MSW student Ian Foster release short documentary titled Modern Subsistence

December 6, 2020

Portrait of Ian Foster

There was a village council meeting in Alaska, where the Google definition of 'subsistence' was read. It read: "Subsistence—noun—the action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level."

In response, an elder said, “That's not what subsistence means to us. Subsistence means EVERYTHING.”

Set in beautiful northwest Alaska, Modern Subsistence is a documentary short by Ian Foster, a University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work master's student. Foster explores questions with modern hunter-gatherers in an effort to discover if/how ancient customs and modern society can coexist. What is our relationship to one another? To the planet? What values transcend time and culture? How do we know when we have enough?

  • Meat curing in the sun
    CURING: A screenshot from YouTube of Ian Foster's short documentary, titled Modern Subsistence. 
  • Polar bear skin curing in the sun
    POLAR BEAR SKIN: A polar bear skin curing on a rail in Little Diomede. The island in the background is Russian Big Diomede. Photo courtesy of Ian Foster
  • carving and laptop on desk
    SPIRIT: Ian Foster kept this carving on his desk through the entire winter he was editing Modern Subsistence. It was carved by an artist named Nolan Walunga in Gambell, and it helped to ground Foster in the spirit of the project. Photo courtesy of Ian Foster
  • Mural painting of group of Beluga whales
    MURAL: A mural painted by James Adcox that is on the wall of the school in St. Michael, depicting a group of Beluga. Photo courtesy of Ian Foster

In this documentary, Foster attempts to flesh out more of the “everything” that was referred to by the elder and so many others who live a subsistence lifestyle in Alaska. Contextually, Alaska is one of the last places on Earth that can support a subsistence harvest of wild game by humans. Modern Subsistence explores some of the nobler characteristics common to many societies that are especially pertinent in our day: sharing, connection to land, and relationship to resources. Foster chose this project and topic because it scared him. For his capstone, he wanted to produce a consumable and powerful story that viewers can learn from and appreciate. He wanted to shine light on the non-food aspects of subsistence culture for people in and out of Alaska.

"It was big. It was risky, but it had energy. I tripped a lot. I misspoke a ton. I was given enough grace by my stakeholders in the project to allow me to move forward," Foster said. "Somewhere in the middle of the interviews, I KNEW something special was happening, and I’m just so grateful that came out in the final project.

"The biggest lesson for me was that I was going to lead from the sidelines. There were 1,000 decisions to approach carefully. I had to trust the story and the big principles my participants shared; to say things my narrative couldn’t or shouldn’t, and I had to not get in the way of that. I chose some autobiographical narrative tools for conveying the message, but I made sure this wasn’t MY story, because it's not."