Columns 2008

The old Alaska Native Medical Center

I spent my first night in Alaska at the old Alaska Native Medical Center. I was so homesick I cried for most of it. I was so scared that every time I heard a sound in the bathroom I shared with another room, I leaped up to make sure the door was locked.  The homesickness I came by honestly. But the fear came as a direct result of a comment made by the woman at the desk when I checked in.

As I stood there in the hospital lobby surrounded by Alaska Native faces that, at that point in my life, were as foreign as kimchee to me, the woman handed me a room key and a set of towels. Then she leaned forward and motioned me closer. I leaned in and she said, “Make sure to keep the door locked that leads to the shared bathroom. You never know who might be on the other side.” All I could think was, “Oh! My! God! I’ve landed in the middle of a bad western and it’s not John Wayne on the other side of the door.”

So when I got an e-mail from people concerned about plans to rezone the area that had once been ANMC, I took a personal interest in it.  It is a place with a lot of memories.  Some are good, some not. You didn’t go to ANMC from the Bush in the early 70s unless you were really, really sick. And if you were that sick, you always worried that you weren’t going to make it home again.

ANMC was the pre-eminent gathering place for displaced Alaska Natives in the city. Whether they were in Anchorage to try and make a living for themselves and their family, or because they were lost on the streets or because they came in for medical care and in between appointments had nowhere to go, ANMC was where you found them.  Take people out of their villages and they re-create them wherever they are.

The rezoning issue is, for the time being, a moot point as the hearing has been tabled due to the resistance of homeowners and businesses in the area. Since the land is on prime earthquake territory, no one wants to put up buildings there.  Which, of course, begs the point of why the Native Medical Center was located there. But I digress.  The city had some idea of zoning it for industrial purposes. The residents wanted something nicer. I’ve got to say that I side with the residents.

This is a big piece of land holding a lot f history for our state and its Native peoples.  This was the TB hospital in the bad days of epidemics. This was where the concept of a health aide program was first brought to fruition.  This was the meeting place for urban Natives looking for a taste, smell or touch of home.  This was one of the last bastions of paternalism in a system that had treated Alaska Natives like children unable to care for their own needs.  Extraordinary convulsions that happened in the business offices across from the hospital resulted in the amazing health delivery system found today in Alaska, in which Native people from all over this state are now firmly in control of their care.

I know this because way back when, I was a health director for the North Slope Borough and sat at meetings in which I was amazed at the attitude of some of the bureaucrats with whom we dealt. They clearly felt that Native people truly were too childlike to ever make adult decisions. I want to emphasize that this was only some IHS employees. Others could not have been more supportive of the idea of Native people taking back control of their lives and being treated as adults.

So here’s my suggestion for the area. Make it a beautiful open park dedicated to all the Native peoples and health care providers who ever passed through those doors. Where there was once a facility in which death was a daily visitor, let’s create a green space in which life is celebrated.  In doing so, we help not only revitalize a neglected corner of downtown, but we also acknowledge a part of our history that is rapidly slipping away.