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The Politics of Adaptation: Subsistence Livelihoods and Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Koyukon Athabascan Village of Ruby, Alaska

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The concepts of vulnerability and adaptation have contributed to understanding human responses to climate change. However, analysis of the implications of the broader political context on adaptation has largely been absent. Through a case study of the subsistence livelihoods of Koyukon Athabascan people of Ruby Village, this paper examines the implications of adaptation to the social changes precipitated by colonization for the articulation of current responses to climate change. Semi-structured interviews, seasonal rounds, and land-use mapping conducted with 20 community experts indicate that subsistence livelihoods are of continued importance to the people of Ruby in spite of the dramatic social change. While adaptive responses demonstrate resilience, adaptation to one form of change can increase vulnerability to other kinds of perturbations. Research findings illustrate that a historical approach to adaptation can clarify the influence of the present political context on indigenous peoples’ responses to impacts of climate changes.

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  1. Icons were adapted from land use mapping projects conducted in Wainwright, Alaska, and Hay River, Northwest Territories (Kassam and the Wainwright Traditional Council 2001; Kassam and the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre 2001).

  2. Significant social change occurred prior to this era, including during the gold booms of 1906 and 1910. At its peak, the population in the region surrounding Ruby is estimated to have been as high as 10,000 (Larson 2006). However, the 1950s are used as a baseline for this study because the majority of changes in subsistence livelihoods identified by community experts occurred after this date.

  3. Mapping for past land use was not conducted, but interviews reveal that present land use is not as extensive as it used to be. However, the people of Ruby continue conduct subsistence livelihood activities within the majority of their traditional territory.

  4. Interview narratives indicate that while the people of Ruby were previously able to hunt moose at any time of year, they would primarily hunt moose during the fall (August and September), as they do now, and in the spring (February and March). Cow moose were primarily hunted during this time because they are typically in better shape than bull moose, with more fat after the winter. Moose would also be hunted after breakup if there were no other food sources available.

  5. Moose hunting is one of the most significant subsistence livelihood activities for the people of Ruby. In a 2004 study, it was found that approximately 88% of the people of Ruby use moose meat. At that time, 64% of households participated in hunting and 40% had successfully hunted a moose. Of those who had hunted a moose, 60% reported sharing moose meat (Brown, Walker, and Vanek 2004). Moose hunting is not only important as a means of meeting the nutritional needs of the people of Ruby, it is also a culturally important activity and considered part of a way of life.

  6. The open season for moose hunting occurs during the fall. In the area around Ruby, ADF&G regulates an open season from August 22 to 31 and September 5 to 25 (on state and private lands, including lands held by native corporations) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulates a hunt from September 26 to October 1 (on federal lands) (AFWS 2010). Moose hunting is no longer permitted at any other time of year, with the exception of taking a moose for community potlatches or other traditional purposes. The harvest is limited to one moose per person. People are only allowed to hunt bulls with antlers. Hunting cow moose in the area near Ruby is prohibited. Hunting regulations, seasons, bag limits, and means of hunting are determined by both the state and federal boards of game and implemented by their respective agencies (Carey 2009).


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This paper is based on research conducted in completion of my MS thesis at Cornell University. It would not have been possible without support from my research partners, the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council and the Ruby Tribal Council. I am also deeply grateful to the community experts from Ruby Village who shared their knowledge including George Albert, Phillip Albert, Tom Esmailka, Billy Honea, Clara Honea, Lorraine Honea, Junior and Karen Gurtler, Nora Kangas, Billy McCarty, Emmitt and Edna Peters, Joe Peters, Mark and Tudi Ryder, Ed Sarten, Lily Sweetsir, Pat Sweetsir, Allen Titus and Martha Wright. Enaa baasee’ (Thank you). I would also like to thank my adviser, Karim-Aly Kassam, and my minor committee members, Paul Nadasdy and Todd Walter. I am also grateful to Morgan Ruelle, Ryan Toohey, and Carol Hasburgh for reviewing a previous draft of this paper and to Morgan Ruelle for the inspiration to incorporate seasonal rounds into my research methods. This study was made possible by various funding sources including the Cornell Department of Natural Resources and American Indian Program, the Arctic Institute of North America, Grants In-Aid (2010), the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada Circumpolar World Fellowship (2010), the Cornell Graduate School Research Travel Grant (2010, 2011), the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies Travel Grant (2010, 2011) and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation’s Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship (2011–2012).

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Correspondence to Nicole J. Wilson.


Livelihood activities were borrowed from Nelson 1986 and adapted to the context of Ruby Village.

All Koyukon names sourced from The Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary authored by Eliza Jones and Jules Jetté (2000).


Table 3 Description of fourteen subsistence activities in Ruby Village, AK

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Wilson, N.J. The Politics of Adaptation: Subsistence Livelihoods and Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Koyukon Athabascan Village of Ruby, Alaska. Hum Ecol 42, 87–101 (2014).

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