Thursday, October 9, 2008

Make sure you take a second look

A friend from Akiachak sent me a story recently published in New York Times about the place, "Remote and Struggling, but Still a Bit of America." I could identify with my friends' feelings about the article - proud that her hometown was highlighted, yet disturbed about the way the village was portrayed.

It is a line I myself struggle with. There are real problems to address, in the villages as well as, well, pretty much every where else. But these villages are not cesspools - they are not without great warmth and beauty.

My dad recently asked me, "What do you say when people ask you where you're from?"

Because of my dad's job, I grew up all over Alaska. Although born in in "Rural" Alaska, by the time I was twelve I had moved twelve times, between both Rural and urban. I spent only nine months of my life away from Alaska - my first year of college - and that was about all I needed to know I would never leave the state. But I still don't quite know how to answer the question - except to say where I was born and, "I'm from Alaska."

As both insider and outsider to Rural Alaskan life, I can't say I have quite the same connection to village life as some of my "village to city" friends do. Yet I was a preteen when we finally made the move to the "big city" - Anchorage. (Don't laugh - it's big when you spent all your life previous "off the road system!")

I can say, without hesitancy or shame, that my absolute best memories from my youth are from playing in the shores and rivers of Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island, eating herring eggs until I was stuffed at my grandparent's house, and getting any number of scrapes, bruises and muddy skirts from the "no playground" backyards of relatives.

We have major, major problems, yes. I think few Americans are unaware now that we have the highest rates of... everything. Suicide, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence... and on... and on... Things are serious - but I am sad to think that this is the only view we might leave.

This came up again when I read a post by Mudflats about "Another Alaska."

Yes, the facts are there, and there is concern, but things are not ONLY bad. The New York Times article brushed by children speaking in Yup'ik in kindergarten. In kindergarten! A serious judge of how strong a language is are the number of children in the culture speaking the language. In this extremely important piece of rebuilding cultures and lives, Akiachak is a leader.I wish the communities I come from could boast the same.

The post in Mudflats has some of the bad, but it is not always. Not having a playground is not the worst thing that could happen. My fondest memories of childhood were not on the playground - they were in the wilds (and sometimes backyard wilds) of the most beautiful land in the country.

The problem with stating this is that then people sometimes go, "See! They are happier living exactly as they are!"

No community in the world is perfect, and a community that can't save itself from a fire, or prevent a girl drowning in raw sewage had serious problems indeed. But the answer is so many times, "If you want to change one thing, you have to change everything."

You see, Native people who do not live in the villages of Alaska do not enjoy remarkably better rates of the social problems that plague the villages. In fact, many of the rates go up. It is not an entirely "infrastructure" problem. It is not even an entirely energy problem. The problems go back far into the past, and crop up now not because people have dirt roads and no plumbing - the problem is deep and rooted too far for that.

Many well-meaning people call only for the infrastructure - and are then frustrated when it does not work. "We got these people good plumbing, and they're still in trouble." The problems are not as simple as that. Yes, we need to get to a healthy standard of living - one that all agree should happen.

But a Native child in Alaska has a better chance of being sexually assaulted before he or she is grown than attending college after he or she is grown. A MUCH better chance - about four times more likely (visit the State of Alaska's Web site for much more grim facts.) The chances of this happening to a non-Native child in Alaska are not much better.

But it is happening in the cities as well as the villages. The indoor plumbing and access to fire stations is not the underlying problem.

The problems and solutions are much too big to describe in all detail - I will once again cite an excellent resource, the Alaska Natives Commission Report.

But the beauty of the cultures, the people, the land - those are all too big to describe in all detail as well.


Cindy said...

I am someone who does frequently discuss the lack of infrastructure in rural Alaska as a problem. Not because I think it's a panacea, but because I think it's a first step.

I don't bemoan a lack of playgrounds - we entertained ourselves fine without them in - but it seems like things like renewable power/heating sources would go a long way toward helping people stay in villages (and maybe even provide people economic opportunities to stay or go to the big city as they determine best.)

It doesn't address the law enforcement or Alaskan frontier mentality, but that's a statewide effort to change the larger culture.

Writing Raven said...

I'm not saying we shouldn't talk about infrastructure - I was more addressing those who think it's the ONLY, and best, way to address ALL the problems in Rural Alaska.

Honestly, I would love to go back right now - but it's economically not going to happen. If I go back, I am absolutely shutting off opportunity that I am getting here - leaving a higher paying job I love to go to a lower paying job I never intended to do (because that's all that's available) to put all my money into energy and food costs that would quadruple. The education, training and experience I'm getting right now would be completely unavailable. I might be thinking differently if I had children - the benefit of being raised in the culture would be a powerful draw - but right now it just makes no sense.

Fixing much of the infrastructure would allow someone like me (and I doubt I'm the only one) to go back (or for many, to stay) and make even stronger communities. I think that Rural Alaska could be the key to the state's energy problems (as they have been before) and a leader in both the state and the nation.

The resource I cited - the Alaska Natives Commission Report - talks about the many facets of what needs to happen - infrastructure, law enforcement, cultural programs, language... and on.. and on. I think some of the problems come when people who don't understand (usually people who have not been anywhere in Rural Alaska until they came to fix it) that focus entirely on one facet of the larger issue. Yes, people will need to specialize (I most certainly won't be the one to develop the next great energy solution) but then an issue of frustration and hopelessness comes in because (once again) the next great hope has come in and failed. A concerted effort on all sides, with coordination, resources and (yeah, I'll say it!) some serious inspiration may get the job done. But I don't think we've seen that yet. I think it's right around the corner...