Wed. May 29th, 2024

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.

By karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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15 thoughts on “The Winner’s Circle”
  1. This misunderstanding continues to happen in so many areas and with as many cultures as can be counted. Why does the “majority” whatever defines that always feel they know best? If they knew best why did they go seeking something better?

    It feels as if now that we have run out of land to conquer we are engaged in a never ending round of conquering that which we do not like or understand in people in one place or another. One wonders when it will cease.

  2. Привет! Все кто читает этот блог – С Днем Примерения и согласия!
    [Regards! All who reads this [blog] – with the day Of [primereniya] and agreement!]

  3. Grainne, i no longer believe there is any overt misunderstanding involved, only the intent to convince ethnic minorities of “wrong thinking”. Village cultures are generally well-socialized. Their solution to “a chain is only as strong as its strongest link” is not cut loose the weak links but to strengthen the weakest. Socialized views are not compatible with corporate interests, which seeks to define a pecking order of privilege based on amount of personal wealth. The habit of cutting the weak links only shortens the chain. If the weak links are in the middle instead of the end of the chain, it becomes very short indeed.

    A recent example of capitalist complicity in problem solving involves the epidemic outbreaks of severe and sometimes fatal respiratory tracts and lung disease infections that occur among the small children and elderly. The statistics showed clearly that these outbreaks were more constant in villages that did not have running water and proper sewage disposal. Was a plan laid out to service these inadequacies in living standards? Absolutely not! It was decided to re-vaccinate the villages with a new anti-viral, anti-bacterial remedy as their studies also showed that that the first round of vaccinations had worked a few years until the viruses and bacteria mutated. Instead of a long term solution that would improve general living standards and allow the rural outposts to thrive, they chose the short term, which was cheaper and allowed the pharmaceutical companies to maintain their grasp on the political pie. Furthermore, improved living standards would falsify the carefully painted image that rural culture was a pitiful, dysfunctional society, and that the first duty of all compassionate, humane citizens was to rescue the children from their poverty stricken plight.

    The Alaskan Federation of Natives have given many workable solutions for improving their lives and generating mutual support between all rural communities. These solutions have included giving priority hunting and fishing rights to subsistence dwellers (Native and non-Native), building a road system between isolated villages, the development of low-impact energy resources by local corporations, the recycling of metal scrap pile wastes left by military installations in the tundra and an educational system that not only has the elasticity to absorb rural cultural rhythms, but that incorporates the rural knowledge base into its teachings. These proposals are perfectly well understood, but they are not incorporated because they are not feasible for special interests gain.

  4. Great job, Karla! Important piece, very good writing style. You truly are the voice of this magazine.

  5. Thank you Karla. What an essential issue that you wrote about which happens too often around the globe. Nothing pisses me off more than someone or some entity with some power comes in and tramples on the culture of another thinking their way is the right way. I want to hear the “other” stories that the mainstream media does not cover. Those stories are so rich and valuable and go a long way to educate the ignorant and challenge judgments. Thank you for your perspective and your wonderful writing style.

  6. PBugnacki, it feels good when someone “gets it”. There’s no need to change a person’s culture. If you like somebody, that culture is probably part of the reason you like them so well. How could a society that hasn’t solved its own problems of unhappiness and abuse hope to solve the problems of a culture they don’t know or understand? It’s tunnel vision; an ability to see only one thing to the exclusion of all else.

  7. Опубликовал на своем блоге вашу статью, и напечатол там конечно-же обратную ссылку на вас. Но вот зашел посмотреть поевился ли трекбек, а его нет…

  8. Реалии современного рынка таковы, что довольно часто нас, потребителей, обманывают недобросовестные поставщики товаров и услуг. Избежать этого помогут специалисты, продавцы-консультанты, советы которых вы найдете в статьях этого интернет-сайта

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