The Day The Water Died:Cultural Impacts Of The ExxonValdez Oil Spill

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“The excitement of the season had just begun, and then, we heard the news, oil in the water, lots of oil killing lots of water. It is too shocking to understand. Never in the millennium of our tradition have we thought it possible for the water to die, but it is true.” (Chief Walter Meganack, Port Graham, 1989)


Of all the groups negatively impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in many ways Alaska Natives were the most devastated. The oil spill destroyed more than economic resources, it shook the core cultural foundation of Native life. Alaska Native subsistence culture is based on an intimate relationship with the environment. Not only does the environment have sacred qualities for Alaska Natives, but their survival depends on the well-being of the ecosystem and the maintenance of cultural norms of subsistence. The spill directly threatened the well-being of the environment, disrupted subsistence behavior, and severely disturbed the sociocultural milieu of Alaska Natives.

In order to more fully understand the social consequences of the spill for Alaska Natives, a holistic description of their local ecosystem, history, and culture is necessary. This chapter provides a brief review of traditional Alaska Native culture and some of the consequences the spill had for Native people in terms of subsistence, cultural traditions, and psychosocial well-being.

Bioregional Description and Cultural History

Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta comprise a bioregion with rugged mountains capped with permanent ice fields to the north, east, and west, and the Gulf of Alaska to the south. Prince William Sound is a fjord-type estuary consisting of more than 2,000 miles of shoreline formed by bays, fjords, islands, and tidewater glaciers. The mountainous landscape is covered by a temperate rainforest which contributes to a high-quality habitat for spawning fish. The Copper River’s watershed of 24,000 square miles is nestled between the Chugach and Wrangell-St. Elias mountains and the 700,000 acre Copper River Delta is the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific coast. The delta fans out in a 65-mile arc into the Gulf of Alaska, ending in a series of barrier islands and outer sandbars. Together, Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta form a bioregion with abundant life, including fish and shell-fish (salmon, herring, halibut, cod, trout, crab, shrimp, clams, mussels), marine mammals (whales, sea lions, seals, otters), birds (eagles, ravens, jays, trumpeter swans, ducks, geese), and animals (bears, moose, deer, wolves, mountain goats, beavers, mink, martens, weasels).

The life cycle of salmon is an integral part of the natural and cultural rhythms of the bioregion. Salmon spawn and lay eggs in gravel beds of lakes and streams throughout the area. Salmon fry feed in the fresh waters before entering the saltwater where they migrate to the ocean until they reach maturity. The salmon then return to their natal streams to spawn and renew their life cycle. This salmon life cycle provides sustenance to an intricate food web including other fish, birds, bears, and humans (see also Chapter 9).

Historically, the Prince William Sound bioregion was a melting pot of various Alaska Native groups including Eskimos, Aleuts, Athapaskans, Eyaks and Tlingits (see, Davis 1984). Through centuries of group succession, trade, intermarriage and occasional warfare, a distinct group, Alutiiq, has emerged to dominate the region. Traditional Alutiiq culture consisted of subgroups occupying distinct territories containing resource habitats of fish and wildlife. Each subgroup protected its territory and cooperated in the harvesting, processing and sharing of resources. Villages were strategically located in places where a high confluence of fish, marine mammals, and wildlife occurred.

The abundance of renewable natural resources and the development of technology and techniques to harvest these resources gave rise to a culture that persisted several millennia prior to Western contact. Russian occupation of the area began in the mid-1700s marking the beginning of profound social and cultural transformation. The Russian explorers were impressed with the Alaska Natives’ hunting and fishing skills and their ability to live off the land. This admiration, however, quickly turned to subjugation as the Russians forced Alaska Natives to hunt sea otters and other marine mammals to supply the lucrative European fur market. The Russians also introduced diseases for which Alaska Natives had no natural immunological defenses as well as alcohol which severely disrupted the social life of Alaska’s indigenous Population (Mangusso and Haycox 1989).

In 1867, the Alaska territory was officially transferred to the United States (see Jensen 1989; Welch 1989). Alaska Natives became a major component of the labor force needed in the salmon canning industry during the late 1800s although they maintained much of their cultural heritage of hunting, fishing and subsistence during this time. The Native Allotment Act of 1906 allowed individual Alaska Natives to claim 160 acres of land. This act was revoked with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. ANCSA allocated 44 million acres of land and $962 million to Alaska Natives. This federal legislation provided a framework of Village corporations to organize and manage Alaska Native affairs and resources 1990).

Currently the majority of Native people live in small towns (e.g., Cordova, Whittier, Valdez, and Kodiak) and urban areas (e.g., Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks). A smaller number of Alaska Natives reside in isolated coastal villages such as Chenega Bay, Tatitlek, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Akhiok, Karluk, Ouzinkie, Old Harbor and Larsen Bay. However, because of their proximity to the actual grounding site of the Exxon Valdez, the Prince William Sound communities of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay suffered particularly severe disruption from the accident. The following sections will focus principally on these two communities though the impacts experienced by these groups of Alaska Natives reflect to a great extent the social and psychological disruption suffered by southcentral Alaska’s Native villages.

Subsistence Lifestyle

Subsistence is the defining characteristic of Alaska Native culture (see Foreword). “Subsistence is part of rural economy, but it has little or no relation to western views of economic value. Subsistence is about eating, but wild foods can’t be simply replaced by a processed substitute. Subsistence is about kinship and social cohesion, but it is not a ritual or ceremony. Subsistence is one of the markers that helps Native people define themselves, but it is neither cosmology nor religion, as western people understand religion and theology” (Piper 1993:107). Alaska Natives have described this intimate integration of environment and culture as follows:

This is a way of life for us, not just subsistence. It’s part of us. We are part of the earth. We respect it (Alaska AM Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:1 78).Subsistence harvesting is still part of the identity here. It our way of life, so its part of our identity… Once a month we have a luncheon of Native foods. Mostly for the elderly who can’t get things themselves. We use fins; they make us feel good inside. They go in fish soup. Nutritionists have finally decided there’s nutrition for elderly people in fish soup. It has a calming effect on unruly kids (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a: 178).

How could you put money value on things: food, the things that we have? Because it’s free. If you’re a subsistence user you can’t put an economic value on these things (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:1 79).

Alaska Natives incorporate modern technology and limited sources of income into their traditional subsistence economy. For example, guns, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles are technologies used in hunting and gathering. In addition, almost every coastal village has individuals who own and operate commercial fishing vessels. However, most village commercial fishers earn relatively small amounts of ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 per year (APRN 1991; Vlasoff 1996). The cash income is used to facilitate subsistence activities (e.g., fuel, equipment, ammunition). As a result, Alaska Native villages are sometimes described as a fluctuating mixture of cash and subsistence economies.

Despite this use of modem technology and the influx of small amounts of cash, Alaska Native villages “remain quintessentially subsistence economies in their organizations of production: ownership, labor, distribution, consumption” (Jorgensen 1990:79). Jorgensen (1990) identifies several factors which distinguish subsistence from other economic modes of production. For example, subsistence economies have more direct and intimate links to natural resources. They lack well-developed market systems because the producer is the primary consumer of his/her product. Subsistence economies rarely have exchanges of resources for services and labor is not a marketable commodity in the conventional sense.

Unlike other types of economies, subsistence economies do not convert extracted resources or labor into capital. Resource distribution is primarily based on personal networks of family, extended kinships, friendships and the village. Instead of specialization, subsistence economies are based on a broad range of skills directed toward a wide variety of natural resources. Finally, “productive activities are directly linked to procuring food and shelter for the maintenance of life itself” (Jorgensen 1990:81).

Alaska Native life and subsistence follow a natural cycle based on the seasons. Meganack (1989) describes this cycle as follows:

Our lives are rooted in the seasons of God’s creation. Since time immemorial, the lives of Native people harmonized with the rhythm and cycles of nature. We are a part of nature. We don’t need a calendar or clock to tell us what time it is. The misty green of new buds on the trees tell us, the birds returning from their winter vacation tell us, the daylight tells us. The roots of our lives grow deep into the water and land. That is who we are. The land and the water are our sources of life. The water is sacred.

Figure 10-1 indicates how Alaska Native cultural cycles correspond to natural cycles in terms of harvest preparation activities, actual harvesting of resources, utilization of harvested resources, and anticipation of future harvests. Preparation involves discussing and selecting areas to be harvested and readying needed equipment. Harvest involves applying skills in the gathering of resources. Utilization includes activities that convert the harvest into usable products (e.g., food preparations and preservation) as well as actual consumption or use of the products. Anticipation is a period of reflection on the previous harvest and planning for the upcoming harvest season (Dyer et al.1992).

These cycles are accompanied by cultural transmission through the teaching of skills and lessons of life, story-telling, and other bonding activities.

Figure 10-1: Anticipatory Utilization Cultural Cyde of Alaska Natives

It is during the cycles of subsistence that bonding is strengthened and expanded. The sense of worth is solidified and new skills are learned. It is during these bonding times that our individual value is placed within our community, and we are able to understand what we must do to preserve our lives and to live in harmony (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in Ott 1994:47).

Seasonal subsistence harvests identify the essence of modem Alaska Native culture. The values, attitudes, behaviors and material expressions that constitute Alaska Native culture are embedded within the biophysical environment and express its way of life. As discussed in Chapter 12, subsistence and commercial harvests of renewable natural resources broadly identifies a type of community integrated with the environment–the renewable resource community. Renewable resource communities are culturally and economically dependent upon renewable resource harvests. This intimate relation to natural seasonal cycles include symbolic definitions and expressions of a way of life.

Alaska Native culture has experienced numerous assaults since contact with Western culture (Napoleon 1991). Alaska’s indigenous people suffered from new diseases and the introduction of alcohol which decimated their numbers. Forced schooling in boarding schools caused them to lose much of their language and to adopt Westernized attitudes and ideas. Further, their governance became dominated by the state and federal agencies which eroded traditional lines of authority. However, the subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives represents one core element of their remaining cultural identity. This core cultural identity was threatened when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, 1989

Alaska Natives encountered many problems during the first few months of the oil spill and ensuing cleanup activities. The spill produced emotional responses, threatened subsistence activities and disrupted cultural traditions. As more fully discussed in Chapter 11, oil spill cleanup activities actually intensified these disruptions for Alaska Native villages.

The timing of the spill was particularly disruptive since it occurred at the peak of the preparation phase of the subsistence cycle (see Figure 10-1), that is, the emergence of spring from the long, cold grip of winter.

When the days get longer, we get ready. Boots and boats and nets and gear are prepared for fishing. It was early in the springtime. No fish yet, no snails, but the signs were with us. The green was starting, some birds were flying and singing (Meganack 1989).

Initial Emotional Responses

As news of the oil spill spread throughout the villages of Prince William Sound, a mixture of emotions including denial, outrage, sadness, numbness, hurt, confusion, and grief were experienced by Alaska Natives.

First I cried, and then I was mad and then cried. It was just really mixed (Alaska Native quoted in APRN 1991).This is hurting more than anything else we ever experienced. Its like losing everything you had (Alaska Native quoted in APRN 1991).

Some people were depressed and suicidal. Even nonfishermen felt somebody had broken in and entered their house. [There was a] terrible feeling of rape, violation (minister quoted in MMS 1993b:701).

Residents of the village of Tatitlek were especially fearful because the stranded tanker was located just a few miles from them for several days and they could actually smell the fumes from the leaking oil. Alaska Natives in Chenega Bay endured an additional pain because their village had been completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1964, 25 years to the day the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred. Chenega Bay Natives had struggled to maintain a sense of community and had just recently rebuilt their village. As one resident stated:

And then the oil spill hit. It was like … that I felt a very deep hurt. That the pain they had suffered in ’64. Not even 20 (sic) years later that we would have to endure this kind of devastation again down here. (Alaska Native in Chenega Bay quoted in APRN 1991).

Residents of other villages in the spill area also experienced emotional trauma as oil washed upon their shores and spread to traditional subsistence harvest areas.

The emotional disruption continued throughout the summer of 1989. In a study of Alaska Natives residing in Cordova conducted five months after the spill it was found that 9 out of 10 people reported being very upset at the time of the spill and almost two-thirds were “upset” by the fact that oil tankers were traveling daily through Prince William Sound (Dyer et al. 1992:114-115). Indeed, the initial emotional response to the spill was traumatic for Alaska Natives.

Threats to Subsistence

One of the immediate concerns of Alaska Natives was the contamination of subsistence resources. Many areas were closed to traditional hunting and fishing activities and the safety of subsistence foods became a major health concern due to the possibility of contamination from the oil. The interruption of subsistence and safety concerns posed by the spill were expressed as follows:

We walked the beaches, but the snails and the barnacles and the chitons are falling off the rocks, dead. We caught our first fish, the annual first fish, the traditional delight of all; but it got sent to the state to be tested for oil. No first fish this year (Meganack 1989).We always say ‘the tide goes out, the table is set.’ But anymore, you’re going to have to be really picky and choosey when the table is set. What’s all this oil going to do to our food; our supermarket out there (Alaska Native quoted in APRN 1991).

Testing procedures resulted in further controversy, confusion and uncertainty about the risk of toxicity for subsistence resources. As one Alaska Native stated:

You can’t have a scientist in a white coat come up and tell you everything is safe. Its going to take a long time to feel comfortable again. its going to take a long time even if they give us a clean bill of health. We’re still really wary and unsure about a lot of things. The big question mark is still there (Alaska Native quoted in APRN 1991).

Alaska Natives in the spill area had never experienced environmental pollution and contamination to such a degree prior to the spill. Contamination was viewed as the intrusion of unknown chemical pollutants into the very fabric of Alaska Natives’ spiritual beliefs and day-to-day behavior. A sense of fear and hopelessness spread along with the oil throughout the Native communities. Natives experienced a further loss of traditional authority in the aftermath of the oil spill as they were often forced to rely on outside authorities for food safety (see Chapter 11).

Subsistence behavior was further disrupted because many Natives participated in Exxon-sponsored cleanup activities and had less time to engage in seasonal subsistence activities. As a result, many villages faced serious food shortages and disruptions of cultural traditions involving social relations, sharing, and transmission of knowledge and values. The following statements from Alaska Natives clearly illustrate these patterns of cultural disruption.

Our elders feel helpless. They cannot do all the activities of gathering food and preparing for the winter. And most of all, they cannot teach their young ones the Native way. How will the children learn the values and the ways if the water is dead? If the water is dead, maybe we are dead, our heritage, our tradition, our ways of life and living and relating to nature and each other (Meganack 1989).It was very stressful because, you know, in the summertime that’s when a lot of the elderly or a lot of the women are left behind to tend to their family, tend to their children. This is a time to share, a time to gather. This is how you show them this is how you survive in a village. You go down to the reef and you pick bidarkies (chitons), you pick seaweed, you eat snails, you taught your kids the way life used to be … this summer you couldn’t do that (Alaska Native quoted in Palinkas et al. 1993:7).

When we worry about losing our subsistence way of life, we worry about losing our identity … It’s that spirit that makes you who you are, makes you think the way you do and act the way you do and how you perceive the world and relate to the land. Ninety-five percent of our cultural tradition now is subsistence … it’s what we have left of our tradition (Alaska Native quoted in Palinkas et al. 1993:8).

Institutional responses to food shortages often made the situation worse. For example, Impact Assessment, Inc. (a social science research organization) reported that in attempting to assist the village of Tatitlek preserve fish, Exxon accidently sent salt that had been chemically treated to de-ice roads rather than table salt (1990:278). On another occasion, Exxon sent a barge full of crab and shrimp to Tatitlek. However, many villagers who consumed the food suffered food poisoning because, as it turned out, the food was unfit for human consumption. It was later determined that the food was intended for rescued sea otters. “The villagers were outraged and some perceived this event as demonstrating that Exxon treated the people little better than animals” (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:278).

On a more positive note, many Alaska Native villages in areas not impacted by the oil spill sent subsistence foods to oiled villages (Morrison 1993; APRN 1991). Exxon assisted in transporting and distributing these foodstuffs. This state-wide response was one of the few examples of the emergence of a type of “therapeutic community” which typifies most natural disasters but is usually absent in technological disasters (Cutherbertson and Nigg 1987). However, recognition of the subsistence disruption of Alaska Natives was ignored by the mainstream press and not known to the public (see Chapter 13).

Oil Spill Cleanup Activities

The response to the oil spill involved a massive attempt to clean shorelines and collect oil. Alaska Native villages were especially vulnerable to the disruption and dislocation created by the seemingly unending influx of people and technology to Prince William Sound (see Chapter 11). This “invasion” was described by Chief Meganack as follows:

Before we have a chance to hold each other and share our tears, our sorrow and our loss, we suffer yet another devastation. We are invaded by the oil companies offering jobs, high pay, lots of money. We need to clean the oil, get it out of our water, bring death back to life. We are intoxicated with desperation. We don’t have a choice but to take what is offered. So we take the jobs, we take the orders, we take the disruption, we participate in the senseless busywork (Meganack 1989).

Alaska Natives experienced a variety of personal impacts from the oil spill cleanup activities including new employment opportunities and increased wage earnings. However, the cleanup operations generated another round of serious problems and perpetuated the pattern of disruption and conflict typical of technological disasters (Baum and Fleming 1993).

One of the first dilemmas encountered by Native villages after the oil spill was the “human spill” into the community (Morrison 1993:432). Corporate and government officials, cleanup crews, scientists, lawyers, and media personnel inundated many villages. Further, the local population of some villages increased as relatives of residents, attracted by the potential of well-paid employment, came from other communities to get assignments on cleanup crews. The human spill strained the collective resources of many villages.

Many of the “outsiders” were ignorant of Alaska Native culture and traditions. This was particularly demonstrated by the actions of the press. For example, Morrison observed that:

It did not matter where the news people came from or their particular field of media, they all were insensitive to the community, arrogant, frightening to the children, and abusive to the elders. Reportedly they chased children and elders into homes, attempted to take pictures through resident’s windows, and laughed at people who were caught off guard (Morrison 1993:432-433).

The arrival of so many strangers in such a short time period caused many Alaska Natives to feel threatened and uneasy in their own communities. “It was like living in an apartment and then all of a sudden there are ten people that you don’t know who come in and live with you” (Alaska Native quoted in Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:272). The high number of strangers lead many villagers to lock their doors, something most had never felt the need to do. The “human spill” became such a problem in Tatitlek that local leaders issued a ban on travel into the village. Other village leaders expressed similar sentiments:

Finally, we decided to keep the reporters out. I remember getting on the radio when a plane showed up and telling the pilot that if there were any reporters on the plane don’t think about landing. They are not welcome here! (Karluk village official quoted in MMS 1993b:764).

Cleanup operations posed other problems for village life and Native culture. In some areas, cleanup crews desecrated historical and archaeological sites which were sacred to residents. A cave burial on Knight Island was discovered and a skeleton was removed (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:273), though the remains were later returned after vigorous protests from village officials. There were also complaints that some cleanup crews trespassed on community beaches and left garbage in the villages and at cleanup sites.

Many Alaska Natives associated with the cleanup effort experienced various forms of racism. Natives reported hearing racist comments about Native women and “lazy Native workers” broadcast over the marine radio (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:278). Those who had boats to lease to Exxon to assist in the cleanup effort had difficulty securing contracts. Once they obtained a lease they were often given peripheral jobs, suchas hauling garbage. Natives on shoreline cleanup crews were often given what were considered the more hazardous jobs and made to work in cold water most of the day. Another frustrating aspect of the cleanup was that the Natives’ local knowledge of the area and the water currents were completely ignored by authorities, most of whom were in the area for the first time.

Our people know the water and the beaches, but they get told what to do by people who should be asking, not telling (Meganack 1989).The people there (in the villages) know the current flows of Prince William Sound. They knew there was no way the oil spill could be contained, we knew it would impact Seldovia, English Bay, Port Graham, and other areas but we were not asked, we were ignored when we went to the meetings to give input (Alaska Native quoted in Klein 1990:7).

I asked, “Have you talked to the Native communities, to see how they feel about using 9580 (a chemical dispersant) on their beaches?” He (Exxon’s expert in toxicology) cynically laughed and replied, “Would they even understand this sort of stuff!” The room was deathly hushed as people nervously looked around, and were either shocked or waited to see what would happen. I told the man that, “The Native people in these villages are highly educated, several are scientists and attorneys. I would suggest you discuss the dispersant results with them for their approval, before you apply it on beaches near the village of Chenega” (Klein 1990:7).

The spill and cleanup activities also disrupted Alaska Native families, especially those with children. Similar to other impacted communities, many children received less attention and care as parents worked on cleanup crews or conducted other spill-related activities.

… [the jobs] were not just 8 to 5 jobs. They were like 7 to 12 [at night] and sometimes longer. They worked until midnight unloading boats, got home slept three hours, and got up and went back to work (community resident quoted in Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990a:46).

In some families, one or both parents were gone for weeks working on cleanup crews in the Sound. The lack of parental supervision lead to increased drinking and drug use among some teenagers (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:281). Within a month of the spill, the village of Tatitlek requested $40,000 from Exxon to provide adequate childcare in the village. Exxon did not respond to this request despite efforts of state officials. “It was pretty incredible that Exxon would spend eighty- thousand dollars to save an otter but they weren’t willing to spend any money on the children” (Tatitlek village administrator, quoted in Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:281).

Family life was also disrupted by added strain and stress caused by the spill and cleanup. Findings indicate that individuals working on the spill reported significant increases in domestic violence and abuse of alcohol and drugs in their community and among their family and friends (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990b:27-28). The Chief of Behavioral Health for the Alaska Area Native Health Service, Dr. Bill Richards, observed:

I know of villages that had many alcohol-related problems in the past, but had begun a slow and painful process of recovery, with many villagers sober prior to the spill. After the spill, village leaders began drinking again, and many in the village have now “fallen off the wagon” with re-emergence of the numerous alcohol-related problems–child-abuse, domestic violence, accidents, etc.–that were there before (Richards 1991:2).

Another consequence of the spill and cleanup effort was the so-called “money spill.” Alaska Native villages experienced a sudden and dramatic increase in cash income as a result of residents working on the cleanup.

However, instead of providing a positive impact on the community, the influx of cash was generally perceived as “money pollution.” Most village residents were not accustomed to dealing with such large amounts Of cash and oftentimes it was poorly managed. The influx of money allowed some Natives to purchase considerable quantities of alcohol and drugs which intensified the previously described problems of abuse. The increased income forced many to confront the Internal Revenue Service for the first time in their lives; a process for which they were largely unprepared. Although the “money spill” may sound incredulous to those in the mainstream economy, one should realize that, historically, cash has played a relatively minor role ill subsistence-based economies.

The people of Tatitlek don’t really measure their life (sic) in dollars. If you screw up the environment, you’ve screwed everything up. If you make a cash settlement, you screw them up (David Grimes quoted in Kruse 1992:69).

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, 1990 to the Present

The impacts of the oil spill and cleanup on Alaska Native culture did not end after 1989. Long-term consequences continue to the present. Specifically, Alaska Natives have experienced ongoing problems with subsistence activities, chronic psychological stress, and continued social disruption. In addition, they experienced a “secondary disaster,” by becoming embroiled in litigation activities to recover personal and cultural damages resulting from the spill. A pattern of uncertainty, distrust and disorganization accompanied these events in a manner similar to other technological disasters (Erikson 1994).

Subsistence Disruption

A number of detailed studies reveal that Alaska Natives in the spill area experienced a dramatic decline in subsistence harvests in the years immediately following the disaster (Fall 1990; Fall and Utermohle 1995). Data on subsistence harvest patterns for years prior to the spill and after the spill are presented in Table 10-1. Subsistence surveys are not conducted annually in each community so it is difficult to gain a complete picture of subsistence harvest patterns. However, data assembled in Table 10-1 indicate that most communities in the spill region experienced a decline in subsistence in 1989 and many remained below pre-spill levels in 1990. By 1991, however, most had recovered to harvest levels that were similar to those observes prior to the spill.

The most severe decline in subsistence has been reported for Prince William Sound communities. Ile village of Tatitlek harvested 644 pounds of wild resources per capita in 1988 and saw harvests decline to 215 pounds in 1989 and 153 pounds in 1990. There was an increase to 346 pounds in 1991 but harvests declined to 270 pounds in 1993. In Chenega Bay, harvests of wild resources for home use fell from 374 pounds per capita in 1985 (the year the village was last surveyed prior to the spill) to 148 pounds in 1989 and 139 pounds in 1990. There was an increase in 1991 and 1992, 345 pounds and 414 pounds, respectively, but, once again, harvests fell to 275 pounds in 1993. As Morrison observed, “This decline in subsistence, reliance on store bought groceries, and other economic hardships related to the oil spill increased personal and family friction and stress” (1993:435).

A major reason for these declines in subsistence harvests was fear of contamination associated with the oil spill. Although residents were particularly fearful of contamination of clams and other shellfish, the failure of the 1993 herring season in Prince William Sound reinforced fears and concerns regarding the safety of subsistence foods. The size of the 1993 herring run was about half of what was expected and village residents observed abnormal behaviors among the herring. Moreover, surface hemorrhages on the herring were also observed. Subsequent tests by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game revealed that the herring had a viral infection, “viral hemorrhagic septicemia” (VHS). Although it was reported that VHS posed no health threats to humans, village residents were concerned about health effects and impacts on other animals in the food chain. These events supported perceptions expressed by many elders that long-term environmental contamination had resulted from the eleven million gallons of oil released into Prince William Sound.

I’m not going to eat something that looks like shit. A virus is a virus. You don’t feed something sick to humans (Tatitlek resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:V-21).We never ate anything strange. We hardly had occasion to throw away things. We want to know why we are seeing so many strange things (Tatitlek resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:V- 21).

Table 10-1: Harvests of Wild Resources for Home Use, Pounds per Capita, in Selected Communities in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Area, 1982-1993


Community 1982 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993
Chenega Bay * 317 374 * * * 148 139 345 414 275
Tatitlek * * * * 352 644 215 153 346 * 270
Cordova [1] * * 164 * * 234 * * 189 164 128
Valdez [1] * * * * * * * * 88 103 80
(English Bay)
* * * * 289 * 141 181 259 279 305
Port Graham * * * * 227 * 122 214 281 273 212
Kodiak [1] 147 * * * * * * * 140 160 151
Old Harbor 491 * * 423 * * 272 * 391 * *
Ouzinkie 369 * * 403 * * 89 205 210 347 218
Larsen Bay 404 * * 209 * * 212 345 295 353 451
Karluk 863 * * 385 * * 255 401 269 * *
Akhiok 520 * * 162 * * 298 * * 322 *
Port Lions 280 * * 333 * * 147 * * * 332
Chignik Bay * 188 * * * * 209 * 358 * *
Chignik Lake * 279 * * * * 453 * * 442 *

* Data not collected.
[1] Non-Native communities
Table compiled from data presented in Minerals Management Service Technical Report No. 160, An Investigation of the Sociocultural Consequences of Outer Continental Shelf Development in Alaska, Volumes 11, 111, IV, and V. OCS Study MMS 95-011, 1995.

The Tatitlek village council president summarized the concerns as follows:

Residents of the Native Village of Tatitlek were concerned with the safety of consuming any of the subsistence resources in 1989; it has been more than four years since the oil was spilled and the residents are still concerned and their concerns are growing with each failed commercial or subsistence fishing season. Prior to the oil spill, our people never had to worry about their resources, for generations we have been able to harvest whatever we wanted without worrying about the safety of consuming anything. The total failures of the herring and salmon seasons this year have made residents of Prince William Sound wonder what the true impact of the oil spill has been on the sound. The herring are an integral part of the food chain, almost all of the subsistence resources we rely on depend largely on herring for their sustenance. When the herring returned to the sound with sores and lesions on them, we became extremely concerned about the safety of harvesting any and contacted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Environmental Conservation about their condition; we were told that while both agencies were not sure what was affecting the herring, they were safe for human consumption. This made absolutely no sense at all to us. Suppose there were meats in the American Supermarkets that had sores and lesions on them, do you think that either agency would have told the consumers that the meats were safe, even before they had determined what was affecting the meats? We very seriously doubt that. Why is this so? (Tatitlek village council president quoted in Fall and Utermohle I 995:V-22).

Thus, Natives were not only interested in determining the safety of their subsistence resources, they were also concerned about the reliability of official information regarding the safety of their traditional foods.

A second reason for the decline in subsistence harvests was that resources were more scarce during the post-spill years. Many village residents in the spill area reported fewer deer, birds, fish and marine mammals. The following statements reveal how severe this resource depletion was for Alaska Natives:

This was the poorest year we ever had for seal. I looked for sea lion, but I didn’t get any (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-9).Seals are scarce. When you go out on a boat, you seldom see seals or sea lions like before. Man, the water is just dead. Along eighteen miles of Knight Island where we used to harvest, I didn’t see even one. Now we have to go thirty miles by boat to find seals. We used to get them less than two miles away from the village (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1 995:IV-9).

There are no more octopus along the beach [along Evans Island] and no gumboots (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-1 1).

I couldn’t find any shrimp in the normal hot spots. I used to be able to get shrimp just a couple hundred yards in front of my cabin. They’re not there now (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-1 1).

We were out for six hours. [We] saw not one [birds] at Cape Elrington. [The] oil spill killed them all. Oil is at Bishop Rock, Sleepy Bay, Pt. Helen, and it comes through here. I have been here [in Prince William Sound] 17 years. Now you can run all day and count all the birds you see on one hand (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-10).

[The] oil spill. Most all the animals use the ocean for salt, for kelp, and it’s still oiled. [The] land otters and mink are dead. I haven’t seen an ermine in four years (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-13).

[Marine mammal harvest numbers] are a lot less because they are more scarce. There are not as many around and they’re dropping yearly. We think the Exxon Valdez oil spill had a lot more to do with it than people believe. The pups sank. We saw it. How can a mother seal identify its pup if its covered with crude? (Tatitlek resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:V-13).

This lack of resources for subsistence harvests disrupted culture in a variety of ways. Many people, especially elders, hungered for foods which were no longer available. This cultural loss was expressed as follows:

I still hunger for clams, shrimp, crab, octopus, gumboots. Nothing in this world will replace them. To be finally living in my ancestors’ area and be able to teach my kids, but now its all gone. We still try, but you can’t replace them (Chenega Bay resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:IV-1 6).I really miss my Native foods after the spill. Lots of things I would get before from relatives elsewhere. We’d get clams, octopus, crab, shrimp, and herring. And we haven’t gotten that for the last two years. The last time I got herring was two years ago, on March I st [19891. And the spill was March 24th (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:215).

I think people would get sick without [Native foods]. I would. I get so hungry for them. I keep looking for some clams to satisfy the old stomach. I told my cousin I was starving for clams (Alaska Native elder in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:216).

Data from a convenience sample of Alaska Natives in Cordova revealed that in 1991 over half of all respondents could no longer obtain subsistence foods they had previously consumed (Picou and Gill 1995). Furthermore, approximately the same proportion reported they could not get desired subsistence foods they had prior to the accident, and almost 75 percent reported participating in fewer subsistence activities than they had prior to the oil spill (Picou and Gill 1995).

The cultural loss from subsistence disruption should not be underestimated. The meaning of such activities to participants identifies the core cultural relevance of subsistence behavior. In a 1992 follow up study of Alaska Natives in Cordova, 80 percent agreed that sharing subsistence food reminded them of their childhood, 71 percent agreed that sharing subsistence food reminded them of times spent with grandparents, and 77 percent agreed that sharing subsistence brought them closer to other people and reminded them of what was good about life (Picou and Gill 1995). Further, over 80 percent of the Alaska Natives agreed that collecting local foods was an important activity for them and 84 percent wanted their children to have the opportunity to participate in subsistence harvests (Picou and Gill 1995).

Only a Native person in our position of using these resources could understand what it means to lose them (Tatitlek resident quoted in Fall and Utermohle 1995:V-25).Without those things, a part of us is missing. Because we were raised that way (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:222).

A part of our lives would be missing. We’d be craving something we can’t get. It would bring a void (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in MMS 1993a:220).

Psychological Stress

For Alaska Natives, an immediate trauma overcame many who witnessed the massive death of living creatures brought about by the spill. In a manner analogous to stress responses characteristic of emergency response workers, Alaska Natives were numbed by the total devastation they witnessed from the oil. As noted by a Native leader:

The three mental cases were from the trauma of seeing the animals dying. The morning after the spill I got calls from the elderly saying “I feel like someone has died, like a part inside me is gone” (Eyak Native leader quoted in MMS 1993a:21 0).

Given the initial impacts of the oil spill and cleanup activities and the lingering disruption of subsistence harvests, it should not be surprising that Alaska Natives have experienced long-term psychological stress. Two studies have documented such stress patterns among Alaska Natives. The first study surveyed community residents in the spill area approximately one year following the accident (Impact Assessment, Inc. 1990a; 1990b; Palinkas et al. 1993a; 1993b). These communities included the Alaska Native villages of Chenega Bay, Tatitlek, English Bay, Akhiok, Karluk, Larsen Bay, and Chignik Bay. Second, as previously mentioned, Alaska Natives were involved in a series of longitudinal studies conducted in Cordova following the spill (Dyer et al. 1992; Picou et al. 1992; Picou and Gill 1995).

Researchers working for Impact Assessment, Inc. investigated psychological stress among Alaska Natives using a series of standardized measures. These measures included the Center of Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) scale, the Diagnostic Interview Schedule Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) index, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Version III Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) index. A statistical analysis suggested that Alaska Natives were more likely than others to be characterized by high levels of depression (Palinkas et al. 1993b).

This research group further analyzed psychological stress levels among Alaska Natives in terms of the degree of direct exposure to the oil Spill. [2] Two groups, those highly exposed and those less exposed, were compared. Statistical analysis indicated that individuals in the “highly exposed” group exhibited significantly higher levels of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when compared to those in the “less exposed” group.

Psychological stress was also evaluated in the convenience sample of Alaska Natives collected in Cordova. Psychological stress was measured by the Impact of Events Scale (IES) developed by Horowitz (1974; 1986). The IES consists of 15 items that are anchored to a specific event and a particular time frame. In this case the event was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The IES contains two subscales that measure intrusive recollections of the spill as well as one’s avoidance of spillrelated reminders. Further, the IES has been found to be correlated with patterns of post-traumatic stress disorder associated with disasters (Davidson et al. 1989; Shore et al. 1989), suggesting that this scale measures several stressrelated responses to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Results of an analysis of the Cordova data are presented in Table 10-2, which compares mean subscale scores for Alaska Natives with mean scores found for commercial fishers (see Chapter 12). Alaska Natives were found to have relatively higher levels of intrusive stress and avoidance behavior than commercial fishermen. Indeed, the intrusive stress subscale mean for Alaska Natives actually increased from 1991 to 1992. Further, the average intrusive stress scores found for Natives and commercial fishers are similar to those observed in clinical settings for victims of other traumatic events. For example, Horowitz (1986) found that clinical patients undergoing therapy for symptoms of bereavement from the death of a parent had subscale means of 13.8 six months after the death. Seidner and colleagues (1988) also found that rape victims had an average score of 11.4 two years after experiencing the assault (see Chapter 12). These findings document that four years following the Exxon Valdez disaster both Alaska Natives and commercial fishers experienced chronic levels of psychological stress.

This chronic pattern of stress has been facilitated by the lack of available mental health workers in impacted communities. Native villages in the spill area do not have resident mental health service workers and Must rely on occasional visits from professionals located in larger communities such as Cordova, Valdez or Kodiak. Furthermore, following the spill mental health workers were often over-burdened and the turnover rate of personnel in some communities increased dramatically.

The social service people are good at their jobs. [But] these people were damaged by the spill, just like everybody else. They tried to cope, their work load went up, but it was like the hurt helping the hurt. It was very difficult for them. And we would not accept at all a stranger coming in from Fairbanks, or Juneau, or Nome, to be our social worker, and sit there and say: “Yes, I know how you feel.” No, you don’t know how I feel, because you were not here. You did not go through the scare, the trauma, the fright, the financial disaster. There was nothing a social worker from anywhere else can say to help us. We have got to heal from within (Alaska Native in Cordova quoted in Dyer 1993:82-83).

Table 10-2: Impact of Events Subscale Mean Comparisons of Alaska Natives and Commercial Fishers in Cordova, 1991 and 1992

Subscale Alaska Natives Commercial Fishers

Intrusive Recollections 13.4 12.4
Avoidance Behavior 11.6 9.5
Intrusive Recollections 14.6 11.9
Avoidance Behavior 10.7 11.0

Social Disruption

Social disruption has also continued in the years following the oil spill. Studies conducted a year after the accident by the Impact Assessment research team found several forms of social disruption, particularly among Alaska Natives in the high exposed group. Members in this classification reported a significantly greater decline in social relations with spouse, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people from other communities than did individuals in the low exposed group (Palinkas et al. 1993a:5). The high exposed group also reported significantly more conflict with outsiders and friends (Palinkas et al. 1993a:5).

Drug and alcohol problems are another indicator of social disruption. When compared to the low exposed group, a significantly greater percentage of individuals in the high exposed group reported more drinking, more drinking problems, more drug use, more drug use problems, more fighting and more fighting problems in their community and among their family and friends (Palinkas et al. 1993a:9).

Using the high exposed and low exposed groupings developed by the Impact Assessment research group, Russell and colleagues (1993) further investigated social disruption among children and problems with the availability of childcare. Compared to the low exposed group, the high exposed group had statistically significant differences in terms of their children not liking to be left alone, fighting more with other children, having trouble getting along with their parents, and experiencing a decline in academic performance (Russell et al. 1993:47-49). Further, high exposed group parents were more likely to report that the oil spill had a negative effect on their children and that they had more problems finding child care during the oil spill (Russell et al. 1993:47-49).

The longitudinal study of Alaska Natives in Cordova also indicated on-going social disruption in family, future plans, work, and the community as a result of the oil spill (Picou and Gill 1995). These results are summarized in Table 10-3. Although a pattern of declining disruption is evident in this table, in 1992, 25 percent still reported family disruption from the 1989 spill. Alaska Natives also attributed on-going disruptions in work and future plans to the accident. Indeed, over two-thirds of the sample reported that the oil spill was still a source of community disruption approximately 42 months after the accident.

Table 10-3: Social Disruption Among Alaska Natives in Cordova, 1989-1992

As a result of the spill… Agree Disagree

I have noticed changes in the way my family gets along
1989 43% 57%
1990 24% 76%
1991 26% 74%
1992 24% 76%
I have made changes in my plans for the future
1989 50% 50%
1990 33% 67%
1991 42% 58%
1992 39% 61%
Things have changed for me at work
1989 52% 48%
1990 52% 48%
1991 61% 39%
1992 30% 70%
The community of Cordova has changed
1989 97% 3%
1990 71% 29%
1991 93% 7%
1992 68% 32%

These findings suggest a pattern of continuing social disruption among Alaska Natives resulting from the Exxon disaster. It appears that as long as subsistence resources continue to be limited and fears exist concerning the safety of consuming locally harvested foodstuffs, such disruption will continue.

Litigation and Alaska Native Damage Claims

The Exxon Valdez oil spill resulted in the contamination of subsistence resources for Alaska Natives, thereby directly disrupting cultural behavior and threatening future practices of cultural transmission. Most damage claims and restitution in technological disasters require legal action on behalf of the victims (Picou 1996). The Exxon Valdez disaster provided no exception to this pattern and soon after the accident Alaska Natives filed a class-action lawsuit against the Exxon corporation and its shipping subsidiary. The lawsuit claimed that the oil spill had injured the subsistence lifestyle and culture of Alaska Natives. More specifically, it was argued that the “subsistence way of life was central to their culture in a way that was fundamentally different from the noncommercial resource uses of other Alaskans” (Fall et al. 1995:1-25; see also Quam 1992). Their claims, however, were ultimately rejected by Judge H. Russel Holland on March 23, 1994 in his ruling that Alaska Native claims were not recognized by maritime law. The rationale for this decision was as follows:

The Alaska Natives’ non-economic subsistence claims are not “of a kind different from [those] suffered by other members of the public exercising the right common to the general public that was the subject of interference.” . . . Although Alaska Natives may have suffered to a greater degree than members of the general public, “differences in the intensity with which a public harm is felt does not justify a private claim for public nuisance.” . . . All Alaskans have the right to lead subsistence lifestyles, not just Alaska Natives. All Alaskans, and not just Alaska Natives, have the right to obtain and share wild food, enjoy uncontaminated nature, and cultivate traditional cultural, spiritual, and psychological benefits in pristine natural surroundings. Neither the length of time in which Alaska Natives have practiced a subsistence lifestyle nor the manner in which it is practiced makes the Alaska Native lifestyle unique (Judge Holland [March 23, 1994] cited in Fall et al. 1995:1-25).The affront to Native culture occasioned by the escape of crude oil into Prince William Sound is not actionable on an individual basis…. The Alaska Natives’ claims for non-economic losses is (sic) rejected, and the plaintiffs must find recompense for interference with their culture from the public recoveries that have been demanded of and received from Exxon (Judge Holland [March 23, 19941 cited in Fall et al. 1995:1-25).

The value Alaska Natives place on their choice to engage in subsistence activities is a non-economic “way-oflife” claim which this court has already rejected. In the case of subsistence harvests, to place a value on anything other than the lost harvest itself is to place a value on lifestyle. The court recognizes that lifestyle has a value, but the value is non-economic. Quite simply, the choice to “engage in [subsistence] activities” is a lifestyle choice, and damages to lifestyle were rejected in Order No. 190. The lifestyle choice was made before the spill and was not caused by the spill … Less there be any doubt, the claims of the Native subsistence harvesters are limited to the economic value of the lost subsistence harvest (Judge Holland [June 29, 19941 cited in Fall et al. 1995:1-26).

Private plaintiff claims against Exxon went to trial in June, 1994. The Alaska Native claim reached a settlement with Exxon during the trial. The two parties negotiated a settlement of $20 million as the value of lost subsistence harvests and this agreement was approved by Judge Holland. The non-economic part of the case was appealed and is currently pending a decision.

The denial of any damage claims for the non-economic component of Alaska Native culture by the court was an artificial separation of traditional cultural values, meanings. and behaviors from a strictly economic valuation of harvest production. Because Alaska Native culture does not distinguish between economic production and cultural practice in a way that conforms to Western legal conventions, they were further victimized by the Exxon Valdez oil spill through the court’s lack of recognition of deleterious cultural impacts experienced as a result of this technological disaster.


The Exxon Valdez oil spill cannot be described simply as a supertanker impaled on a reef, spewing millions of gallons of oil into a pristine natural environment. Oil was not only discharged into Prince William Sound and surrounding areas, but it also coursed throughout the subsistence culture of Alaska Natives. The accident and its ensuing cleanup directly challenged a culture consisting of traditional subsistence bonds to the biophysical environment. The oil spill and its subsequent contamination disrupted culturally-based subsistence harvests and produced emotional responses and long-term psychological distress within Alaska Native communities. These impacts have continued and have been viewed as “the most lingering-and measurable-of the spill” (Piper 1993:106).

Since contact with Western civilization, Alaska Native culture has been repeatedly assaulted In response to these challenges, Alaska Natives have been able to retain and transmit to their children an essential core element of their identity, that is, subsistence. The ability to endure the “great death,” attempts at cultural genocide, loss of resources and the delayed trauma of these events is a testament of Alaska Natives’ commitment to survive the Exxon Valdez disaster as a living culture (Napoleon 1991). Over seven years ago Chief Meganack 3 described this resolve when he wrote:

A wise man once said, ‘where there is life, there is hope.’ And that is true. But what we see now is death, death not of each other, but of a source of life, the water. We will need much help, much listening in order to live through the long barren season of dead water, a longer winter than ever before. I am an elder. I am chief. I will not lose hope. I will help my people. We have never lived through this kind of death, but we have lived through lots of other kinds of death. We will learn from the past, we will learn from each other, and we will live. The water is dead, but we are alive, and where there is life there is hope (Meganack 1989).


This research was partially supported by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (Project #MIS-4333) and the College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Alabama. Over the years additional support was provided by the National Science Foundation, Polar Research Division, grant DPP 9101093, the Earthwatch Center for Field Research, and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The comments of Patience Anderson Faulkner, Mark Hoover and Martha Vlasoff on an earlier draft of this chapter are gratefully appreciated. The authors, however, are solely responsible for the contents.


  1. The title of this chapter, “The Day the Water Died,” reflects a common response of local residents to the Exxon Valdez spill. Not only was this description used by the late Chief Walter Meganack, but it also titled the National Wildlife Federation’s compilation of public hearings conducted in the communities of Cordova, Kodiak, Homer, Old Harbor and Anchorage in November 1989 (see Levkovitz 1990).
  2. Oil spill exposure was determined by responses to the following questions: 1) “Did you or anyone in your household use, before the spill, areas along the coast that were affected by the spill?; 2) Did you work on any of the shoreline or water cleanup activities of the oil spill?; 3) Are there any other ways that you came into contact with the oil spill or cleanup activities, such as during recreation, hunting, fishing, or gathering activities?; 4) Did you have property that was lost or damaged because of the oil spill or cleanup?; 5) Did the oil spill cause any damage to the areas you or other household members fish commercially?; and 6) Has the oil spill directly affected the hunting, fishing or gathering activities of any members of this household?” Alaska Natives who gave an affirmative response to four or more of the above six items were classified as being “highly exposed” and the remainder were classified as “less exposed” (Palinkas et al. 1993a:4).
  3. Chief Walter Meganack died in 1994.

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