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Monday, July 2, 2012

Changing world. Racist world?

The world is changing.  Literally.

A hot topic here in Alaska is the state or un-state of global climate change and it's effect on us as human beings.  And before we go any further, yes, I completely believe in the climate change theory.  I find I cannot call it 'global warming.'  That simple term is too simple, and suggests so much and confines an understanding of what might be happening.  But I live too close to the arctic to believe anything else.  There are at least 300 scientists in Barrow Alaska alone in a state of the art brand new science facility, and most travel all over the North slope doing research.  We hob nob with scientists whose data you will not see for 10-20 years, driving them around in the wilderness to observe and take samples.  But most importantly we have cultural memory to rely on.  Both with elders that have intimate experience with this vast wilderness in their extensive life spans and with oral and artistic histories that have survived thousands of years. 

Did you know that the Inupiaq have a dragon?  Not really a dragon, but more like a large crocodile, a scaled being that thrived in the hot humid temperatures of yore.  Here in what was eventually named the 'arctic.'  Yes our memory goes that far back, beyond knowing how to butcher and prepare mammoth meat even.  We even have Memory and Story of glaciers and animals that people insist are just legend.  The polar people are very adaptable, it is our strongest attribute.  We adapt, we learn, we even have 30% higher spacial intelligence just to be able to mentally manipulate and predict this environment and what it might do in the future or what it did in the past.  Our whole culture is built on knowing and living in this environment;  intelligence and 'goodness' is judged on how proficient you are at observing the world around you, how much knowledge you absorbed from elders, how much knowledge you retain, how much knowledge you pass on. For thousands upon thousands of years only the people that could memorize a full ecological system would survive.  Your life literally depended on how good your memory was, and your children's lives depended on how well you passed on that memory.  And Alaska has only been a state for 50 years.  Less than a single lifespan. 

So yes we know the arctic changes and did not look like it did.  But we also know is what gradual normal change feels like, versus violent immediate unnatural change.

But I bring this up simply because I am again disturbed by the trend that is blooming in Alaska, like the green waterway clogging algae in our waters.  The animals are being affected by the World.  And in newspapers and online people are pointing towards subsistence hunting as the culprit.  And this greatly distresses me.  Not simply because this can threaten our rights and cause starvation or greater dependence on wellfare and federal monies (your tax dollars), but because people are ultimately being mislead.  It disturbs me that 'Big media' might be using Native people as a scapegoat, an 'easy' target.   News reporters point out how Natives eat animals, after suggesting the numbers of these animals are failing.  They print photos of laughing native children under headlines of 'no fish this year', or 'declining caribou numbers' ...etc. And no one ever points out that Natives have been harvesting animals in way larger numbers for over 10,000 years and these same animals never had a problem before....but...

Numbers are important.  They hold great dominion over whether or not we will eat this next year.  So how do they count?  For caribou they put collars on a few caribou, an extremely small population, and visit them the same time every year.  They hover above the collared caribou and their compadres in a million dollar helicopter and take a picture and go back to an office and count the caribou.   Which sounds fantastic until you realize that this method allows so much error that it is ridiculous.  Caribou are extremely affected by the environment, especially temperature.  We have noticed a few things with the caribou these past years:  They are staying in smaller herds for longer periods of time as it has been getting colder later in the year.  Cold means they herd up, travel to wintering grounds, then split up again in tiny herds for winter.  They are using different routes and traveling them in smaller herds.  They are staying together at different times than usual and you can see this by the rise in communal social diseases.  All of these would easily account for a reduction in the counted numbers.

But this is how the government determines pretty much every animal count.  They find a bunch of them, take a photo and sit in an office and count them.  Or they count a days worth of them passing by and use math to pretend they know the exact numbers.  As you can imagine we who see these animals all year long find this method pretty mind boggling and hilarious.  My bio-calculus teacher in college and I did not get along at all if you can picture it. We scowled at each other across the room, and I had to swallow my tongue just to pass that class.  Barely. 

The other side of this type of media circus is the almost non- reporting done on other reasons that are probably actually affecting or going to affect the animal population.  Like the offshore drilling,  oil spills, mine development, road building, and general encroachment of metal upon the arctic.  None of these things are ever suggested as possible reasons for affected numbers.  The media also abhors even suggesting that the reason for low numbers and failing populations might be caused by non-native men in cities behind desks.  They instead tote these guys decisions as being 'good for Alaska' and 'moving forward,' and I feel like they are trying to make me drink castor oil. 

But we have seen these types of things happen in the past.  Our modern history is peppered with blatant racism against Alaska Native people.  And yes I consider using Natives as scapegoats as racism.  If you are interested there is a book called 'Firecracker boys' by Dan O'neill that is a good case of how the U.S. government sees Alaska land and it's people. But there are unfortunately many other cases that never see the light of day.  Like when the military fed Inupiaq children radioactive material to try and figure out why they could withstand the cold better than most.  Or how the government forbid Alaska natives from hunting ducks because the only season that counted was for the hunters in the lower 48.  Or how they dumped millions of gallons of gas and oil across the arctic in metal barrels that leaked and poisoned village water wells.  The unfortunate list goes on and on in a parade of shame and secrets, that still abound in this day and age  Whats funny is that I have been warned many times that I will end up being thrown in jail for looking for information about this stuff, the elders insist that to even talk about what the government does in the arctic will warrant me disappearing for the rest of my life.  Most of these stories you will never hear because the participants were paid reparation fees and they feel like it meant they had to be quiet.  When it didn't.

But the absolute most damaging part of these suggestions is the harm the media is doing to the Native psyche. And I know that it's not the job of the media to do otherwise but in some ways with the wording choice they are trying to rabble rouse against the Native population.  Our identity is extremely tied in with subsistence hunting.  Our means in which we feed our population, that action alone, defines our self image.  Defines if we see ourselves as good human beings, or bad human beings.  And when people make a point to say how horrible it is, well they are in fact telling us that we are horrible people.  A past prominent Alaska University president once said in the presence of many native people: ''Native subsistence is nothing more than grown men pretending they were Boy Scouts, thereby evading "real jobs."'  And this sentiment is echoed throughout the state, usually stated with a sneer or a laugh, and is regularly accepted in media circles and forums.  They no longer use as guinea pigs for experiments but they do use us as scapegoats to avoid bigger issues. 

(steps off soap box)


  1. Once again, you nailed this! Keep speaking out. People are listening. Not enough people, but your audience will grow. May I use a post or two from you in my freshman college classes next fall? Let me know. I will message you my email on FB. Thank you, for all you do.J

    1. I replied on FB but I'kk reply here alos: you can use this as you wish anyday!

  2. I know it must be terrible being such a small community facing such overwhelming ignorance and such devastating change. But there is so much beauty in the way your people live, so much there that is truly good and right. The more that you and others like you share this with the world, the louder your voices will grow...magnified by the voices of those of us that hear you. Every time I read your blog, about how you and Ben work so hard to eke out a living for yourselves and your community I am inspired. You respect the land and life around you, you share everything you care for everything around you. You are all part of the arctic, part of what makes it strong, a force to be reckoned with.

    1. Alaskan Natives are only 15% of the Alaskan population, but everyone makes it seems like we have a bigger presence than we do! I hope someone hears my tiny voice, and I hope that people realize that we as a population do think about these things.

  3. Une très belle publication...

    Gros bisous.

  4. mh.... can't be sure my english will survive ... when I'm upset I lose my french and certainly more my english ! Yes I'm upset because I think those who accuse you just imagine your people is as selfish and greedy as ours... for centuries -and much more- you have killed and eaten no more than what you needed to... and they assume you do as they would ...of course you kill more animals than I do SO WHAT ? I live in a country where everything we need grows easily...yes I'm upset... hope my english survived it !
    and by the way have you ever read any book by Jean Malaurie ? if you did I'd love to know what you think of what he says...your answer on this point might make me a little less stupid... and that's important to me...