I just walked back from a mini-potlatch (similar to a pow-pow or multi-family gathering) at the community center and am digesting thanksgiving dinner from several hours ago while mulling thoughts of this native alaskan town during this day of thanks. The food was wonderful, we managed ham, turkey, glazed carrots, sweet potato casserole, coffee cake, and probably close to the 5000 calorie american average of great food. It isn’t dinner that I’ve been mulling, or rather not the food itself, but the conversation I listened too and tried to engage in. These teachers are out here faced with the hardest possible student they are likely to face in the United States. They vented and understandably so. Through these venting, they have helped fill in that initial impression of this place, though I still lack the depth of several years here which would help truly understand this place.
Even so after 5 days being here, I’m struggling to get a big picture of this town, because I’m on a short time budget and my relationship is with the teachers not the people. This might be good as the teachers have spent those months (or years) building the relationships with people in the town and who can help me compare the outside world to the inside world of kotlik, but I feel as though I’m going to leave this town with the bias of the negative given all the statistics and venting that I’ve listened too and haven’t seen enough of the successes.
I keep focusing on the culture of the Yupik in this town and have visions of a Yupik society that is successfully adapting to a modern world and brings new things to it, but I continue to see a culture that is effectively dead and where the new culture is that of drink, drugs, and welfare. The potlatch I just walked from had people who were talking and seemed happy, yet it feels as if it’s a facade. Perhaps i am off my rocker, but these people seem as if they are struggling like a teenager or college student is struggling to find their way in life. Outwardly happy, but the soul is lost.
I’m now riddle with factoids, statistics, and a few anecdotes of this town and it’s inhabitants, but the humans I see and the kids I’ve talked to are more real then these statistics. I work in Washington DC with lobbyists who want to help these people, these humans…these kids, find a way to help themselves, but how? They have little incentive to do more then subsist on the government doll as they used to subsist off the land and those who do succeed in spite of the disincentive are scorned when they return for having “more” of anything, be it education, money, success, etc. How do you get anyone to want to improve their own existence and livelihood when they are happy with the lives they live now? No matter how disorderly, disfunctional, or even criminal they perhaps are, it is us as the outsiders who are judging them, and indeed who have brought the problems to them in our attempt to improve their standard of living and arguably their happiness.
We (as in the government) pegged them to this spot in the ground, we told them we’d provide for them if they had kids, we told them we would make their life better, but we as an American society has rudely failed at this. These teachers, although they are of sound heart, persistent spirit, gifted minds, are a bridge between a misbegotten promise and an a lost culture. They are in an untenable position which may be getting better, but which the Environment is sure to make worse.
The US Credit Crisis and the Energy Crisis as well as other factors of economics and politics are sure to make the doll to which these people are living off unsustainable forever. (Remember no industry exists in town, many commercially fish and the fish are disappearing.) They cannot return to a subsistence life, as the land will likely only support 40 people or so (700 are here now).
I have thought of legislation that could be proposed, grants that could be written, people that could be contacted, but the more I talk and the longer I think about it, the more I feel as if whatever I do would be a form of cultural imperialism where I am the destroyer. I am not so naive as to entirely believe this thought pattern, but it’s tempting to write these people and their ways off and let nature sort them out.
For those of you who didn’t talk much to me during and after my pubescence I hated the politicians of Washington as it seemed that the political process was lost and pointless and needed violent reform. Having lived there for a year and watched the process more closely I still believe it needs reform, but know that it’s the voters and much less the system that are the reason things are dysfunctional.
So too I am frustrated with the lack of diverse, useful, and creative adaptation that are necessary for kotlik and the many peoples like it to survive and flourish, but I know that the change must come from within these people and not from the outside. I feel that we as a government and a society should be encouraging the trial and error of any solution they might come up with, for there are intelligent people among them, and there are intelligent people among us and we can bridge the many promises we’ve made to these and other native peoples.
Maybe then we can learn the many things they can teach us while they rebuild or recreate a new Yupik culture in this modern world.