Exclusionary Collectivism and Clan Property

A recent article in The Economist highlights what happens when two social concepts, alien to one another, compete in the political realm.

Group rights vs individual rights – Me, myself and them

WHEN one category of citizens is singled out for privileged treatment, are the rights of others infringed? Phil Eidsvik, a Canadian salmon-fisher, thinks the answer is yes. He hopes his country’s newly re-elected prime minister, Stephen Harper, recalls a pledge he made five years ago: to oppose “racially divided fisheries programmes”, in other words, giving special fishing rights to indigenous groups.

But given the storm that Mr Harper’s comment provoked—he was accused of stoking white nativism—he is likely to proceed cautiously. And legal moves are now afoot to broaden the rights of indigenous fishermen. At present Canada upholds the rights of aboriginal groups to engage in traditional, subsistence fishing; hence regulators often open a fishery to a particular indigenous group for a limited time before a commercial catch begins.

The management of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaskan Fisheries is a complex one, for obvious reasons. Wild salmon represent a resource that is not easily managed by western notions of private property rights, so they are managed as public property of states and nation states. The Economist article casts the issue of Native subsistence and fishing rights as one of affirmative action, “correcting past wrongs by allocating a disproportionate share of jobs or educational places to groups that apparently need a leg up.”

Among the world’s liberal democracies, Canada stands out for the entitlements it grants to one group of citizens and for its open acknowledgment that there are hard trade-offs between individual rights and group rights. From South Africa to India, many countries have “affirmative action” policies, with the aim of correcting past wrongs by allocating a disproportionate share of jobs or educational places to groups that apparently need a leg up. But critics of the Canadian system say it goes further; it creates two levels of citizen by excluding indigenous people from conservation rules, and by exempting tribes from the accountability rules that other groups must follow. It is one thing to offer benefits to citizens who are felt to need them, another to water down the principle of equal citizenship.

We Alaskan Natives, First Nations and American Indians should view it not as affirmative action or even an issue of subsistence versus commercial resource use. Instead it should be viewed as an issue of territorial tribe and clan sovereignty. That is, as a clash of two fundamentally different concepts of rights, our clan collectivism and clan property rights versus the western notion of nation states and public property.

Under our old clan system, the right to gather resources in a particular area was one that an individual was born with. Fishery management was a localized, decentralized affair that required the development of a complex culture, notions of clan property rights, and an intricate web of inter and intra-tribal social interaction and customs. For an example of what I’m talking about, check out the interactive map below, which shows the inter-tribal divisions of traditional Tlingit Country along with the territorial boundaries of the Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak. You can see that the entire Tlingit Nation is divided into sub-tribal territories, themselves further subdivided into clan and sub clan territories.

This system of clearly defined sub-clan, clan and tribe based property rights represents a system of natural resource management that was elegant and well suited to the regions most productive resource; salmon. Overfishing your own clan’s territorial waters meant feast this year, and famine next year. The better solution was to maintain a self imposed catch limit to ensure the prosperity of your clan. Overfishing also meant angering neighboring clans, as their prosperity was tied to how many salmon your clan takes before the run makes it to their territory. Hence the tribe at the mouth of a river may find their fish traps destroyed by logs sent down river by the tribe from the headwaters of the river if they didn’t allow enough salmon upstream. The complex web of common cultural ties that defines tribes of the Pacific Northwest encouraged cooperation and peace brokering between clans rather than war, though war certainly did break out from time to time.

It should be noted here that such a system of territorial clan resource management is not peculiar to Native Americans. The white lobsterment of Maine developed a similar “clan” system in Maine.

Lobstering History From the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Lobstering territories

Maine lobstermen have traditionally protected their share of the resource through lobstering territories. In any port, they have an informal, often unspoken agreement about where each member of the fishing community may lay his traps. All the members of one community even lay their strings of traps in one direction, such as north to south, so they don’t tangle their lines in someone else’s gear.

Youngsters who want to enter the fishery may start with a few traps or work as a “sternman,” baiting traps and carting gear, for one of the established fishermen. Eventually he or she will be allowed to take over his or her own territory after a suitable apprenticeship. Should an interloper “from away” try to enter the game, he may at first find his gear has been moved or a half-hitch knot tied into his buoy line. If he doesn’t get the hint, his traps may be severed from the line. (One string may easily link 10 traps costing $55 each.)

Lobster gangs

James Acheson, an anthropologist at the University of Maine, has studied Maine’s closely-knit fishing communities for many years.He has found there is a hierarchy of fishermen, based on an individual’s skill and family ties, which he calls “lobster gangs.” The gangs claim and defend fishing territory which not only ensures a continued livelihood for its members, but conserves the limited resources from overexploitation. (For more information, read Lobster Gangs of Maine, by James Acheson, 1988: University Press of New England, Hanover, NH.)

The territorial clan system of Pacific Northwest Tribes and the harbor gang system of white lobstermen in Maine represent a form of exclusionary collectivism. Those who are a part of a clan or gang are granted the right to harvest clan and gang common resources. The clan or gang protects its resources, its rights and the rights of its members at a very low and decentralized level through customs, repeated social interaction and war when necessary. The system of resource management used by nation states is completely at odds with exclusionary collectivism, clan property and, as a result, subsistence. It usurps localized management and control and brings it to a state and federal level. It treats these resources as public goods of the nation state and controls access from a very high, centralized level. From this level, the local fishermen is imposed upon with a myriad of catch limits, size limits, limits on tackle, gear and method, seasons and permitting that inflates the cost of fishing and mandates high levels of capital investment. We also get a completely different process for deciding who gets access to which resources, as exemplified in The Economist article.

When we speak of tribal sovereignty, we should think of what exactly that means. Collective clan ownership of resources has been our way for centuries. It is a proven method of resource management, and it is one that we can and should pursue if we are serious about defending our fishing rights in our own lands. Do our rights to fish our territorial clan waters come from a state or federal government? Or have those rights always been there for us, ever since our ancestors first dipped a net in the Chilkat, Shtax’héen and T’aaku rivers centuries ago?

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About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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3 Responses to Exclusionary Collectivism and Clan Property

  1. Pingback: Attack the System » Blog Archive » Exclusionary Collectivism and Clan Property

  2. Pingback: Exclusionary Collectivism and Clan Property | American Indian/Alaska Native – Attack The System

  3. Albert says:

    Good article. It is starting to make sense to me:)

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