Looking back over 39 years in Alaska

COMMENTOctober 4, 2011 

Oct. 1 marked the 39th anniversary of the day I arrived in Alaska. Oct. 3 marked the 39th anniversary of the day I arrived in Barrow. Looking back, it strikes me that the old saying "The more things change, the more they remain the same" is true. I could never have imagined what life held for me that cold day so long ago when I learned that not everyone in America was born with flush toilets and running water as a birthright and that meat did not start out life in a package.

The day I arrived in Barrow, a doctor at the IHS hospital threw me a welcome to the Arctic party. I met a man at that party, a young man with great ambitions. Oliver Leavitt stood in the doorway of Ose Matsutani's kitchen and told me all about something called ANCSA that had something to do with land claims that in turn had something to do with oil exploration and development. To be honest, as a girl straight out of Brooklyn who still thought all Native Americans lived in teepees somewhere "out west," my background in the area that seemed to fascinate Oliver was minimal to non-existent.

But one thing does stand out in my mind. He spoke about a new organization called the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and told me how it would someday be one of the biggest corporations in the state and would be very rich and provide money for its shareholders. I didn't have the foggiest idea what an ASRC was -- back then it was so new it didn't even rate an acronym made of its initials, we actually used its whole name -- but one thing was for sure, this young man talking to me was passionate about it and believed it would change his world.

Thirty-nine years later, ASRC is known almost exclusively by its acronym and is one of the biggest corporations in the state. That young man who was so sure of its future turned out to be an integral part of its amazing success. And the past 39 years have seen changes of mind-blowing proportions in Barrow and its surrounding villages. Thanks to the money brought in from oil exploration and extraction on the North Slope, people there now have clean water, flush toilets and their very own school district and junior college.

But while some things have changed for the very, very better, other issues continue to be fought out in seesaw battles that seem to have no end. As Barrow votes once again on the issue of wet or dry, damp or not, substance abuse continues to rip the fabric of village society to shreds in way too many families. Domestic violence, which seems to follow substance abuse as sure as the night follows the day, continues to rage in Bush Alaska. Suicides, especially among young men who should be readying themselves to take over leadership positions in their local governments and corporations, continue to be double and more of the national average. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into programs to alleviate these problems, they continue to cause pain and hardship in the Bush beyond anything most of us can imagine.

The battle between subsistence and resource development also continues unabated. While acknowledging the progress that money from resource extractions has provided some villages across Alaska, the fundamental problem of protecting the integrity of the land and seas and the multitude of birds, mammals and fish that exist there while safely extracting resources seems as though it may never be fully settled. Pebble Mine is but the latest battlefield, while ANWR is as old as my presence in this state, with a history of multitudinous battles fought to a standstill over its development.

Thirty-nine years later I find myself looking back over a life filled with wonderful friends (happy 39th, Sandra and Sonya), tremendous experiences the likes of which I could never have imagined while living in my small apartment in Brooklyn, and a heart filled with gratitude for a state that has allowed me to participate in its beauty, wildness and majesty. I have no doubt that my adopted state will resolve its problems and find a way to protect its wilderness while caring for its people.

Here's to 39 more.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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