Saturday evening, on my way out of Anchorage, after playing in a concert at UAA, I bumped into friend and Alaska Dispatch editor, Tony Hopfinger. We hadn't seen each other in months, so we had a lot to talk about. Tony, his wife (and Dispatch co-editor) Amanda Coyne, and I, all stopped smoking around the same time over the holidays, so we had a hearty "high five" for each other.
Tony asked if I had read "the article" yet. I told him I had not, but hoped to catch the time to do it over the weekend. He remarked that the comments and emails were pretty brutal. I had scanned Palin Suggests Controversial Solutions for Rural Alaska enough to get the idea that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin had been praised, along with ex-Senator Ted Stevens.
I got around to reading the article Sunday evening, then re-read it this morning. Essentially, the article looks at the videos of Gov. Palin, taken before her trip with Franklin Graham, to Marshall and Russian Mission this past weekend (Friday and Saturday), and takes the governor at her word. It then mentions Sen. Ted Stevens' suggestions back around the turn of the 21st century, about consolidating Alaska Native resources into some of the more important communities.
Back in 2007, after a lot of in-depth research, Tony wrote To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska, a very thoughtful article for The Walrus Magazine, about a young man's suicide near a village on the Seward Peninsula. (The article was the subject of one of Steve Aufrecht's most stunning essays, at What Do I Know?) Tony knows Bush Alaska better than most. Yet he has the good sense to view himself as an outsider.
When Tony and I met on Saturday evening, I commented that if he and Amanda were getting flack for seeming to support Palin (and Stevens), one commenter at Progressive Alaska had asked just that morning, why PA never has ANYTHING positive to say about the Governor.
The weakness of Amanda and Tony's article is that it tends to treat Palin's comments last Friday, and Ted Stevens' 2003 remarks as unique, or possibly "controversial" in the sense of being bold or new. They aren't.
Alaska survives by taking life, power and value from outside of the towns and cities, and bringing those things to market.
Life, in the forms of salmon, King crab, Walleye pollock, halibut or oysters.
Power in the forms of crude oil, natural gas, coal and hydroelectricity.
Value in the sense of the above resources, and ivory, nickel, copper, gold, silver and other precious metals.
In the sense of a long-term, sustainable Alaska, people in Wales, Emmonak, Marshall, Russian Mission and Nunam Iqua, get "it" no less than do people in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau or Seattle.
The direct ancestors of Tikagaq people who live in Point Hope have lived there since well before the English, French, Spanish or German languages as we might even vaguely recognize them existed.
The direct ancestors of the Tlingit have occupied parts of Southeast Alaska for thousands of years, far longer than any written human language now extant has been in use.
Native Alaskans survived quite well for thousands of years without non-Native assistance. Tony Hopfinger's The Walrus article about Wales documents the generations of heartbreak White contact have brought that community. There is no lack of other articles and books that do the same.
Gov. Palin, during the press conference in Juneau on February 11th, made reference to "Cluster Villages" as a solution to problems in hundreds of isolated, small Alaska Native villages. I think we've seen them already, at least the predominately Native American versions. At best, they are named Gallup, New Mexico. At worst, Rosebud, South Dakota.
The concept of moving Alaska Natives from place to place to educate, train or indoctrinate them has been tried year after decade after generation after century. It has seldom worked.
Diane Benson has explored various aspects of these attempts and failures in some of her dramatic work. So have other Alaska Native artists. I prefer reading or listening to people like Benson, Desa Jacobson, Heather Kendall-Miller or Writing Raven on these issues, to Hopfinger & Coyne. Certainly Palin is better analyzed by Kendall-Miller on this, than by Hopfinger & Coyne. Coyne should know that, having written one of the best profiles of Kendall-Miller there is.
There was far more pre-journey coverage of the Palin-Graham-Provo missionary trip than there has been post-journey coverage. That may change, as impressions from people who witnessed their efforts are just coming in and being published here and there.
The reality of people from faith backgrounds like Graham, Prevo and Palin, though, is that unlike early Christianity, during its expansion into non-Christian areas, the Graham-Prevo-Palin version of that religion has no intention whatsoever of adapting any aspect of its doctrine to the people it seeks to "help." Rather, it is that faith's expectation for those it seeks to "help" to be converted, through evangelical activities, to their very restrictive world view. Prevo, Palin and Graham all represent a narrow subset from within Christian doctrine, that expects the world to end soon in a cataclysmic event.
Some Alaska Natives all over the state have already been exposed to these peoples' brand of Christianity. It is expansionist, and regards the growth aspect of its existence to be far more important than assisting any single aspect of any Alaska Native culture to survive in a meaningful way, let alone the package represented by the spiritual independence of Alaska Native cultural renaissances here and there .
Regarding creating "Cluster Villages," one needs look no further in Alaska than the coastal fisheries management practices as created with the extensive help of Sen. Ted Stevens, or to the buildings occupied - but not owned - by Native Corporations, to see how well Palin's, Hopfinger's, Coyne's, Graham's and Prevo's visions might work. Outsiders from Seattle would own the means of production, distributing crumbs, called "IFQ's" until they chose to stop distributing them. And the "Cluster Village" headquarters and administrative offices would be owned by a Jon Rubini-esque developer, who would rent or lease these facilities out to the Alaska Natives at a higher rate than they would have had to pay to end up owning them over the course of a generation.
How do you tell people who have been around a few generations, that their ideas on how to manage the affairs of people who they have all but ruined, but have been here for millennia, haven't been proven?