Columns 2013

The yin and yang of village life

The stories could not have been better positioned on the front page of Sunday’s ADN to express what I think of as the yin and yang of life in Bush Alaska. The story of a tragic crash near St. Mary’s and the subsequent heroic efforts of village people to reach the crash and help the survivors, juxtaposed against the story of bootleggers and bootlegging in my old hometown. There you have in, in stark black and white, life in Alaska’s villages.

Living in a small Alaskan village is a window into both the best and the worse of human nature. Statistic after statistic shows the worse – the highest rates of violence, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, suicide. Based on that view of village life, many people question why anyone would want to live there. For some, the good of village life simply doesn’t outweigh the bad.

But there is another side to village life. It’s the side I find myself explaining over and over again when people ask how I could have lived in one for almost 30 years. You may find it annoying that everyone always knows your business, on the one hand, but on the other hand it sure comes in handy when life takes a rough turn and you find yourself surrounded by people offering to buffer you in every way possible from that roughness. When tragedy strikes in small villages, the villages respond as one with love, compassion and help. In the case of the recent plane crash near St. Mary’s, the response included courage and commitment to saving lives by venturing out in frightening winter weather to find the crash and save whoever they could.

No one asked if the people on board the plane were villagers. No one asked if they were Alaska Native, Caucasian, African American or Martian. It didn’t matter. They were human beings in trouble and village people responded from a sense of common humanity. Living in a remote village means knowing how often you are on your own to handle a tragedy while the outside world tries to reach you. So banding together to care for each other is second nature. It may be your neighbor’s turn today to need help but tomorrow may be your turn.

I’d guess that some of those rescuers are the same people who end up in articles about the prevalence of substance abuse and domestic violence in Alaska’s villages. Few of us are all hero or all villain. Most of us are an amalgamation of good and bad impulses and actions. The same man who may beat his wife when drunk is quite possibly the first person on his skidoo racing to the scene of a tragedy. The yin and yang of village life makes facile labels useless.

Ultimately you can’t tell the story of Alaska’s villages without recounting the heroism along with the horror. You can’t ignore the fact that the same people are often featured in both scenarios. So when people ask why we shouldn’t just jail the perpetrators of abuse and throw away the key, the answer is that life is not writ in big letters of black and white. Life is writ in shades of gray that just make it all the more difficult to deal with the problems besetting our villages.

I lived for almost thirty years in Barrow and during that time I saw both ends of the spectrum and all the spaces in-between. I stayed because ultimately I saw the strong core that is still the center of village life, the impulse to pull together when needed, to help your neighbor, to feed your people. I saw that in stark relief against the violence and abuse that all too often pervaded village homes. And I believed then, and still believe now, that the strength of the culture will eventually triumph.

The people from St. Mary’s who risked their own lives to find the crash site and help the victims were probably not all angels. Some probably had criminal records. But the human impulse to help when the need arises despite the personal risk is still inside them. That’s the part that needs to be tended, encouraged and grown. Once it blossoms fully again, the horrible statistics that seem to define Bush Alaska today will start to wither and, eventually, disappear.