Columns 2009

Is the future dim for small Native villages in Alaska?

I thought the placement of two letters in the Letters to the Editor section of the paper last Thursday was very interesting. One letter spoke to the need for training Alaska Natives so they can take some of the thousands of jobs available through their corporations and their corporations’ subsidiaries.  The hitch to shareholders getting those jobs, aside from the training component, was the fact that they are often spread across the entire world, many thousands of miles from the village the shareholder calls home.

The very next letter was about the silence emanating from the Native corporations and other Native leadership groups over the plight of many small villages where residents are simply unable to pay for both food and heat.  The letter writer wondered why these groups weren’t using their profits to help their shareholders.

I think both letters make sense and both raise legitimate issues.  Unfortunately, if the ideas set out about training Alaska Natives were to be realized, then the traditional villages the second letter writer wants helped would become ghost towns. And therein lies the rub.

Encouraging education in our young people is pretty much a knee jerk reaction. If our kids are going to succeed, then they need the tools that will bring them that success. Those tools are found in any number of post-secondary education and training programs. But if you train a village youth to be a plumber and your village doesn’t have plumbing, what’s he or she to do?  Even if your village does have plumbing, if it’s a small village one plumber will suffice. What do the others trained as plumbers do?

The question that needs to be asked is whether, if we train these young people in small villages, we aren’t signing the death warrant for that village.  If we train these young people into jobs that aren’t available locally to them, are we offering them an exercise in frustration? Or do we encourage them to follow their dream, even if that means taking a job with their corporation in Kuwait? And what does that mean to the long-term survival of their village? If the best and brightest leave to make a life for themselves elsewhere, who remains behind to keep the village viable and healthy?

I don’t think anyone should be kept from following their dreams and doing what they have to in order to make their way in an increasingly competitive world.  But what I’ve seen in almost forty years in this state, the majority of those years spent in a Native village, is that villagers who get an education that results in their working outside of their village find it very hard to go back to those villages for any sustained length of time.

There are all kinds of pressures brought to bear on these people. They often face a passive-aggressive hostility from friends and families who stayed in the village that implies that the returning person thinks he or she is now better than those who stayed behind. There is the conflict of a job in a non-native world that doesn’t understand the timing and seasons of a traditional culture, making it hard to get the time off to return home for geese or caribou hunting or whaling. There is the simple fact that once you are established in a larger community, the village can seem so very much smaller than you ever remember.  And you find that you don’t have as much in common with the friends you left behind as you might have once thought.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the survival of Alaska Native villages in this new century. If they can’t support themselves, then who should be supporting them? If they disappear because their residents move to a place where the living is cheaper, what happens to their village corporation, formed under the assumption that such a village would continue to exist. 

But perhaps the most important question is how to resolve the inherent conflict found when you urge people to get an education but then don’t want them to leave you to use it.  Because that kind of conflict can make life difficult for young people, and then alcohol and drugs start looking very attractive.