Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Mask of Racism (Part 1)

Chronic inebriates. This is what the City of Fairbanks, its police department and all the rest of the public policy makers here like to call the people with drinking problems who drink downtown (and who happen to be, 99 out of 100 times, Native). Lately there have been at least two articles in the Daily News Miner about the "chronic inebriate" problem. This is a re-occurring theme. And each time it reoccurs, I get more and more disturbed.

The last time this term cropped up was on August 19, in an article that blatted the headline: Fairbanks police step up patrols as downtown chronic inebriates increase. The nut of this story was that, under new police chief Zager, the city police are increasing their patrol unit by four in response to business owners' complaints that "a larger, younger chronic inebriate population is becoming increasingly violent."

There is so much that is so wrong with this article as well as the persistent and shrill attacks on the so-called chronic inebriates that it is hard to know where to begin. But for starters - let's look at why the City, the cops and everyone else in power in these parts uses the term "chronic inebriate" as opposed to the medically-accepted term "alcoholic"*.

These two terms are not interchangeable. If there is any organization that is up on the lingo associated with alcohol abuse, it's the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the NIH. The term "chronic inebriate" appears nowhere on its website or in its publications. It's not used in its research papers, press releases, FAQs, publications or fact sheets.

So, what is up with the persistent use of this phrase by Fairbanks' mayor, city council, and police force? The term itself is not formally defined in medical, sociological or psychological reference books, but is understood to mean a chronic alcoholic who is homeless and drinks in public. Thus if challenged, I suspect the city and its police chief would defend their usage of the term by saying that these are homeless drunks, and thus their use of the phrase is perfectly justified, racially neutral, and transparent. No man behind the curtain here.

Except for one troubling little issue ---- very few of the people that they are labeling as chronic inebriates are homeless. They have homes; most of them in villages, some of them in Fairbanks. They may be alcoholics, even very advanced-stage alcoholics, but they are not homeless.

A majority of this pool of downtown alcoholics (to call them what they are) are cyclical. Throughout the year, they come into town and for varying lengths of time end up on Two Street or along the river. They come in for a variety of reasons: to drink legally (if from a dry village), for medical, to shop, or to visit. The fact is --- people who suffer from alcoholism, no matter how good their intentions are when they get on the Fairbanks-bound plane, are going to have a hard time resisting booze that is $11 a bottle (the current going rate for R&R) and a virtually unlimited supply when bootlegging in the vil puts alcohol at anywhere from $50 to $300 a bottle.

Furthermore, even if these drinkers are from villages, they aren't homeless when in town either. The majority of village drinkers (even those with relatives in town) stay in hotels - and not flop hotels. There are quite a few hotels downtown that are all too happy to cater to the village alcoholic (and even tolerate the impacts that go along with that) who comes over and gets stuck in town on a bender. Thus, the chronic inebriates and their relatives contribute quite a handsome sum to the hotel industry, especially during the winter off-season --- something that is never mentioned by the troubled downtown business owners.

So, this is not really a chronic inebriate problem but an alcoholism problem --- the same heartbreaking disease that strikes so very many in the non-Native population. Yet if the city officials used the term "alcoholic", they would have to acknowledge that Natives are vulnerable to the same disease as non-Natives. And in doing so, they then would have to look at the ugly fact that Natives are denied, through widespread indifference, often willful ignorance (of the problem) and an abominable lack of resources, many of the options for help and support that the majority population can secure for its members that suffer this dreadful disease.

Better to use a different term. One that does not imply disease as much as the fault of the individual. The words chronic inebriate literally translate to always-drunk: a hopeless drunk. In other words, one that chooses to exist in a persistent state of drunkenness, with a not so subtle top note of insufficient moral and character fiber to snap out of their derelict and debauched state. Its baggage is the implication that this state of being arises out of the individual's agency (blame the victim), not through the conjunction of biological predisposition, personal choice and the roll of the cosmic dice as with disease.

On the surface, city officials talking about chronic inebriates appear to be engaged in a neutral and rational discussion of a problem that is vaguely medical in nature. Look deeper and what you see is a term that is being used to mask the same racial biases and prejudices that the majority population has nurtured against Native Americans since contact. Not so ironically, it is these same prejudices and stereotypes that are responsible for the chronic low socioeconomic status that contributes to the high alcoholism rates among Natives and restricts their options for treatment and prevention.

This type of code talking serves no one well. It is time for city officials and other policy makers to address the severe alcoholism problem that plagues this region as well as the rest of the state. Contrary to what police chief Zager said in the paper --- it is about social services (and medical and behavioral health services). Alcoholics of all backgrounds and races face significant challenges if they want to go into recovery here, particularly those living in small villages. It is not about adding more police or establishing alcohol impact zones or a do-not sell list. It is about taking a hard look at the reasons why the people in power (local, regional, state and federal) do not want to allocate funds for the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, but instead prefer to fund those institutions which punish and incarcerate rather than heal.

*Doubt this? A simple google search on both the web and the FDNM site comparing the two phrases will amply demonstrate the veracity of this statement.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

But Does It Come with a Shovel?

Appetizer and entree (r.)
Little wonder Americans are fat. Pictured above is what constitutes an appetizer at a notorious eatery somewhere down the highway between here and the Canadian border. Buried under that brick of cheese food are enough nachos, beans and chicken to feed the 1950's nuclear family of four plus the family dog. Now it's considered to be a single-serving prelude to more food to come.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

That Sound You Hear

... is the sound of the shit hitting the fan.

Seriously? The ADF&G sonar was off? AGAIN? And so some of the restrictions in place for king fishing on the Yukon might have been unnecessary? How can fisheries managers ever hope to have local people buy into the regulatory/management process if you shut them down unnecessarily? AGAIN?

Due to a lack of coffee, I can't remember the year this happened before. Was it 2000? Anyone have a better memory?

[The sound you can't hear right now is the one made when I hit my head against my desk.]

At least the ADN put this into context. The lower river villages didn't make any money, which means a tough time buying fuel oil for the winter, keeping the electric on, paying off the bills from the previous year. (Of course the middle and upper river villages don't have commercial fisheries, so commercial closures only mean more kings coming up river to them for subsistence.)

We're looking at a disaster here folks. Folks who played by the rules and did not fish for kings have to be angry. Summer chum don't make it that far up the river and aren't available to many villages. And the folks who counted on fall chum for their subsistence instead are now faced with the possibility that that run is going to be a disaster, too. Yukon villages are looking at very tough times this winter.

Hopefully, Parnell's administration will get on this immediately. When a chum crash hit hit the A-Y-K in the mid-90s, the Knowles administration declared a disaster. One of the saddest things I've witnessed in Alaska was that year, when donated frozen salmon fillets in plastic bags arrived and local people, subsistence fishers, walked away with their share of the donation.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

1000 Words

Early morning, dipnet trip at Chitina.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Finally! Rain Arrives Just in Time for Fire and Fair

That sound you hear? Quite a few of us exhaling in relief. It began raining some time in the wee hours and continues as I slurp coffee and read the news this morning. And it's not an indecisive, few-drops-here-and-there rain. This is steady stuff.

I don't know that I've ever been so pleased to hear the sound of rainfall.

The timely return of precipitation ought to give all the yellow shirts out there a chance to contain and subdue the numerous wild fires out there. It definitely helps to not have the entire area tinder dry. Even if the fires north, east, west and south of us hadn't gotten any closer to Squarebanks and its surrounding neighborhoods, conditions were such that any kind of fire starting up within them could have chewed up the wilderburbs pretty quick. Forestry and the local VFDs have been jumping on anything that started around here - but the question was how long would they bat 1.000?

As noted yesterday, it ALWAYS rains during the local fair.

Heck, I don't even like the Tanana Valley Fair that much. (I don't want to go on rides, or walk around eating booth food that I consume throughout the summer, and I don't have kids. Why go?) But I just might go and walk around in the rain.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sitting Here in Goldstream, Watching the Smoke

Yesterday evening, a bunch of us stood outdoors watching the sky turn a peculiar orangeish gray. There was so much smoke that it seemed like it might be 11 or 12 at night, not 9:30 in the evening. Everyone on the road had switched on their headlights. (For you Lower 48ers - we still don't get dark until pretty late - Land O' Midnight Sun, etc.)

The smoke wasn't from the Railbelt Complex down by Nenana, or the Wood River fire, but from the Hardluck Creek fire that is getting closer enough to our northern wilderburbs to make some of my friends pretty worried about their homes. More fire crews (likely from Outside, resources here are stretched thin) arrived last night.

All the fires here in Squarebanks region made significant runs yesterday. A new fire, out Chena Hot Springs Road, was ripping, from what I've heard. It's like 2004, which was my first summer in Squarebanks, except that we just witnessed the driest July ever recorded. It is scary dry out here. Relative humidities have been very low. Temperatures have been high. This is the kind of stuff that makes for what the professionals call 'extreme fire behavior.' Firefighters are not catching a break from this weather.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center's report this morning on Hardluck Creek was not encouraging:
"Extreme fire behavior was observed with torching, crowning and runs in Black Spruce with spotting 1/2 mile. Night fire was also extreme. 30 structures are threatened and 3 structures were destroyed: 1 vacation home, and 2 cabins. Personnel have been unable to accurately map the fire at this time.Tomorrow crews will continue structure protection and try and hold the fire on the North and the East at Bennett Road."
For days, everyone has been repeating the same hopeful adage - the Tanana Fair is starting this weekend, so you know we'll get rain then. Seriously, the Fair is famous for shitty weather. Me, I've been worried that one of my neighbors* (in the loose sense, meaning someone within a few miles of my property) will do something stupid: try to burn a brush pile, decide to dispose of trash via a burn barrel, opt to light off some fireworks, etc... And then we'd have fire busting out here in the Valley. Stupidity knows no season.

So, we're watching, waiting, and finishing up making our property 'fire wise', clearing all the combustibles from within a 30 foot perimeter around the house, aka creating 'defensible space.' A friend helped me chuck the wood pile away further from the house a few weeks ago, thankfully. I've spent days cutting down vegetation around the house and raking out all the dead stuff. Luckily, we don't have black spruce on the lot, and only one tree (a birch) is within 30 feet, and that sucker will come down in a heartbeat if we think things are getting close.

I can't necessarily say that for all my neighbors*. The Valley is, in places, a rabbit warren of dry cabins and houses tucked into the woods. Some places are thick with black spruce and downed dead trees. (And, friends in the Lower 48, we don't have hydrants up here.)


Saturday, August 01, 2009


Sometimes vows are made to be broken. Like my vow of some months ago not to ever again blog about she-who-shall-not-be-named. And quite possibly, the marriage vows of the Palins - those paradigms of family values.

"Affairs on both sides" trumpets the Alaska Report, as this thing burns through the internet faster than the Wood River fire that is torching black spruce south of Fairbanks. More alluring is the tidbit that Sarah may have purchased land in Montana and is considering moving there.

Of course Meg Stapleton is denying, denying, denying - as of three hours ago. The Sarah Palin camp has always been shy on transparency, so why should they be playing level now? The scuttlebutt around some walks of Wasilla is that this is not new news. There were many other things out of Wasilla that were hotly denied by the Palin propaganda machine, only to later be proven true.

As is the case here. Maybe they are divorcing, maybe they are not - only time will tell if its just those troublesome "lefty bloggers" (guilty as charged Ms. Stapleton) spreading more filth and lies about the pure Palins.

However, if this particular grapevine bears fruit, all I can say is "Hallelujah, hallelujah!" And not about the impending divorce. Nope. I am a' praying right now that the rumor that she is moving to Montana is true. Could it be possible that in one week we will not only get rid of her as governor, but get rid of her all together? Please, Montana, take her. She's yours.

One thing to note, if this is one more nail that she is busily pounding into her political coffin, she is definitely proving her mettle as a Christian fundamentalist leader: monogamy, modesty, and moral behavior is for everyone else but her (and Ted Haggard and Jim Baker, and Mark Sanford and Larry Craig, and....)

And if a little color does show up in the bottom of the old gold pan after all, with this vein playing out to be something other than fool's gold, then maybe Alaska finally has a chance to fade back into the obscurity it once enjoyed. A place most people, if they thought about us at all, thought contained only Eskimos, igloos, gold and the occasional grizzled prospector.