The Winner’s Circle

By Karla Fetrow

Photography @ Karla Fetrow 2010

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.  It wasn’t supposed to have ended at all, but something happened; an audible snap that came from anywhere and nowhere and signified something unthinkable had occurred.  It was the end of a generation, the end of an era, and the remnants were folded quietly into the pages of history.  They called it a communication break-down, but maybe it was just that nobody wanted to listen or they were having too much fun playing games and feeling like winners.

Whatever the reason, it was over.  The winter of need had become the winter of truth, the year we understood we were on our own and couldn’t expect help from anyone.  The boys had grown the most resentful.  It was always the boys, climbing painfully into their maturity, still full of idealistic dreams, not yet ready to relinquish them for the grinding wheels of reality.  The elders blamed it on television.  The young see a different world when they look at the screen.  This world looks beautiful and wonderful and has much more than they have.  They believe that world is real, and because they can never truly live in it, they are smaller and lesser than their televised neighbors.  They lose their self esteem.

There were plenty of things knocking away at their self-esteem.  When the newspaper reporters came, they snapped pictures of the village’s most hideous houses; their lack of plumbing, the rotting, ragged steps, the fish drying on the back porch.  The reporters clucked their tongues in pity and wrote articles that generated much money for their newspaper, but none of it went to the village.  Even a lady poet, moved by the plight of a young girl, wrote a poem about how it felt to be a rural Native victim of an abusive uncle.  The newspapers applauded the woman’s poetry, but the people of the village were bitter.  How could this white lady, who had never slept in a village household, possibly know how a Native girl felt?

The girls would tell their story if they thought someone would accept it.  They would explain how all their sisters and cousins crowded into one bed at night when they were small, because the close contact of so many soft, wriggling bodies felt good and caused them to giggle.  They would talk about their aunties, who were nearly as important as their mama’s, and taught them how to make pan bread and sew beads to leather.  They would talk about them, and how things were not really so hard as they appeared because everything was shared and anywhere you went, you had a place to lay your head.  But these aren’t the stories the world outside the villages want to hear.

It was the opinion of the newspaper and of the poet that the young girls had suffered.  So many were taken from their homes and spirited away.  We were told they were being sent to a better place.  They would have more opportunities and better life-styles.  The girls ran away.  Eventually, they came back to the village.  Their glistening eyes no longer lifted like crescent moons into deep smiles.  Their laughter was harsh. The foster homes and shelters they had been sent to didn’t let them see their parents, their brothers or their cousins. They said they had been locked inside their homes and not allowed to visit friends.  They were not allowed to touch each, to embrace or kiss.  The social service division thought it was better this way as it would teach them boundaries.

Star dust children, as warmly colored as earth, why was there ever a need for boundaries?  Their chattering presence had graced our lives, and now they are grim and quiet.  At first, we had tried to explain ourselves, but that was when the games began.

Strange to think it took forty years to understand we were involved in a game.  It took forty years of watching the population explode, of oil wealth and commercial development; forty years in which we thought we were a part of it all and could effect positive changes.  We had become a vigorous culture, educated, with strong cross-ties to the small, rural towns.  We had blonde Aleuts, red-haired Athabaskan and blue-eyed Tlingets.  We were integrated, or so we believed.

We hadn’t always been so culturally blended.  Our history entails the usual records of slavery, forced Christianity and racism that dot the pages of any litany of invasion, yet somehow, unwittingly, we absorbed the early settlers.  We learned their ways and they learned ours.  The last big campaign by the mission churches to send Native children to boarding schools and foster homes in the larger white towns began in the 1960’s and faded out in the early 1970’s.

The idea was to socially integrate and provide a better education for the village children, but the results were devastating.  These children had never seen city sidewalks, large department stores, traffic lights, large numbers of people living close together.  They didn’t know the rules.  They didn’t know you couldn’t just casually walk into the house of a stranger, help yourself to a sandwich or walk in and out of the dormitory and class rooms whenever you pleased.  They often got in trouble, and became confused.

Sometimes, it was more serious than that.  The children were bright.  They learned..  Even though they didn’t understand why they were always being punished, they adapted.  They also carried their scars.  The foster home parents weren’t always kind, nor behaved in accordance with the Russian Orthodox religion they had grown familiar with in their villages.  The homes were sometimes very abusive, subversively alcoholic and preyed on their young charges.  It wasn’t in the nature of the youth to speak out; to protest.  They had been taught to respect their elders.  Silently they accepted their abuses and silently they returned to their villages, still trying to grasp the concept of a people who with-held their love so they could deliver punishment.

During the council among their elders, it was decided the problem was no longer one of the rural areas not understanding the culture crowding in around them, but that these new people didn’t understand there was another viewpoint.  We needed to educate the educators.

The nineteen seventies were a very good time for an educational campaign.  The pipeline was being built with enough cash thrown around for everyone to roll in, and enough left over to write paper back novels on.  The Civil Rights movement had opened the door for ethnic populations explaining their cultural beliefs and basic plights at public platforms.  Within their new fields of expertise, Native corporations were  formed, investments made, business plans carried out, and seminars held on Native education.

It was an era like no other.  Money had become the great equalizer.  Native apartments housed non-Native tenants.  Non-Native hotels hosted conventions with well-dressed Native businessmen carrying attache cases and mingling with high power lobbyists and legislators. Travel was no longer an obstacle restricted by finances.  If you wanted to fly somewhere, all you had to do was wait for your next share-holder dividend.  We could immigrate.  We could merge.

The speaker paused in front of his group of listeners, his eyes measuring the half-circle of desks and their silent occupants.  “I’ve lived twenty-five years in St. Michael’s,” he told them.  “The town is mainly Yu’Pik.  My wife is Yu’Pik.  In a Native village, nothing is wasted.  If you are given a plate, you are expected to eat every last scrap.  It’s impolite to leave anything on your plate.”

The owlish eyes glanced at him, primed with proper etiquette.  “My first night there…” his voice trailed a moment, than returned energetically.  “My first night there, they were serving muskrat.  You can’t imagine how I felt when this shriveled up little creature with tiny, enclosed hands was given to me.  Apparently, I was being given a favored delicacy because they all seemed quite proud of the dish.  I didn’t want to appear rude, so I dabbed at it here and there and felt I’d done a fair job of eating, but the main lady of the house, an elderly grandma, looked concerned.  ‘Are you feeling poorly?’ She asked.  I assured her I was fine.  ‘You have no appetite.  You didn’t finish your meal.’.  I looked around the table.  Not only had the others picked away at every last scrap of meat, but they had picked the bones dry and left a neat, polished pile on the table.  As painful as it was for me, I cleaned up my plate.”

Laughter tinkled around the room, some of it polite, some of it genuine amusement. “Let’s talk about good manners.  Everyone likes a child who has good manners.  Do you?  Let’s see a show of hands for those who like good manners.”  The hands displayed themselves, some just waggling, some half extended from their elbows.  The speaker set his notes aside and strolled around the classroom.  He stopped where a young woman was busy texting a message to another, and set his hand almost forcibly on the desk.  “Look up at me when I speak,” he ordered.  “I want you to look at me.  When I talk to you, look into my eyes so I can be sure you’re listening to every word.”

The girl looked up mildly, tucking away her cell phone.  “Sorry.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“A little bit foolish.”

“A little foolish… embarrassed maybe?  If you talk to a Native child this way, you’ve lost him.  Many rural children are shy.  Many Native children have been raised not to look up at their elders when spoken to directly.  It’s a sign of disrespect.  When they are given a direct address, they look down.  They are concentrating on what their elders are saying.

It’s considered rude to make someone feel embarrassed or foolish.  If all the children in a group except two, know a subject, the chances are none of the group will profess any knowledge of that subject.  They don’t wish to appear to their less fortunate companions to be showing off.”

“Sir,” asked one of the classmates.  “If we don’t know how much they have learned, how can we grade them?”
“You will not be able to grade them according to standard procedures.  In the villages, children learn both their formal education and their subsistence learning skills at the same time.  You’ll find that many students will not attend school during fishing season, hunting, gathering or other family oriented activity.  The important thing is to teach each one the basic fundamentals.  Some will choose to learn more and some will choose to live more closely within their traditional life- style.”Photographer, Todd Fritz

Our traditional lives had served us well for centuries.  They didn’t serve us quite so well, however, when trying to conduct business.  Some contracts resulted in deforestation of precious timber land.  Poor investments sometimes led to loss of land titles to the banks.  Share holding meant the profits were spread among a large number of people, and so were the losses.  It was difficult to start a business without including all the family members, and not all family members were well qualified.

The oil-rich days settled down into not so wealthy ones.  Businesses failed, but that was the way of business.  The bigger and stronger pushed the smaller and weaker aside.  This was not our way, but the way of business.  We watched as our own endeavors to attract tourism through lodges and guide offers failed, while larger, more affluent chains advertised their services just upstream from the villages, polluting our rivers with sewage run-off and our lakes with oil films from their boats and planes.    We watched as our craftsmanship was overtaken by Asian imitations that sold at one quarter of our prices.

We believed the solution was simple.  We have no travel inlays, no connecting road systems.  Our transportation is reliant on air service in the summer, or paddling between villages by canoe;  dog sled and snow machines in the winter.  We asked for a road system that would connect the villages to the main highway grid.  We were told that our proposal was too expensive and too harmful to the environment.

This puzzled us.  If it was something that directly benefitted the small towns and villages, the impact on the environment was the first consideration, but when the big rigs came in to dig holes in the land, when concrete was laid and bridges built for those businesses we were unable to compete against, it was called progress.

We have not been able to compete.  A century of history lies in our fishing trade, a century in which our villages and towns have relied on fishing as our greatest renewable resource.  When the fishing was good, it was a good year for everyone.  When the harvest was over, there was usually enough money for three or four of the villagers to fly into Anchorage for supplies.  Our general stores are small and limited in what they carry; mainly basic tools, staple items, dried goods, soda pops and candy.  Everything is air lifted in and everything is expensive.  The Anchorage visits brought us the things we dreamed about, fashionable clothing, new sheets and blankets, boxes of cereal, oranges and apples.  We would hold a potlach, which is a feast that could go on for several days, with saunas, dancing and story telling ventures.  The supplies were laid out as gifts so everyone could fill their family’s needs.

That century has crumbled under the weight of the large commercial fishing fleets that now patrol our waters.  Fishing has been poor, so poor, it barely covers our basic food needs, with very little left over to sell.  Our villages are out of work and out of money.  We’ve asked for help.  We were told the best thing we could do was move out of the villages and find work in the larger towns.

This is what we were told and why the young girls left us.  When they left, there were fewer young mothers putting their children through school and our educational funds were cut.  We pleaded for our young people to return.  Some did, but the laughter had faded from their glistening eyes.  Those who remembered the days of boarding houses and foster homes knew what had happened.  These hope filled youth had not been able to adjust to a world that told them all the things they believed in were false.  They had not been able to thrive.  They had barely been able to survive.

In the end, for some, there was no survival.  Teenage suicide sky-rocketed.  In any given rural town, there was an average of up to four teenaged deaths per year.  There is nothing quite so sad as the death of youth.  The soft grieving faces yearning for their young companion become older and wiser than their gentle age should ever make them.  The trees bow and the spring winds sigh for the once gay laughter of child hood play.

Our village was shrinking.  We finally boarded our school and bussed the children to the next town.  It was there that the real problem began.  The teachers we had spent so much time teaching our customs had decided there was no excuse for them.  They wanted the students to follow strict rules on attendance and academic performance.  They would not allow the parents to excuse their children for hunting, fishing, potlach’s and other family activities.  They began humiliating the rural students, giving them low grades for poor attendance and signaling them out as examples of poor behavior.

While the elders attempted to patiently explain their position, the boys became angry.  They went on strike, refusing to enter the classroom of an offending teacher.  We appealed to administration.  Their answer was the rural communities were not adequately preparing their children for the challenges of a competitive market.  They must learn to adapt.

Something in the air snapped and we realized in that moment all our efforts were part of a game we could not win because we did not have a clear definition of winners.  Each and every person within our individual communities was a loved and wanted member, from the wretched, drunken uncle who pawed around too much, to the mayor.  If we were wealthy, we were equally wealthy.  If we were poor, we were equally poor.  We did not compete against each other.  We only endeavored to do the best to our individual abilities.  To take away that single underlying philosophy that had glued us together for centuries was to commit cultural genocide.

We had reached the crossroads of decisions, the meeting of opposing values.  We had done our part.  We had integrated, accepted new technologies and ideas, and we had educated our youth.  We could do no more.  If there was no mutual consideration, no desire to become part of rural culture, but to conquer it, it was only a game we would not play.  That night, the boys threw stones at the windows of the offending teacher.  The next day she was chased out of town.