In most small towns in America, two professions stand out as receiving the most respect and admiration – preachers and teachers. While there are obvious exceptions to this rule, for the most part people rely on these professions to maintain certain ethical and moral standards.
After all, you trust one of these professions with your immortal soul and the other with the development of your children’s minds. What could be more important?
Teachers and preachers in Bush Alaska definitely fall under this mantle of respect. In fact, in many Native villages they have historically been exalted to a pedestal they perhaps never really deserved. This is because the first sustained contact most Alaska Natives had with the outside world was through these professionals.
When America first appeared in Alaska Native communities to announce that they were now Americans and subject to the American rule of law, the most obvious example of the new rules being imposed on them was that their children had to go to school. In many villages these two professions intermingled, with the preacher or preacher’s wife being the teacher. However it worked, the people who filled those roles became the role models for Alaska Natives in learning what this new world was all about.
History shows that most of the people who traveled to remote Alaskan villages to work in these fields were good people with good intentions. They did the best they could within the confines of the world as they knew it, a world in which all things Native were viewed through the very myopic vision of a Eurocentric culture that felt it was the pinnacle of civilization.
And so, despite the best of intentions, horror stories from those early days abound – stories of Native children being hit for speaking their Native tongue; stories of Native children used as servants and slaves by those who supposedly came to save and teach them; stories of sexual abuse, cultural abuse and physical abuse.
Yet through it all, so many good people filled these roles that the basic respect and honor in which the preachers and teachers were held never totally dissipated. When I first arrived in Barrow, I was astounded at the timidity of so many of the parents in confronting the school when their children were having problems. The teachers represented figures of authority and even though these parents had long since left the schoolrooms, they were still unable to feel comfortable approaching the teachers who remained in them.
All of which makes the arrest of two teachers in Barrow a few weeks ago for selling crystal meth all the more amazing. What would make any teacher in any Bush village in this state think that they could get away with distributing crystal meth and not have it be known all over town almost before their first customer could use up his buy?
Make no mistake about it. The tundra drums are alive and well in all Alaska villages. The CB radios crackle every night with the latest in information on hunting conditions, weather conditions and the varying conditions of anyone who did anything that day to come within the radar of the community’s eyes and ears. When I lived in Barrow, I knew that if I rolled over in bed the morning after the night before and found myself facing the wrong person, everyone in town would know about it before I had my morning coffee. Welcome to small town America.
But what is most heartbreaking about the recent bust in Barrow is how it affects the kids. Let’s face it, this has not been a great school year in Barrow. First the star basketball player gets jailed on charges of second degree murder; then the basketball coach gets fired for late night partying while on a road trip with the team; and now two teachers get busted for selling drugs.
I guess its silly to want certain professions to somehow leave their very flawed humanity behind, the humanity we all share, and maintain a higher standard than the one to which we usually hold ourselves. But darn it, if you are teaching our children, we have a right to expect you to at least try.