Monday, September 14, 2009

The Mask of Ignorance (Part 2)

Had the new city police chief – Laren Zager – hailed from parts Outside perhaps he could be forgiven some of the ignorance he apparently possesses regarding Interior Alaska Natives and villages. In fact, if he had lived and worked only in Anchorage, it might even make a tad bit of sense. But police chief Zager has spent 20 years in Fairbanks.

Of course, there are lots of people born and raised in Fairbanks that haven’t a clue about that portion of our Interior’s population who come from a totally different culture and race. True, Interior Alaska Natives (like all Alaska Native and Native American groups) may be demographically small in number relative to the majority population, but their rates of incarceration, suicide and violence perpetrated against them by members of the non-Native population (especially by non-Native men against Native women) are disproportionately high. Much of this is tied to their perpetually lower socio-economic status. Disenfranchised as they are*, Natives lack the political and economic power to substantively impact the racism and prejudices that make them more likely to be victimized, rather than championed, by our western legal system.

Thus, I would argue, if you are heading up a law enforcement department that has a long (and in many minds deplorable) history of dealing with arresting Natives, some extra effort at personal education about village realities might be on order. It might also help the police chief overcome some of the banal (but dangerous) assumptions about Natives that he appears to hold.

Case in point: I return to my personal bug-a-boo of the moment, police chief Zager’s assertion that, since spring, the number of chronic inebriates downtown has doubled, if not tripled (from about 100 to as many as 300). Towards the end of the August 19 article, Zager is asked to give his opinion on why this sudden rise in chronic inebriates.

"As for what’s behind the increase in the chronic inebriate population, Zager said one theory is spring flooding along the Yukon River might have displaced many village residents who have turned to the streets of Fairbanks because of the city’s reputation as being accommodating to the homeless. "

Wow – that is jaw-dropping.

First off, no one in a village is homeless if they lose their home. Most people have several homes. These are the homes of their relatives and extended families. Even without loss of a physical structure, people tend to move around within households. Village home life is more like having different components of a “home” distributed throughout the community, than it is about one single residence that is dedicated for the specific use of an individual and their immediate family (as it is in our culture). So unlike our culture, where a misfortune can result in one being out on the streets, this is not the norm in Native culture. People are much more generous and communal about their living spaces than we tend to be on our side of the street – where the notion that one’s home is their castle is still very much alive and well, even in these times of underwater mortgages.

Natives don’t end up sleeping in cars – they end up sleeping on a relative’s couch.

So the notion that spring flooding would have resulted in droves of homeless villagers moving to Fairbanks to live on the streets is just – well – ridiculous.

Secondly, this so-called theory completely ignores the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Natives live in a contextual sphere that is totally different than ours. Westerners’ sense of place is tied to physical possession, chiefly embodied by our house/property. Thus, for us, the loss of a house does open up the possibility of relocation, especially for young single men.

However, the flaw in application here is the assumption that what works for western sensibilities works for Native ones. It ignores the absoluteness of connection to the country experienced by Natives. And it overlooks the fact that this connection is organically different than any bond, tie or other attachment a non-Native may have for a particular patch of land. There really are no English words that convey the essence of the Native sense of place and connection within the larger sphere of country – because in our world view this simply does not exist. And while people from the vil like to come into town to shop, go to the fair, visit and to do all of those town things that we all do, in very short order most become very homesick: for their families, for the village, for their way of life and for Native food, and most of all, for the country.

The metaphysical aside, Zager is talking collectively about a people that are supremely used to dealing with and rolling with the punches that nature can deliver. A spring flood, even one as severe as the one that just occurred this past spring, is not about to turn any villager’s life upside down, nor drive them out of the country.

Finally, Zager shouldn’t misconstrue the fact that most of these people can live very comfortably outdoors, whether in the woods or in the city, as evidence that villagers find Fairbanks “accommodating” (to homeless or others). Few Natives view Fairbanks as hospitable. Most see it as an unfriendly place filled with unfriendly people (who are always willing to take their money), as well as a place that is just outright dangerous for them.

Maybe instead of trying to shoehorn Native motives into the misfit of western thinking, Zager should think harder about what might be more likely the cause of increasing numbers of younger, angrier men drinking on the streets. Interior Natives have been experiencing and surviving spring floods for eons, but they have been dealing with the white man for a little more than 100 years.

A more plausible line of reasoning is that we are beginning to experience the full results produced by two generations of Natives who have struggled with the social, emotional and psychic impacts from contact and colonialism: the loss of language and generational disruption from boarding schools and disease, the sexual abuse by missionaries and priests, and all the other systematic attempts by the majority culture to eradiate Native language, culture and tribal structure. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, self-medication and violence born of unresolved anger over the historical trauma suffered by these men and their families are more likely drivers behind an increase in downtown alcoholics than are the spring floods.

But better for the police chief to turn to deus ex machina, in this case the mighty Yukon, than to lift the blinders of ignorance and confront the problem head on. Because to do so would require Zager, the Mayor, the council, and all of us to grapple with the fact that the alcoholism, violence and homelessness hopelessness experienced by these men are rooted in human-caused catastrophes, not acts of God. And that might mean we have a moral, ethical and spiritual obligation to acknowledge, address and attempt to make right the wrongs done.

Far better to put the solution on FEMA’s doorstep, than to look at what really is going on in the city of Fairbanks – in its police department, its treatment of Native people, and its ridiculously inadequate treatment facilities and social services resources.

* a status that is shared by other minority populations as well – such as inner city African Americans and rural poor Caucasians in Appalachia.


Steve said...

Well said. Perhaps a few will see some light through their blinders. Nice blueberries too.

Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

Very well written. Any chance of sending this to the Fairbanks Daily Fish-Wrapper/Bird-Cage-Liner?Or how about to FPD themselves?

CabinDweller said...

Well said, Flic!

FlictheBic said...

if anyone wants to send an anonymous copy to the FPD and or the mayor I would be really appreciative...send the whole series - I got another one I am working on - at least one more, if not two more.

FlictheBic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deirdre Helfferich said...

Flic--really, I'm serious. I'd like to publish this. The Republic would be a fine venue...

Super Smooth ANDY-G said...


Revealing..Its seems un-real because of the reality of the differences our world views.