Framing the Kobuk Road   3 comments

I wrote this a couple of years ago, but the topic came up recently and I thought it was appropriate to re-run it. Lela

 

While the Yukon River Access Road (currently just the 54-mile Road to Tanana with a distant dream of taking it all 500+ miles to Nome) is welcomed by the majority of the residents of the corridor, not every community wants roads for a variety of reasons.

Source: Framing the Kobuk Road

I make no secret that I think my mother’s people are among the most bigoted ethnic groups in the United States. Although I am a stateside Indian, I see the same cultural prejudice at work in the Inupiat and Athabaskan of Alaska. I find it odd that a people who so pride themselves on a history of non-ownership of the land are so greedy for it in this generation. I’m told that’s the Caucasian in my blood stream talking. If I weren’t a “breed”, I’d get it. Then they turn around and say white men are greedy for land in an unhealthy way.

Related imageAnd, people wonder why I think my Indian cousins are bigots ….

Can we just admit that mistakes were made in the past, but that we live in a different era today, so should start working together as the human race, not as separate competing silos of skin color? As one who stands astride more than one silo and does not see a compelling reason to choose which part of my DNA to reject, this bigotry got old and worn out a long time ago. That’s my transracial rant for the day. Back to the subject at hand.

Sometimes the real issues involved in building a road or developing a mine get obscured with the window-dressing of environmental and cultural issues. Let me lay it out for you. The Kobuk region is losing population fast. The old folks are dying off and the young folks are moving away. It’s approaching a point where the only ones still left in Ambler are the alcoholics and bootleggers – those who can’t leave because they can’t function in the modern world and those who won’t leave because they derive a benefit from those who can’t function in the modern world. The Kobuk region is a beautiful place and there are some truly lovely people who come from there, but those truly lovely people tell me that Ambler is in trouble. There are plenty of theories why. Some would say it’s all the fault of the “white man” who came bringing “alien ideas” and telling the young ones that the life there wasn’t worth living.

I’m popping bubbles today.

Eskimos make their own choices just like everyone else. If you don’t want to lose your culture, make it worth keeping. Sexual abuse of minors and alcoholism are not cultural values worth hanging onto. For those who are self-aware, the causes are a bit more complicated than “the white man caused it.”

Life in a Native village that is not connected by road is isolated and limited. You collect wood to burn, you haul water, you hunt and fish in season, you pick berries and grow a garden … and then you sit in the cabin all winter and stare at four walls. That might have been enough when they didn’t know there was more, but that time went away a long time ago. Now the mind-numbing boredom of eight months of winter wears on a person. Alcohol is readily available and Alaska allows its citizens to grow their own pot. Both drugs are depressants. The television brings in images of places where it is warm and sunny and you can do something besides stare at four walls or haul water. The imported teachers try to educate the kids, but when you’ve been up all night hiding under your bed to avoid your drunken father’s sexual advances, it’s really hard to even go to school, let along concentrate on algebra or English, skills that would allow you to move to Anchorage or Fairbanks or even just Kotz and get a job. The suicide rate among teenage Natives is huge. The alcoholism and drug addiction rate is even higher.

Then there’s Tim’s family. They are a Native family that lives in Fairbanks. They have a nice home and jobs and they don’t drink. I go to their house for agutaq (Eskimo “ice cream”) and muktuk (whale meat) and they tease me because I don’t understand the appeal of seal oil. Tim’s mom is an Inupiat from Kotzebue whose mother is from the Kobuk, but his dad is Yupik from the Bethel region. A century ago their ethnicities were at serious war with one another. Today they’re married. They foster kids from the villages. Most of the kids they foster are doomed before they ever get them. When your mother drank a fifth of whiskey every day while she was pregnant with you, your brain doesn’t develop correctly and you are forever damaged by it. But occasionally, they get kids who can take advantage of the non-drinking environment to get an education and learn to keep those parts of their culture that are worth keeping and adopt those parts of modern culture that are worthwhile. Tim talks about his “brothers and sisters” who now live out on their own – some going to college, some to trade school, some of them now have jobs and families of their own. They go back to the village to visit, but they don’t live there.

Would they chose to live there if there were jobs not only to provide money to buy food, fuel, etc., but also to provide adults the dignity of meaningful work and to alleviate the mind-numbing boredom?

Some say they would. Some of them point out that the opposition to the Kobuk road is driven by outside environmental interests more than by local sentiment. When you’ve got someone whispering in your ear that all it would take to save your village is to seal the modern world out and that a road would do just the opposite, you’re going to fight against the road. But the modern world has already brought a corrupting influence to the village. Bootleggers wouldn’t bring the alcohol in if villagers didn’t buy it. The television that helps to relieve the boredom of the parents also brings in glimpses of the world beyond the village that tempt the children to leave.

There’s no sense closing the barn door after the cows have run off.

The State of Alaska also has an interest in building the road that goes beyond the economic benefits of providing access to the mineral prospects. There are costs associated with people sitting on their asses not producing anything of value. Village police officers are needed to keep drunken idiots from beating each other to death or gang-raping young girls. I’m not making that up. Read the Alaska media and you’ll see this happens often. Health aides are needed to treat the affects of alcoholism and drug use. Mental health clinicians are also needed to combat the damage done by a culture of alcoholism and sexual abuse. The State of Alaska provides a school for every village with at least 15 students, but the students aren’t learning because of the alcoholism and resultant chaotic environment. Public assistance dollars must go to support a “subsistence” lifestyle that increasingly depends on modern technology – rifles, snow machines, 4-wheelers, power boats, fuel to power these items and heat your home, sewer treatment to deal with the effects of staying in one place for generations, etc.

The road would provide jobs and access to services and allow the people of the Kobuk Valley to start supporting themselves rather than forcing those of us who don’t even live there to support them so they can live there. But it would also provide them with a reason to get up in the morning and do something with their lives besides stare at four walls. It’s not a panacea for the cultural sickness in the Kobuk Valley, but it might well be a step in the right direction, a step away from deliberate isolation in the interest of protecting a culture that was never as lovely as portrayed and has become undignified and damaging to generation after generation.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Keeping a stranglehold on a culture that is dying doesn’t save the culture. It just kills the people who are doing the strangling. Adapting to the inevitable might help them save those parts of their culture that are worth saving.

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3 responses to “Framing the Kobuk Road

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  1. Wow, what an eye-opening post. You don’t pull any punches here, Lela.

    Like

  2. My husband Brad and I have deep connections to the Kobuk region. His best friend’s Mom is from there, so we’ve been guests in the village a couple of times. There are some great people there. There are also some people who do awful things. Sometimes those people are one in the same and the only difference is the presence of alcohol in their system.

    Ana (grandmother) LuLu is from the Kobuk region too. She’s my husband’s “adopted” mother. When he takes her places, she tells people he’s her “white son”. When I wrote the post, it sounded so harsh when I read it back to myself, so I asked her to read it before I posted it. After she stopped crying, she hugged me and said “People need to read it and know.”

    I wrote it mainly for people from outside the region to understand the issues there. We need to rid ourselves of the delusional fantasy that isolation is somehow a panacea for Native cultural rot. That ship sailed a long time ago and, if we want to correct the damage done by that, we have to let go of the Disney version of “subsistence” living.

    But of course it’s not politically correct to write what I wrote. It comes off harsh because the reality isn’t pretty.

    Like

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