Rural Living and Subsistence Lifestyles and How They Impact Each Other

Our research topic is the dump and human waste contaminating our food supply. Tununak is a small village of about 350 people and is located near the Bering Sea. There are several hoppers around town, which you could locate if you simply took one stroll around.


Nelson Island from the air


Our research topic is the dump and human waste contaminating our food supply. Tununak is a small village of about 350 people and is located near the Bering Sea. There are several hoppers around town, which you could locate if you simply took one stroll around. A little ways beyond the airport is the village dump. This is where all garbage ends up. The community depends mostly on subsistence food that mainly come from the land and ocean. Because of the contamination involving the hoppers and dump, now and in the future our food may not be healthy to eat. Our hoppers and dump have been contaminating our food and this is the purpose of this research paper.

Background on Tununak

Tununak is located on the Bering Sea coast on the northeast coast of Nelson Island. It is 115 miles northwest of Bethel. About 350 people live in the village and approximately 110 are enrolled in school at levels from kindergarten to high school. Tununak started out as a winter village where marine mammals were hunted and villagers moved inland to summer fish camps. Remnants of previous village are located near the airfield, such as sod houses.

Some changes in the local ecosystem are noticeable. Migratory birds, specifically Steller’s eiders and Emperor geese have greatly decreased in number. Another major ecosystem change occurred in the mid-70’s was the dramatic increase in the number of beavers in our area. Their dam building has decreased the flow in the rivers and streams.

The villagers rely heavily upon subsistence foods. Seal meat, seal oil, herring, salmon, halibut, geese, tomcods, trout, and ptarmigans are the most important. Families work together to assure that everyone has enough food for the winter.

The contaminant problems posed by the village dump

Our first dump used to be on a small island a little ways up the river. It was located up the river south of Tununak. Villagers would take their trash up the river by boat. When the community members dumped their trash on the small island, the trash would drift away because of floods and high tides. The trash that was dumped would sink to the bottom of the river and became a problem. Our dump was moved near the airport and next to the ocean because people on boats would sometimes damage their propellers because of the trash that was settled at the bottom.

In this present time, the dump is in terrible condition (Figure 1). Every day three to five trash bags are added to the dump per family. It may not seem like a lot, but if you look at the overall picture, it builds up quickly. Also, our dump is not contained in any way. A pit cannot be dug due to permafrost and it does not have a fence surrounding it. With winds commonly 30 to 40 mph, the garbage ends up blowing into the river or directly into the Bering Sea. This affects the environment and our marine animals to a high degree. If our dump continues to grow it may have a bigger impact on our food supply, which would then affect our lives.

Two corporations also add to the situation. One is Alaska Village Electric Corporation (AVEC) and the other is the Coastal Village Regional Fund (CVRF). AVEC is the company that maintains the generator responsible for all electrical power in the village. It runs on diesel fuel and requires large quantities of oil to maintain. When the oil needs to be changed, the used oil is brought to the dump. CVRF is the halibut fish processing plant. They take all the halibut heads and guts to the dump daily. Both corporations add to the problem with the dump.

The large items that people abandon in the dump include appliances, snowmachines, boat motors, Four Wheelers, and old household furniture and stoves. Some of these items contain high percentages of heavy metals, plastics, hydrocarbons, Freon, PCB’s and other hazardous compounds. Also pop cans and other non-biodegradable materials are scattered throughout the dump. These items can do serious damage to wild animals around the area.

The local government in Tununak is the Tununak Rinit Corporation, or TRC. They held a meeting concerning the dump including possible solutions. One solution the community discussed the need for a new dump. The big issue was what could be done with the old dump. Will the dump be buried or will it just sit there? One idea was to make the new dump a landfill to prevent trash from harming the environment. Another idea was to make a recycle bins to prevent our community from becoming too trashy. They discussed making a system that consisted of having TRC pick up the trash and bringing it to the dump. After all that was discussed at this meeting that was held at the TRC building, no action has been taken to improve anything. A neighboring village owns the land near the current dump. We cannot use it for a dump. This is our best potential site. The problem with recycling is the cost feasibility. The cost to fly recyclable material to Bethel to have it recycled is too expensive. Due to our remote location, solving this dump issue is tough.

The contaminant problems posed by honey buckets

A honey bucket is a bucket or container that is used for human waste, and is used where a toilet is not available. A honey bucket cannot be flushed; you have to manually dump it yourself in a designated hopper (Figure 2). A full honey bucket weighs at least 40 pounds. A hopper is a box shaped container where most people dump their human waste. One problem we experience is that not everyone dumps his or her waste in the hoppers out of laziness and inability to carry the honey bucket that far. They usually end up dumping them on the beach, in the ocean, in the river, and sometimes even on the ground. Community members are sometimes forced to dump a honey bucket on the ground because the hopper may be full. Also, some of the community members are just too lazy to walk that extra 10 feet.

Honey buckets are used by most of the households in the village. Despite Governor Knowles promising in the early 1990’s to put honey buckets into a museum, they are still used commonly in rural Alaska. All houses in Tununak are built on stilts due to the ground shifting with permafrost. The steps leading from the house to the ground are often slippery as is the trail to the hoppers. Sometimes honey buckets are spilled accidentally due to slipping on ice or snow.

When interviewing some elders of the village, we found out interesting information. One of the questions was long ago, where did you empty the honey buckets? Tommy Hooper replied “the ocean.” When we asked, Victor Kanrilak Jr, he replied, “elders used the bathroom by the ocean cliffs.” Human waste has been a problem here in Tununak for a long time. With the growing population, it is becoming a bigger problem.

Much of this human waste directly or indirectly ends up in our food supply. When spills occur, water either runs off toward the river or the Bering Sea. If it gets into the Tununak River, it immediately dumps into the Bering Sea. During winter, people dump their honey buckets right on the Bering Sea ice. As soon as break up occurs, the human waste goes right into our food. All this human waste directly affects our food supply.

Our subsistence food

The food we catch and prepare to eat is very important to us and is very nutritious for us. “If Alaska Natives were to stop eating Native foods, they would experience nutrition and protein deficiencies. Native foods are as important to Native social well-being as they are to physical health” (Traditional Knowledge and Contaminants Project: Progress Report, 44-45). The community holds many potlucks where different people bring in subsistence foods. Whenever we gather together to socialize, there is almost always native food involved. The men go fishing or hunting together and the women usually go ice fishing on the frozen river in the wintertime.

There are many different types of fish and there are different types we catch and eat (Table 1). Men with nets, fishing rods, and dip nets catch many of the fish. Sometimes the men even make fish traps out of wood to catch black fish. The women use home made manaqs, or fishing rods, to go fishing on the river in the winter.

There are many different ways we prepare our fish to eat. Some fish we eat frozen, which is usually fish that is caught during the winter season. Fish that is caught in the summer is hung to dry and then is eaten dried. The most common way fish is prepared and eaten is cooked and this occurs during any season (Figure 3).

There are some birds that we hunt and eat. Geese, ptarmigan, ducks, and eider, we hunt and eat, but the eiders we don’t we don’t catch anymore because they are endangered. We catch these birds using shotguns and 22 magnums and long rifles. Arctic terns and seagulls we catch but we don’t eat them we use them for fish bait or catch just to catch them. We cook and dry the ptarmigans cooked and dried.

The mammals we hunt and eat include ringed seal, bearded seals, harbor seals, the seals dried or cooked. The walrus when we catch one we share it with the village and we eat them cooked. The beluga whale we do the same we share it with the village and eat them cooked.

How we effect our food

The biggest problem to our food is the dump. The dump contributes many bad chemicals into our marine ecosystem. Some of the negative impacts how the people of Tununak affect our food include lead, mercury, and fecal waste.

Mercury is also one of the big problems in Tununak, but most of the community members don’t really notice it. In Bethel, a similar village near by, 48 % of blood samples collected from residents exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for mercury (Arctic Pollution, 88). The things that we throw away that is in our dump that contain mercury include the following: thermometers, thermostats, household lamps, batteries, a high amount of paint, old chemistry sets, and toys, athletic shoes, pesticides, clothing irons, antiseptics, blood pressure gauges, and microwave ovens (Mercury in Your Home, 2003). Although Tununak is located far from industrial sources of mercury pollution, our geographical location leads to enhanced inputs of reactive mercury at snow melt. Reactive halogens (bromine and chlorine) naturally concentrate on ice crystals formed from sea ice, catalyze the transformation of elemental mercury in the air by photochemical reactions (Arctic spring) to reactive mercury that enters the aquatic environment where fish can take it up. Many of our foods are high on Arctic food webs leading to higher mercury exposures as seen in Bethel.

The honey bucket is the second largest problem to our food sources. Contamination from honey buckets can poisons our food and soon the animals that we eat will disappear. One reason that the honey buckets are such a problem is because it can flow anywhere after it spills. It could be drifted around the rivers, ocean, and many places. That’s why we’re trying to fix the problem that is happening around the village that affects our food and us. We are trying to educate people from having the pollution out of sight and how to dump honey buckets properly instead of spilling it all over the hopper.

We are also trying to build a landfill for the dump so the trash wouldn’t be blown away when it gets really windy. Through educating the village, we are trying to stop honey buckets from being dumped into the river or Bering Sea. That’s how the dump and the honey bucket affect our food. Too much pollution is spread in the marine and our environment. If change doesn’t happen soon, it may be too late.


Figure 1.

Fig. 1, Tununak dump

A picture of our dump. As you can see, most of the garbage is household, but some is from AVEC and other companies.

Figure 2.

Fig. 2, The hopper, where honey buckets are dumped

This is a hopper. This is where honey buckets must be dumped. When they are full, they get pumped out.

Figure 3.

Fig. 3, women cleaning and drying fish

Fish caught in the summer are hung and eaten dried.

Table 1.

Table 1, seasonal food

Leave a Reply

Rural Living and Subsistence Lifestyles and How They Impact Each Other

Our research topic is the dump and human waste contaminating our food supply. Tununak is a small village of about 350 people and is located near the Bering Sea. There are several hoppers around town, which you could locate if you simply took one stroll around.

Scroll to top