Monday, August 24, 2009

Candles for Segundo

Alaska's most widely-read progressive blog, The Mudflats, the web site that inspired Ann Strongheart to tell the story of her husband, Segundo, her family and her people to the world, has posted a very touching gesture toward Segundo Strongheart's memory. Along with a short eulogy, AK Muckraker has created a virtual memorial candle nook for Segundo. It will remain alight for 48 hours.

Please go there.

When Ann Strongheart's advocacy for the people of Emmonak, Nunam Iqua and other lower Yukon River villages began to resonate last February, Ann wrote one of my favorite Alaska posts of all time. Especially moving then, when the towns representing the cradle of Yupik culture were close to desperation, was how she described how Segundo helped make her whole:

We are passing our Yupik traditions and language on to her. Although I am worried about what her Yupik will sound like because my accent really mutilates the Yupik language. The Yupik language is a very throaty language. And I have come to realize that what I hear isn’t necessarily what comes out of my mouth LOL. Thankfully, my husband is very patient and helps by translating the Yupik language sounds to English ones and helps me learn them. So basically CC and I are learning Yupik together. But I really have to wonder what kind of accent CC will have when she grows up.

I love living in Nunam Iqua, despite its many challenges and struggles. I gladly give up many conveniences for this simple quiet village life. I do miss being able to go out to eat, or being able to run to the 7-11 or go to the movies or the hair salon, but not enough to want to move back to the city. Even now I can’t stand going into
Anchorage, there is way too much noise and too many people. I do like being able to shop and not having to pay and arm and a leg for everything, but only on short, infrequent trips.

I had my first “Potlatch” last year and I am now an official “graduated” Yupik Eskimo Dancer. I enjoy going for snow machine rides during the winter and I love going boating in the summer. Last summer my husband taught me how to use a spear and spear thrower to hunt seal. I haven’t caught one yet but I was getting really close. I look forward to this summer so we can go out boating again, and egg hunting and berry picking and gathering with CC.

This is so important.

Ann was one of the key players, behind the scenes, in helping to get the word out on how inappropriate - to say the very least - Wayne Anthony Ross was as a nominee for Alaska's Attorney General, last winter and early spring. Ross was and is a fighter against recognizing the precious, value and durability of the historical importance of what Alaska's Natives have represented and still stand for.

Ross has never given a second thought to representing Jerry Prevo's "special rights." He jumped into pro bono representation of the "special rights" of a nut that dumped buckets of cold water on people standing along the side of a Soldotna Highway in the middle of the winter. But if the issue of continuing viability of any of Alaska's multi-thousand-year cultures came up, when weighed against the brand new interests of out-of-state hunters, Ross would (and does) claim the continued existence of these Native cultures to be a "special right."

I witnessed the same sort of mindset that Ross represents, but in a far more subtle form, observing the Potemkin Village nature of the tour of Alaska by members of President Obama's cabinet - led by pied piper Sen. Mark Begich, two weeks ago. It was followed by the more egregious Ocean Policy Task Force meeting in Anchorage late last week, where Alaska Natives were entirely excluded from the platform of the presentation, and given only one minor slot at the podium for a message of importance.

I've taken part of the testimony I gave to the Task Force, as the basis of an:

Ode to Segundo's People:

• When Jericho was destroyed, the Yupik were becoming distinguishable from other northern migratory groups.

• When the great pyramids were built, the Yupik had become a distinct cultural group.

• When the Phoenicians and others were cutting down the vast cedar forests in Lebanon, the Yupik were beginning to fish the lower Yukon.

• When the Romans left no stone unturned in Carthage's ruins and plowed the earth with salt, the first examples of wondrous Yupik art were being created.

• When the Roman Empire and vernacular Latin were dying, people had been speaking a language today’s Yupik would recognize as their own for over a thousand years.

• When Islam was created, Yupik spiritual ideas had already survived six times longer than Islam has now existed.

• When the Norse navigated the North Atlantic, the Volga and the Black Sea, the Yupik were expanding up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.

• When a language we can now recognize as English began to exist, Yupik culture was thousands of years old.

• When the Russians came to Alaska, stealing people, pelts and pride, the Yupik culture survived.

• When the Europeans brought smallpox, venereal disease, alcohol and influenza to the Yupik, they survived.

• When the Russian, Catholic, Baptist - and now - Franklin Graham/Jerry Prevo - snake oil salesmen came to the Delta and the rivers, Yupik culture survived.

Yet, within the mere past 30 years, the foundation of this vibrant culture has been ripped apart.


Because the basis of Yupik culture, the Chinook salmon that live there, has gotten in the way of a pirate fleet that only lives for the next season. Quarterly corporate profits of the pirate fleets' owners, and how a tiny percentage of those stolen funds are tightly doled out to politicians, now control the destiny of what may be North America's proudest existing riverine civilization.

Additionally, on the administrative level, I have never seen a better example of how cross-governmental jurisdictional problems can be used by an industry to destroy one of America’s first peoples.

As I said last Friday, Nancy Sutley - Dr. Jane Lubchenco - David Hayes - Admiral Thad Allen -- and, YES - Sen. Mark Begich and President Barack Obama:

Unless you act very soon, and very, very sternly to end the depredation of the Bering Sea and other Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, the miserable survivors of this once-proud, vibrant culture, will soon sing imprecatory, damning songs to your eternal memories, blaming you for their Holocaust.

And justly so.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful write up. Thank you


donw said...

So true and well-said.

Martha Unalaska Yard Sign said...

Phil, thank you again for honoring Ann and Segundo. I loved that he was teaching Ann Yup'ik, while teasing her along the way. She passed on the teasing by the way, whenever we asked her or Segundo to give us a translation via email.

The world lost a wonderful man, so we must help his spirit and memories live on with us. I will never forget him. We must help Ann make her way and continue to speak up for Rural Alaska if that is the path she chooses.

Anonymous said...

Unusually eloquent post - the plight of the Yupik is indeed tragic and needs to be publicized - but why the lame Holocaust comparison at the end ? It devalues the horror of the real Holocaust and the hyperbole isn't helpful to the Yupik themselves.