Where is the help Alaska villages so desperately need?

January 20, 2009 

As I watched the inauguration yesterday, I couldn't stop wondering if the villages in Bush Alaska that were probably listening to it on public radio had heat and food to go with the ceremony. I wondered if they wondered whether the promise of America would ever make it to where they live.

It's been a long time since the first non-Natives hit these shores and announced they would bring "civilization" to the people they found here. So far, our achievements are underwhelming.

It seems we did a pretty good job of disrupting a way of life that survived the cold, harsh climate for thousands of years. We left behind people who can no longer survive in their homes because of what we took from them. When the U.S. government first told Alaska Natives they had to give up their nomadic existence and stay in one place so their children could go to a government school, we stripped from them their ability to survive by denying them the right to use their traditional knowledge for survival. If the caribou were 200 miles south but they had to stay put because that's where the government school was, it stands to reason they would face a difficult time trying to survive and remain independent.

And so here we are in 2008, and the state seems honestly bewildered by the extent of the problems in the Bush. A cynic might also comment that they are not exactly rushing to help. As for the feds, well, they're too busy bailing out billionaires on Wall Street. They have little money left for the people of Bush Alaska.

There are other groups that seemingly should have as much of an interest in the welfare of Bush Alaska as government agencies. I wonder why we haven't heard from them -- groups like the Native regional corporations, many of which are doing quite well financially. And where are the Native nonprofits? Why did it take a single soul in a small village to write a heart-wrenching letter to the press before people began to pay attention?

Here's the reality of what we are now dealing with in Alaska. According to the World Urbanization Prospects: the 2005 Revision, prepared by the United Nations Population Division, "In 2008, for the first time, half the world's population is living in towns and cities. By 2030, the urban population will reach 5 billion -- 60 per cent of the world's population."

The question must be asked where do Alaska Native villages fit in that scenario. In a world rapidly urbanizing, do these villages have a future? And if so, who is responsible for it? Is the state or federal government responsible for keeping the lights bright, the heat flowing and food on the table? Or is it the regional corporations for whom these villages represent their culture and heritage? Is it the villagers themselves?

These are not easy questions and they don't have easy answers. Many people in the bush are bonded to their land and seas so strongly that to bring them to an urban area is to condemn them to slow death. We have seen time and time again what happens to indigenous people displaced from their lands. They become lost souls who seem to fit in nowhere. Healthy survivors are the exception. Cultural suicide becomes the norm.

So how do we make these villages viable again? I don't know the answer. But I can pretty much guarantee that as state finances rise and fall, so will any financial assistance to the villages. And as the federal deficit balloons and the economy contracts, getting the feds to provide the needed level of support on an annual basis is a far-fetched pipe dream.

Which brings me back to the groups with the biggest stakes in the outcome for these small villages. Again I have to ask, where are the regional corporations as their people shiver and go hungry. These are their shareholders. They need to step up to the plate and become partners with the state or feds or whatever combination of organizations is needed to find a solution.

Otherwise we risk losing these villages while Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau risk gaining a population in potential great peril. Either way, someone ends up paying.

Elise Patkotak is a writer who lives in Anchorage. Read her blog at www.elisepatkotak.com.

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