Thanksgiving,” she says. “Traditional foods are part of who Alaska Natives are and the heritages they are celebrating.”

Sharing food forges bonds among members of a family, community, and the generations. “People work together to hunt moose and share it with the rest of the community,” Cellarius observes. “They share with elders who can no longer hunt and with family members who have moved to the city. Young people interact with and learn from their elders.”

During her six years at Wrangell-St. Elias, Cellarius has also forged bonds with the people and the land. “Getting to know some of the folks in the local communities, particularly in some of the Native villages, has been really interesting,” she says. “Occasionally I provide technical assistance to communities in writing proposals for changes in subsistence-use regulations, and when I am able to look at a traditional practice and put that into regulation, it is rewarding.”

“This is just such an amazing place,” she concludes. “As I travel around the park helping my colleagues on various projects, it’s really cool to see these places in what some have called the last great wilderness.” Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering, and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.

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