I walked in to the low-income housing unit to see an elder about some meat that my dad had sent down for a potlatch that my in-laws were preparing for. It was fresh caught beaver and I wasn't sure if I should bring it straight over to the community hall kitchen, or give it to an "expert" to prepare. I walked in to the elder's living room where several people were gathered.
I told Grandma what I had in the back of my pick-up and right away one of the guys jumped up to get it. I had known him for a long time, and always thought of him a certain way. He was a casual friend, though I never thought too highly of him. He was the guy that parents made reference to when they told their children not to grow up to be like him. He didn't have a regular job. He drank a lot, smoked a lot, and generally was known as kind of a bum. But that day I saw something different.
He stood with a purpose that I had never seen in him before. He immediately went out to my truck to pack in the two beaver carcasses. He moved with grace ... and with love. I observed him during the rest of my visit. When other people showed up to the house, he stood to greet them. He gave genuine hugs. He was fully himself. It was the first time I had seen the real him. Or maybe the first time I acknowledged that he was a real human being, not just a drunk.
When I left the elder's house that day, I couldn't get that man out of my mind. I thought of how alive he was. Usually he looked half dead. I realized that so many of the "drunks" that we see just don't know how to live in a western culture. He is not the only one. The modern day culture cultivates disconnect from community. There are thousands of people who use prescription drugs to get by in a society that is lacking love and unity. There are thousands who drink or use recreational drugs to get by.
I believe that drug and alcohol abuse is more pronounced in a Native community, because generally Native people are more honest about drug and alcohol use and abuse. It is more out in the open. I was discussing this with a counselor friend one time, and asked what she thought. She said, "I have counseled white women where it took eight sessions before they hinted at domestic violence that was going on in their home, whereas most Native women will tell me everything in the first session."
Maybe our modern day society is so far removed from our community roots that we don't even know we are striving for something unnatural. We go faster and faster toward a goal of progress, doing whatever it takes to keep up, even if it means numbing ourselves out with drink, or drugs, or television, shopping, etc. There are millions of modern day Americans who numb themselves to avoid bummed out feelings. And there are others who are honest and just become a bum.
Chantelle Pence lives in Chistochina with her husband and three sons, where she works as a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and plays as a writer. Chantelle was raised on the last federal homestead in Slana and is currently writing a book about rural Alaska issues, from the perspective of a "Homestead Girl."