Our Last Great Wilderness

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Because of the North Slope strike, the state of Alaska, long a stepchild heavily dependent on federal support, has suddenly become rich. In addition to the bids of almost a billion dollars, the oil companies will be paying large royalties and taxes on their production.

It has been a strange feature of the Alaskan economy that, just when it seems to be sinking into penury, something big and new comes along. First its wealth was in trapping and fishing. Russian fur traders and American salmon canners made their fortunes, but their heyday passed. Then there was the gold rush, but by the eve of World War II placer mining had largely exhausted the pay dirt of the gold fields. The war brought a new boom—and many white settlers—to Alaska, and today the federal government still spends some $750,000,000 a year on air bases, radar sites, and other installations (the state budget last vear was only $155,000,000).

 

With a billion in the till, Alaskans began to dream. One proposed a new state capital with the Mendenhall Glacier as a backdrop. Another suggested a monorail line to the North Slope. But it was also pointed out that the state was now in a position to treat its native minorities more generously than it had.

Most Americans, vividly familiar with urban ghetto problems nearer home, are unaware of the crisis of the Alaskan Eskimo and other native groups, particularly the Aleuts of the Aleutians and the Athabascan Indians of the interior.

On March 8, 1968, Senator Henry M. Jackson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, asked that a special committee look into the land claims of Alaskan natives. The picture painted in the voluminous report of this group is of an ancient culture in agonizing confrontation with modern society. Whereas the Indians of other states endured this crisis a century or more ago, for the Eskimo it is here and now.

In the past sixteen years, during which the Eskimo population has grown 50 per cent, deaths from suicide and alcoholism have doubled. Personality disorders rank third among the causes for hospitalization, second only to accidents (which lead the list and are in part attributed to alcoholism) and respiratory diseases.

Although improved public-health measures have led to an accelerated population growth, infant mortality and adult death rates are double those of white Alaskans. The tuberculosis incidence is twenty times that in the United States as a whole (despite major progress in cutting the rate). One in five Eskimos has never gone to school, and on the North Slope the average resident has not completed fourth grade.

While the ultimate crisis is now, the revolution in North Slope Eskimo life began in 1848 with the entry of New England whalers into the Bering and Chuck—chee seas. Traditionally the Tariamiut Eskimos of the coast were long-haul traders as well as hunters of whale, walrus, and seal. Sledding along the coast, they followed trade networks extending from Canada to Siberia; but the whalers soon put them out of business as they transported goods from one village to another.

Apparently because the coastal Eskimos began bartering with the whalers, rather than with the inland Eskimos, the nomadic culture of the latter gradually withered away. Today one of the few remaining inland colonies is that in Anaktuvuk Pass.

Under the impact of white development of their land, Alaskan Eskimos are facing a greatly accelerated change in their traditional way of life. While some, such as the DEW-line cat drivers at Barrow or those working around Prudhoe Bay, have become part of the modern culture, most coastal Eskimos are using the white man’s tools to try to continue their old ways. Harpoon guns and rifles have replaced the spear; outboard motorboats have displaced the skin-covered umiak. One even sees an occasional motorcycle leaning against an igloo, and snowmobiles have, in some instances, replaced dog teams.

It is within the family and village that the confrontation is most agonizing. Until the age of seven the typical Eskimo child lives in a home where only Eskimo is spoken. Then he goes to school and has to contend not only with another language but with a completely alien culture. If the student completes high school and comes home, he or she is now an alien in language and in knowledge. The boy is of little use to his father in the latter’s struggle to live off the land and has no status among other males of the village. The girl has not learned—or has forgotten—the arts of animal skinning and clothes making.

For many of these young people, graduation from high school has thrust them into a no-man’s-land between two cultures. They are unlikely to return to traditional Eskimo life; yet unless they go on to college (and few do), they find it hard to secure jobs in the white man’s world. It is understandable why so many Eskimos today turn to drink or suicide.