Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dances With Devastation: A Personal Reflection

The police dispatcher was waiting. I was stalling. Her question was simple. "Native," I answered after two or three beats, equally peeved at her for asking as I was at myself for balking at the descriptor. "Maybe in his early fifties, with long grey hair and a ballcap, wearing a backpack. He has a cane. He's teetering in the highway with a half-gallon vodka bottle and the cars are swerving around him."

Inupiat dancer
Driving home from an elegant celebration of Alaska Native culture, our minivan nearly intersected with a man who wasn't taking very good care of himself. "He needs to live indoors and take better care of himself," has long been my go-to simplification when answering my children about some of the Indians they see. As 'urban' Alaskans, my kids know the drumbeat as an ornamental attraction, and it will not likely represent much more to them. Even if we returned to the island of my childhood, the dances and regalia would be an occasional treat -- yet it'd be complemented by a life peppered with plenty of Native Alaskans sharing their daily pursuits and lifestyle. My early life in Petersburg, Alaska was infused by founders Tlingit, Filipino and Norwegian. I've been in the city for exactly ten years --- two or three of those years had passed before I grasped that the landscape of Anchorage contained a hostility to Natives which is foreign to me.

It was subsequent to this, and the birth of our first child that I vowed to seek as many healthy and beautiful examples of Native culture as possible for our kids. I want to foster layers of understanding about our state and her first people; I wasn't necessarily prepared for the emotions that would stir in myself.

My husband had an inverse perspective, coming from Southern California directly to an Interior village of under a thousand people in the mid-1990s. He took a service job where he was literally spit on by Native residents. Vulgarities and racial epithets were hissed at him while he worked for minimum wage. Forging ahead, his Alaskan adventure and American dream were nonplussed. He would later assert that "Natives in Southeast (where I grew up and where he eventually moved) are particularly civilized." I dismissed this commentary as my decidedly un-PC husband trying to roil his NPR-listening wife. How dare anyone describe a wide swath of humanity with such paternalistic kudos? The more he and I have travelled together, the more I see his candor on the topic as simply that. His formative years were spent in a vibrant ethnic tapestry, and he recognizes racial harmony on sight. By no means a social utopia, there is a certain lack of friction in Southeast Alaska, worthy of appreciation and study. His provocative description was probably intentional, but his frank apprisal has often been a gift to me.

A few years later, it was my husband who pointed out the innocence of a scene which I initially absorbed as shocking. Strolling with our daughters, we were caught off guard by a half dozen men bathing in our small neighborhood lake. They were splashing and laughing in the sunshine in their bright white cotton briefs. Soap and shampoo were scattered along the shore, and there were no signs of alcohol or inebriation. It was just some Native guys swimming in their underwear. My response was to quicken my step and shake my head, not quite sure whether to vocalize at all. Anthony recognized their ease in the natural world as an amusing inspiration. Except for the detergent raining into the duckpond, I guess it was hardly different than any group in swimsuits enjoying the sun.

Kids at Culture Camp
That same summer, we briefly met a young grad student who bought a dining table we had advertised on Craigslist. His chiseled Yup'ik features and wire-rimmed eyeglasses matched his understated politeness. He shared his relief over finding enough seats to accommodate an influx of family members visiting from Bush Alaska as he loaded the dining set. As the beefy pickup truck pulled out of our driveway, my husband beamed towards no one in particular, "He's gonna make it, you can just tell." That a lone person doing such an ordinary task was noteworthy, even exhilarating, and is still memorable gives a hint at its uniqueness. Living in Anchorage, we so rarely encounter Natives who are not in crisis.
As spectators to these rarities and my admittedly museum-style field trips on holidays, my children are otherwise growing up with only glossy, low-rise corporate real estate and street drunks as their imagery of modern Natives. I counter it where I can, and I maximize on their oblivion to racial stereotypes. They would not consciously draw the conclusion that most of the wandering alcoholics they see are Native, but it will take root over time. For now, I manipulate discussions to include race ("Your dad has Portuguese blood, mine is Scottish, Irish and German, Grandma Sue's is German, Grandpa Bob's blood is African and Chinese, your cousins' is Mexican," etc.) solely for the purpose of skewing the data their brains might otherwise absorb. I selectively mention some of their favorite adults as having "Indian blood." I habitually say 'their blood is...' rather than 'they are Irish/German/Black/Native," because I want to transmit that our earthly origins describe us, but they don't define us. (I'm not quite this persnickety in adult conversation --- I just want to imprint the literal truth where possible in my children.)
Loretta Marvin, a Petersburg elder
(and unnamed kiddo) both in traditional garb

I feel a pull to share this particular culture as being noble and strong. My defenses rise when people of any stripe condemn rural Alaskans who are floundering in the city. This must be what members of a race feel like when their compatriots are the troublesome immigrants of the moment: "I know my people to be different than you are all seeing." I'm sensitive to the call not to teach that Native ways are antiquated, yet I purposely refer to displays of art, habitats and subsistence as describing "old-fashioned Indians", to subtly re-assert to my children that Indian lineage is shared by people who live and strive just like we do. My casual tone belies the pride and admiration I feel towards my girlfriends --- teachers, nurses, businesswomen and activists, who are also devoted wives and mothers.

Too many of the men are drunk, dead or in jail. I don't have a pat approach to that one. My tears during Native cultural celebrations are for these gentle souls turned violent, predatory and self-destructive. On Mother's Day we again took in the powerful sounds and sights of Native traditions --- the playful, creative spark in the dancers' eyes was as familiar as my first teenage love, youthful partners in crime, and eventually the children in my charge as a tutor and counselor. Those connections have been lost; morphed into hometown graveyard visits in the rain, prison letters exchanged over years, and tender memories of human potential. These are not case studies to me.

I reject the term "privilege awareness" as little more than a polysyllabic version of White Guilt, but living as a visible ethnic minority and having my actions -- for better or worse -- chronicled as a token of my race are not burdens I bear. For this I do wrestle with guilt, however irrationally. My response is to consider my conscience pricked, and see my duty to any suffering soul as one of prayer and action. At times, both seem like a futile wimper compared to the endemic winds of pain which swallow generations.

Alaskan Native men and women continue to be tragically overrepresented in suicide and sexual assault statistics. Independent and harmonious lives in the villages are the exception. Stories like this are not. 

My classmates who have found peace and professional success didn't do it because they are Tlingit or Haida, nor in spite of it. They set goals and worked hard. Bloodline is not an achievement. Ancient tribal dances offer a most stirring, primal beauty, yet they are irrelevant to modern commerce and academia. No one is telling Irish American children that Celtic dance is paramount to their worth --- we're all just invited to enjoy a nostalgic form of entertainment. The wounds have largely healed. I hold the same hope for the epic sadness that dominates the public face of Alaskan Native people in this city. I pray for better days ahead.

Elizabeth Peratrovich, tireless fighter
Our most recent visit to the Heritage Center included the discovery that the concession stand was gone, replaced by a welcoming indoor play area for toddlers. Hanging on the wall above the toys was a banner titled, "Never Forget Who You Are". A grid of six Alaskan tribes was printed neatly, with a cartoonish graphic and a positive trait listed for each tribe. For example, one tribe was "Loving" and another was "Caring". Recognizing this as an attempt to distill complex and storied history of milennia to the Pre-K level, it still strikes me as vapid and erroneous if used as anything more than ancestral storytelling. There is no long-term viability in the formal promotion of cultural stereotypes, and they cannot provide tangible direction for children who might seek it. The communal aspect of tribal life has rendered competition --- at least in its simplest form, that of self-glorification --- useless in their circles. Boasting is anathema to the Natives I know, and yet the systemic approach in "Native Pride" programs seem to foster a swagger in young adults that has no root in their reality.

The risks facing a population may vary, but the solutions are the same no matter our ethnic heritage --- meaningful work and stable relationships. I would add the recognition of our self-worth being placed firmly in a Christian foundation; of course, in this realm, that brings its own history of pain and exploitation.

Some guy in Ketchikan
Should Native kids be unequivocally warned about the toxicity of booze and their DNA? Sure, but so should mine. Should they be relegated to well-intentioned Home Ec classes rather than challenged to develop marketable skills? Not unless we want to add considerable insult to injury. The vigilant mothers and hard-working fathers of my Native friends did more to promulgate their success than self-esteem maxims or public education dollars.

There's a similar grace, and a similar despair, in the indigenous faces of Australia. Their gaze seems fixed on a horizon I cannot see, with an enviable stoicism. Enter alcohol or trauma, usually in tandem, and it gets more complicated. When we visited the Northern Territory a few years ago, I listened to stories of parliament-mandated homes built on tribal land at no or low-cost to Aboriginal families, only to be raided and left vacant. The men dismantled the cupboards, windowsills, and doors of their own brand new kitchens --- to provide fuel for outdoor cooking fires. They wanted to live outside. The irony of my sentiment towards beggars on the corner ("go live inside and take better care of yourself") is that it mirrors the intrusive arrogance of federal governments. The nomadic mystique of indigenous people was obliterated as a matter of course, and the reverberations are all around us. When I approach the guys on the street, I speak only of God's love for them individually. My tone is more urgent and firm than my children are used to hearing, and certainly more familiar than seems proper when addressing a stranger at a traffic intersection.

In that solitary flash during a Sunday drive, I face my own deep-seated conflict. When asked about the physical appearance of a brother in peril, I hesitate. My heart sees a resemblance to countless kindred faces, and my mind clicks through the statistics that damn him. The simple protection of his person from oncoming traffic I hope to provide by sending the cops will probably not do much to interrupt his life's trajectory. I want the guy to get out of the road, but I'm no more sure than he is about where he's supposed to go next.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very thought-provoking words

    ReplyDelete