Monday, 16 February 2009

Ethnic cleansing

Many of the causes for today's upheaval in Alaska Native communities and families can be found in their history, specifically, Alaska Natives' experiences since contact with Europeans, and in the cultural, social, political and economic climate created for them by both the federal and state governments.

At the core of many problems in the Alaska Native community are unhealed psychological and spiritual wounds and unresolved grief brought on by a century-long history of deaths by epidemics and cultural and political deprivation at others' hands; some of the more tragic consequences include the erosion of Native languages, in which are couched the full cultural understanding, and the erosion of cultural values.

Despite some growth in incomes and numbers of jobs in the 1980s, villages still have much smaller incomes and higher unemployment rates than the state as a whole. An estimated 21.5 percent of Alaska Native families had incomes below the officially established "poverty" line income.

Villages are precariously dependent upon public sector spending, and the cost of living in villages is exorbitant. Knowingly in some cases and unknowingly in others, many Alaska Natives have turned to government subsidies, income maintenance programs, and other components of the transfer economy to make ends meet.

One recent study indicates that many small Southwest region villages may be losing their geographic advantage due to thinning of fish and game stocks, lack of jobs, and the need for goods and services available in larger population areas, such as Bethel or Anchorage. . .. The plight of the villages will worsen in the absence of systematic efforts to reduce the problems associated with a rapidly growing population.

The destruction of aboriginal cultures is nothing new. North America, Australia, South America, Africa... are but a few of the examples to be found in the history of settlement of new territories. From outright massacre to well intentioned missionaries, the contributing factors to the erosion of the way of life, cultural and spiritual heritage of native peoples is well documented.

Aboriginal populations were decimated through genocide, disease, alcohol, loss of territory and livelihood brought on by European settlers throughout the world.

These days some governments have taken steps towards reparation. In the United States there are laws aimed at protecting Native Americans. In Alaska such laws also exist, but how are these laws interpreted by the state government?

The government of the state of Alaska is presently personified by Sarah Palin. She appears to champion the causes of Alaska Natives when she tells the world about her husband's 1/8 Yup'ik genetic inheritance, when she wears native attire and jewellery on special occasions or when she attends some carefully picked cultural events where tribal music and dance are displayed.

Beyond that, do her policies and actions reflect an active interest in preserving Alaska Natives way of life? Does she use the power she was given through the ballot box to ensure that the many and diverse communities in rural Alaska have a chance of survival?

Whose interests does the Governor serve? What are her priorities?

This weekend Sarah Palin addressed a crowd of republicans:

"Like Lincoln, who was interested in building transportation infrastructure such as roads, railroads and harbors, so too are Alaskans in developing the same infrastructure as well as opening up more federal land. We’ve got to let the federal government know we can responsibly and safely develop our natural resources.”

Oil, forever big oil, that's what is foremost in her mind. By opening up more federal land she means drilling in ANWR and other land in the hands of Alaska Natives. Their interests and ownership of some protected chunks of Alaska collide head-on with what she's so intent on promoting.

Paying lip service to the laws intended to protect these people while sitting back and watching the slow death of their communities is a typical passive agressive attitude.

The way I see it, the Governor, while wearing ethnic jewellery and attending their cultural displays, is in fact perpetrating the ethnic cleansing of rural Alaska.

Source: Alaska Natives Commission Reports
Image: "Death and Life", by Gustav Klimt