Reading about the push to turn the old ANMC land into something more useful and attractive brought to mind my first night in Alaska.
It was Oct. 1, 1972. I had cried my way from New York City to Anchorage while a very unhappy parrot was in the cargo hold. I have no idea how Adeline made it safely to Anchorage under those conditions, but she did. She was a tough old bird.
I was picked up by an IHS employee and dropped off at the front desk of visitors’ quarters. I stood there holding the cage with Adeline in it. She was expressing her dismay very vocally which made me wonder if they would even let me stay there with her. But they did. In fact, according to the lady at the front desk, my bigger concern should have been who was sharing the bathroom with me.
Apparently every two rooms had a bathroom between them that was shared by guests, including Alaska Natives. The receptionist told me this in a hushed voice and then suggested I lock the door to the bathroom because I just didn’t know who would get the other room.
The next day I was trotted around to meet IHS service providers. Since I knew nothing about Indian Health Service and how it functioned, this meant little to nothing to me. I came from a city where everything was a subway ride away. The concept of a specialist having to fly into a village was foreign to me.
And that was it for my introduction to Alaska and Native health care. At the end of the day, I was dropped off at the Army Navy store and told to buy a winter coat that would actually keep me warm as opposed to the one I’d brought from Brooklyn. I found myself agreeing with Adeline that we maybe should have thought a little more about the whole move to Alaska.
My most memorable night at ANMC though was a Christmas Eve when I accidentally locked my car keys in the car in the facility’s parking lot. It being about 8 PM on Christmas Eve, the rental car company couldn’t get anyone there until the next day. I had just returned from the East Coast and had all my belongings in the car. I was more than a little nervous about leaving it all in the parking lot overnight. I was especially nervous because of the group of Alaska Native men hanging around on the corner looking at me and whispering as they slowly approached. Just before I bolted screaming into the night, one of the men asked me if I was having trouble getting into my car. I explained what I’d done. He smiled, turned to another man and then, before I knew what was happening, he unlocked the car with a hanger. He then smiled again and wished me a Merry Christmas.
That’s the memory of ANMC that I really carry with me. Not the first night where I was told to basically be afraid of Alaska Natives sharing a bathroom with me. But this night, when my fear turned to a big smile, and I thanked the men for their help.
For many years, I thought how odd it was that there were so few Natives involved with IHS beyond nurse’s aides and maintenance men. Seemed as though something called the Alaska Native Medical Center should have had more Natives in management and other top positions. But that never happened until the Native communities in Alaska fought to take control of their health care. Eventually ANMC closed down and Uncle Ted used his muscle to get a new facility built that caused many of us to drop our jaws in awe. The new facility was under Alaska Native control.
Now the place that first introduced me to the racism endured by Alaska Natives is gone. And it seems only right that the land left behind should be used to create a beautiful, peaceful space where we can all shop or stroll or live. And that space should be controlled by Alaska Natives because, given the number of Alaska Natives who died there, it is clearly their sacred space.