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Austin Ahmasuk

Austin Ahmasuk is a Kingikmiut Iñupiaq tribal and environmental advocate from Nome, Alaska. He is a lifelong hunter, trapper, and mariner. Until recently, Austin worked for the indigenous regional non-profit corporation Kawerak, Inc. as a marine advocate.

A Brief History

It is impossible to separate an individual indigenous Alaskan from the historical injustices that continue to impact their everyday lives. Alaska is unique in that it has a relatively high proportion of its population that is indigenous (19.7%) and the takeover by the US government was relatively recent (1959). Although the history of the Inuit and Iñupiaq is too complicated to get into in depth, the actions of the Alaskan government since entering the US in 1959 has created significant problems for the indigenous Alaskan population. Policies were quickly put in place that divided land into parcels, a process that was accelerated when oil was discovered in the North Slope Borough. In 1971 the disputes over land claims was settled via the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which gave Alaskan Native communities 44 million acres of land and $962 million, with the requirement that they forfeit aboriginal land claims. This act resulted in the creation of Native Corporations, which control land oversight and the leasing of land to oil companies for development. For a short time, these groups also had power in the state legislature, but this was quickly overturned, in favor of a population based representative system. Since the passage of ANCSA, subsistence hunting and fishing has been an issue of contention. Because the indigenous communities were forced to give up their aboriginal rights, they were no longer guaranteed the right to hunt and fish using traditional methods, essentially forcing assimilation. Since the 1980s and into the 2000s, several laws have been passed that attempted to address the issue of subsistence hunting. One of the most prominent laws was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed by Congress in 1980 specifically to allow subsistence hunting and fishing on federal lands in Alaska. However, these laws often neglect the cultural importance of subsistence hunting and fishing, focusing only on the survival aspects. For example, ANILCA designated the right to subsistence hunt based on whether an Alaskan person lived in a rural area, resulting in the loss of this right for indigenous communities that had remained in areas where cities ended up being developed. The fight to get hunting and fishing rights for all Alaskan indigenous communities is ongoing (Nome Nugget - see below). For a more detailed history and comprehensive look at the way racism and systemic neglect continue to impact Alaskan Native communities, see this report by the US Commission of Civil Rights (in links at bottom of page).

Getting Started

Austin was born in a village 150 miles north of Nome, Alaska in 1972, on the Alaskan shore of the Bering Strait. He is half Kingikmiut Iñupiaq and half Norweigen but grew up immersed in Iñupiaq culture. “I’m a life-long hunter, fisher, and trapper,” Austin said. “I’ve mushed dogs for most of my life.” He grew up hunting with his family and other community members, which he speaks about in this story about walrus hunting with his grandfather and uncle (Frontier of Change – Soundbite from Austin - see link at bottom of page). The impact of his culture and traditional ways of surviving ended up shaping his future career in environmental advocacy. Before becoming an environmental and tribal advocate, Austin went to university for engineering. Before too long, he decided to switch to environmental science, in order to better understand the issues facing his community. “If I had stayed in engineering, I probably would have been working for the state of Alaska, working on road building,” Austin said, looking back at his choice to switch majors. “I wanted to serve my people instead.” In the 1990s, a lot of the contention over subsistence hunting laws was in the news. Much of the issue was centered on non-native Alaskans wanting to put protections in place to protect Arctic animals whose populations were suffering, at the cost of forcing native Alaskans to give up their way of life. Austin followed the conflict and thought about his perspective on the issue, as someone who had grown up using the practices that were on the edge of being criminalized. “These are historical practices of my tribe. We have ancestral ways of utilizing resources that have allowed us and these animals to survive and thrive,” he explained. “It is very different from the large-scale commercial exploitation that had destroyed wildlife populations.” Listening to the debates, Austin realized that without advocates, even more of his community’s traditional practices would be criminalized. “I realized that if I didn’t get involved, my tribe’s history and survival would be endangered.” In 1997, Austin began working as a tribal advocate, focusing on ancestral fishing and hunting rights. For a while he had temporary positions, with advocacy jobs usually lasting between 4-6 years before needing to find another. “It takes a lot out of you,” Austin admitted. While working as a subsistence hunting advocate, Austin would try to get laws in place that would permit traditional practices while balancing things that could damage vulnerable animal populations. “One of the issues was user conflicts,” he said. “There is competition for land and resources.” He had to advocate for his community’s right to fish, while acknowledging the damage that had been done to fish populations by industrial overfishing in Alaskan fisheries. Austin has since pivoted from subsistence hunting advocacy, but continues to speak out on the issue as a native hunter himself.

The Work

Until recently, Austin worked at Kawerak, Inc., the regional non-profit indigenous corporation that provides services throughout the Bering Straits Region of Alaska. The corporation is a consortium of 20 tribes in the Bering Strait region. Beginning in 2014, Austin worked as a Marine Advocate for the Kawerak Marine Program, which aims to advocate for Bering Straits residents who are being impacted by global warming. “Kawerak is an advocacy organization for people who do not have a strong voice in the government,” Austin explained. “There are about a dozen or more organizations like Kawerak in other parts of Alaska. They’re kind of an amalgamation, dealing with issues from tribal and commercial development to environmental justice.” Austin explained that there are a number of issues currently facing the people in the Bering Straits region. One of the projects he has been working on for several years is the increase in shipping going through the Bering Strait, a direct result of Arctic sea ice retreat due to global warming. There are numerous impacts of increased shipping, including noise pollution that disrupts whale migrations, air pollution from smokestacks that emit harmful fumes and black carbon (when deposited on snow or ice, black carbon absorbs heat and accelerates melting), and the potential release of fuel oil, which would degrade slowly in the cold climate of the Arctic and harm ecosystems for years (Arctic Today - see below). Austin has written articles on the issue, spoken out in town halls, and acted as a representative at circum-polar Arctic meetings. Austin also spoke about the fact that many people assume the problems his community faces, without actually asking them. “Everyone has seen that picture of the polar bear on the shrinking ice, but most hunters know that the bear population is generally healthy,” he said (see the Canadian study cited below for more details on this issue), “but no one thinks of us having to deal with plastic pollution.” Austin described a foreign marine debris event that took place from July to November 2020, during which a significant amount of marine and household garbage washed ashore. Because there is little state presence in the region, community members were responsible for both reporting the event and clean up, with some residents reporting miles of trash along the shoreline (NOAA Report - see below). Austin has been trying to help get international “rules of the sea” established, which would help reduce pollution from both ocean vessels and land-based sources. While there are several treaties to this effect already, most encounter difficulties in enforcement and have limited impact (NOAA; UN - see below). Gold mining in Nome has also been an issue that Austin has been attempting to address. “Mining has impacts on air, people, and the environment that are not very well characterized for this area,” Austin said. Not only are the impacts of the mining uncertain, but the enforcement of existing environmental protections can also be haphazard. “It’s so rural that enforcement agencies rarely see if companies are following environmental laws,” Austin explained. It is his job to advocate for affected communities and make sure their health and land is not being negatively impacted by the mines.

“If I had stayed in engineering, I probably would have been working for the state of Alaska, working on road building. I wanted to serve my people instead.”

Environmental Justice

“If there’s one thing I want people to realize, it’s that we exist,” Austin said. Most native Alaskans believe they have been there longer than the 10,000 years verified by archeologists. “We have stories of mammoths, when the mountain ranges were surrounded by water.” And then, Austin explained, a Danish explorer “discovered” the region in the 1700s. “If you read his book, he didn’t think fondly of Alaska. But even despite this, there are several places in Alaska that bear his name.” This ongoing erasure of native history is driven by the rich natural resources contained in the state. “Since the 1700s, people have looked towards the region for resources and national security,” Austin said. “Even though the original intent for purchasing Alaska from Russia was because of its resources, these resources have created a lot of wealth outside of Alaska, not within it.”


Austin would like people to understand that communities need to be consulted before laws are passed that impact their way of living, even if those laws are attempting to protect the environment. “The people of Alaska need to be involved in decisions regarding national security and resource extraction.” However, this is not just true for Alaskan communities. It also applies for other tribes he has worked with, including ones in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Communities have the right to decide what happens to their environment, even if people outside the community don’t necessarily agree.

Relevant Links

Sources Cited

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