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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Shopping for Porcupine  >  Discussion Questions
Once Upon a Frontier
Essay Summary: 
Kantner boldly tackles the complicated and controversial Alaskan issue of subsistence. He witnesses a wolf being killed in front of his house and this leads him to a discussion of ANCSA and ANILCA and redefining what it really means to live off the land.

Discussion Questions:

What is the tone of the opening paragraphs of the essay that tell the story of the wolf being killed in front of Kantner's house? (p. 157)

Points to consider:

  • The labeling of the "Anchorage Native" politician and the Japanese snowmobile designate that the shooter and his equipment aren't local and don't belong. Kantner "stumbles" into his house, likely angry and disgusted, though he recognizes he has also killed wolves in his past.

How is the wilderness being "chased off?" (p. 157)

Points to consider:

  • Development and the outside world are encroaching. The wolf represents wilderness and the outsiders are "progress" destroying it.

Why does Kantner make the distinction between the ANCSA drafters and their definition of subsistence and "living off the land" versus those who take their living from the land mining, working in the oil industry, or hunting big game? (p. 158)

Points to consider:

  • He's making a distinction between employment and making money from the land verses surviving off the land by hunting and gathering.
  • His interpretation of subsistence is "living with what you have" and not taking from the land to get a salary or extract resources for monetary gain and dividends.

What is Kantner's view on the impact of ANCSA? (p. 158)

Points to consider:

  • ANCSA generated wealth, made people landowners and shareholders, and created capitalists out of hunters and gatherers.
  • The government began "saturating" communities with money, and according to Kantner, this money added to the already high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
  • Resource development brought jobs and money but no "hope for the land remaining as it was, or for people living "subsistence.'"
  • ANCSA made development of resources "necessary."

Why does Kantner say people will "hate" him for writing about the war over subsistence? (p. 160)

Points to consider:

  • This is a contentious topic in Alaska, with many people feeling very passionately on both sides.

Why does Kantner say he should just be quiet and "kill wolves" instead of criticize what has "infiltrated" subsistence? (p. 160)

Points to consider:

  • Killing wolves would draw less controversy than entering the fray over subsistence rights.
  • Kantner also adds that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't argue and fight for what he thinks is right.

Why does Kantner include the list of items he packs to go winter camping? (p. 160)

Points to consider:

  • The list reveals the complexity of the issue at hand. Much of the stuff is a mixture of old and new, of traditional and modern.

What does Kantner mean when he says he's become  "some strange yuppie?" (p. 160)

Points to consider:

  • This line illustrates how Kantner feels conflicted about his own use of modern tools and his love for traditional life and the pains (frostbite) that come with that life.

Explain how using technology also creates a need for rules and laws. (p. 163)

Points to consider:

  • Technology allows for people to travel quicker and take more game than the land can sustain, and the laws attempt to regulate the behavior of people using that technology.
  • In old times the land and the environment determined how people would behave, but technology has changed that relationship.

Why do you think hunters still hold the highest status in the arctic? (p. 163)

Points to consider:

  • This is a skill that is rooted in tradition and is still the only way to provide traditional foods; therefore, the role of the hunter is really one of the last meaningful roles related to the culture that still exists.

What is Kantner's view of the new generation? (p. 163)

Points to consider:

  • He is critical of the kids raised on non-traditional foods, video games, television, and basketball.
  • Alcohol and a loss of traditional subsistence ways have created turmoil.

What is "video-game-like herd shooting" of caribou and why is Kantner critical of it? (p. 163)

Points to consider:

  • Random machine-gun-like fire into caribou herds without regard for the animals wounded.
  • This style of hunting lacks the respect and care for the animals (and the meat and fat) that Kantner addresses in previous essays.
  • Those traditional skills of tracking wounded game, hunger-driven hunting, and "reverence for the dead" are gone.

How are the subsistence hunters living in the "headlights" of America? (p. 164)

Points to consider:

  • This statement implies that modern America, with all the rules, regulations, and technology, is about to run over those trying to live off the land.

Why do you think getting a whole wolf pack might still bring prestige? (p. 166)

Points to consider:

  • Kantner links this to a "splinter of the past" where people still revere a successful hunter.
  • The speed and agility of an entire pack would require, at the very least, solid snowmachine driving capability and persistence. In an age where more people are playing video games and basketball in the village, news of a hunter taking down an entire pack would spread quickly.

Discuss Kantner's reaction to the Senate Committee testimony on the radio. (p. 167)

Points to consider:

  • He paces and talks to the walls because he is frustrated and angry with the politics and regulations.
  • He wants to fight for his lifestyle and get people to be honest about their definition of subsistence.

At the end of the essay, why does Kantner juxtapose the beauty of the land and the plentiful animal with the "metal root hairs" of development spreading across Alaska?

Points to consider:

  • He's establishing the natural beauty with the devastation that progress and a drive for profit will bring.

What other issues does Kantner hint at in the conclusion of this essay?

Points to consider:

  • Climate change bringing warmer temperatures and rising water and technology and industry destroying the wilderness.
  • Native corporations seeking profit over the needs of their people.
  • Road development in wilderness areas.
  • National Park Service luring tourists.

Final Questions:

Why do you think subsistence in Alaska has become such a controversial issue?

What does Kantner mean when he says the war over subsistence is "big-fisted and confusing?" (p. 160)

Why is this essay called "Once Upon a Frontier"?

Can that freedom of the frontier ever be regained?

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