Pro-Choice

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The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires governments to get free, prior, and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples before any development can take place on indigenous lands. But informed consent requires information, and that is where tribal management training comes in.

I am old enough to remember the Cold War, an era when the United States and the USSR represented very different ways of life. Whatever other differences they had, the East and the West treated the Native peoples of the far north in the same way: each forced, or strongly encouraged Native peoples to embrace alien ways of life. Both the communists and the capitalists believed that this kind of aggressive intervention would help Indigenous Peoples gain freedom from what they saw as ignorance, squalor, and poverty. Propaganda posters that once circulated in Siberia seem to show, at first glance, a picture of indigenous northern people sitting around a campfire. On closer inspection, a portrait of Lenin can be seen in the flames, suggesting the “communistic vision” as the warmth and radiance that ignorant people need to gain comfort and enlightenment.

In America, a similar attitude prevailed during the boarding school era, when Native children were taken from their villages and given a mainstream education. As with the Soviets, this strategy assumed that a bright future awaited Native people if they would only adopt the ways of the “modern” and “civilized” world.

The boarding school era was followed with what has been called the “termination period,” which further sought to integrate the Native people of the United States into the mainstream society and economy by systematically undercutting their heritage. This shortsighted approach was discarded in the 1970s, and today the official policy of the United States encourages self-determinism.

But for Indigenous Peoples to achieve self-determination, to make sensible decisions about development and other issues that affect them, they need tools and information about how these systems work and what the experience of other communities has been. That kind of knowledge is often missing in small Native villages. I am one of a handful of people who, over several years, provided college-level and paraprofessional instruction in an emerging discipline that is usually called tribal management.

Tribal Management (at least the way I taught it) helps people to recognize and define what they want and clearly explain these desires to others in a way they can understand, especially outsiders who often harbor their own differing world views and agendas. With those skills, the community can better negotiate and control its own destiny.
My job entailed traveling throughout the North Slope of Alaska dealing with such issues. Because of the harsh climate, the population of the region is small, and only a few outsiders have settled in the region. The Inupiaq are in a solid majority. I traveled to work in remote villages via small regional airlines and bush planes. The vast North Slope, which stretches for hundreds of miles across the top of Alaska, is home to eight villages, ranging in size from a few hundred people to Barrow’s approximately five thousand. I served them all, flying in when asked, as an itinerant.

On my flights, I often shared a small aircraft cabin with a pilot and an array of boxes containing anything from cases of food to snowmobile parts to building supplies. Typically, one side of the aisle carries freight with the other reserved for passengers. This is how I reached the villages where my courses were taught.

On one typical trip, I was in Point Hope, Alaska, at the westernmost part of North America, far above
    (continued on page 26)  the Arctic Circle. The airport there is a dirt landing strip with no buildings. When the plane came in, it was greeted by an array of pickup trucks, snow machines, and all-terrain vehicles. Nobody was there to greet me, so I caught a ride with the local law enforcement officer who greets each plane to be sure alcohol is not being illegally imported. Coming into town, about a mile away, I saw an array of conventional commercial buildings and homes. The officer dropped me off at the “camp,” a no-frills hotel composed of a number of ATCO units (trailer-like prefab buildings that dominate the “urban” landscape of the far north). The rooms are Spartan but warm. The restaurant closed a year or two ago, but the fully appointed kitchen is available for guests, who must prepare their own food. I would usually bring a banana box full of food because grocery prices at the local store are typically three times more expensive than in Fairbanks, where I buy my food. Across the street from the hotel are the modest offices of the tribal corporation (one of a series of Native “corporations” set up by the government to administer land claims settlements) and the government of the North Slope Borough (a borough is equivalent to a county elsewhere). In front of both there are usually snow machines idling, out of fear that if they are stopped in the cold they will not start again. Looking down the street, I could see lines of houses laid out in a grid. The contemporary town site, built in recent years, was conceived as an entity and does not have the flavor of a community that grew up over many years with houses and structures placed willy-nilly without formal urban planning. The most impressive structure is the school, with its basketball court that serves as a community magnet.

Senior citizens are provided with lunches during school days, and the elders mingle with the children in mutually respectful and beneficial ways. The local store sells food and almost anything else a person could need, including supplies for hunting whales. Wandering further through town, you reach the community center, which serves multiple purposes, including hosting town meetings, providing a place for Bingo, and serving as a venue for potlatches (community celebrations where people are honored and traditional food is served).

Many of the old ways survive in Point Hope. Although this is a Christian town with a number of different churches, old customs continue. On this visit, a man told me that the people practice ceremonies that honor the North Wind and entice it to blow in the spring. A good wind, he said, will help clear the ice from the ocean so the whales can be successfully hunted. He told me that the celebration of the North Wind is an important and cherished event that has much tradition; he encouraged me to attend.

On Sunday I went to the Episcopal Church, the first congregation in town, founded more than a hundred years ago. The site consists of two churches side by side: the original smaller building that was eventually outgrown and the current house of worship. The old building was dark and empty on that cold Sunday morning. A man said it is no longer used, although he added that it is a historic structure that needs to be restored. He pointed with pride to the pews in the church, obviously handmade with good solid hardwood. I wondered if the wood was salvaged from one of the wrecked whaling ships that once littered the shore. The arms of the pews have the finish and patina that only comes from the oil of many human hands nourishing the wood for generations. The man was very proud of these artifacts of another age that have come with the congregation to the new church. They create an important link with the past.

It was late January, and the sun had just returned to the North Slope after not rising for two months. Now the sun once again broke the horizon. The preacher was celebrating the event. He is Inupiaq, and his sermon combined English and the traditional language. He used the metaphor of “Jesus is the light” to celebrate the return of sunlight to his world. I wondered if other outside intrusions (such as corporations and economic development schemes) would mesh with the people of Point Hope in an equally harmonious way.

A large part of the local diet in Point Hope continues to come from subsistence food, including caribou and bowhead whales. This world is very much connected to age-old (albeit updated) traditions of the Inupiaq, sometimes merged with and sometimes distinct from the contemporary mainstream culture. Whaling is still an important subsistence activity, and skilled hunters and captains are held in high esteem. When whales are caught, the meat is distributed throughout the community in ways that provide food while nourishing Inupiaq traditions and values. Many people insist that eating traditional food provides a key to long life, in addition to being the food of choice for culinary reasons. Hunting caribou is also important, and some men are known and honored as especially good hunters. While the tools of the trade have changed (snow machines and modern rifles are used), they still follow the herds using skills developed over thousands of years.

My topic for this two-day seminar was economic development and tribal management. A number of people from the local tribal government had signed up. I spoke to the president and the executive director of the tribe, and they were excited that the courses were being made available.

The students, smart and eager, wore typical winter gear that included heavy boots and insulated bib overalls. Most were middle-aged, although a couple of younger faces were sprinkled through the class. They spoke with an Inupiaq accent that is stronger here than in Barrow, where people have more contact with the outside world. Humor was woven into the conversations even when the conversation was serious, and a lot of laughter echoed through the room. The seminar was held in one of the dining rooms of the hotel’s defunct restaurant, where a white wall served as a screen for my PowerPoint presentations. Since some students had to complete early morning tasks before coming over, I talked informally until I spied a troop walking over from the tribal corporation headquarters and knew we were about to start.

The students told me that their lives and work can be demoralizing because they are easily dominated and pushed around by outsiders. I reminded them that ancient Athens, which they knew about from high school and the History Channel (which is beamed down by satellite), had fewer Athenians than there are Inupiaq on the North Slope of Alaska. “Clearly, small societies can do good work,” I said. “The outside world may dismiss rural villages as ignorant and backward, but these villagers can still be skilled and the villages can prosper, just like Athens. By developing your abilities, the people and the community can gain greater control over your own destiny.”

Our first few discussions focused on mainstream business issues. I introduced the basic principles of management, marketing, and accounting/finance to provide a foundation upon which to build a tribal focus.

With these preliminaries under their belt, the real meat of the course began. A key topic involved understanding the true needs of the community and planning activities with these requirements in mind. The discussion drifted to problems that often occur when small communities hire consultants to help them. I pointed out that although consultants are specialists, the community should control them, not vice versa. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Some class members told stories of consultants who did not work out, providing specific examples of bad experiences.

A basic complaint is that outsiders usually come to the community with preconceived notions and are unable to adjust themselves to the needs and desires of the North Slope. One student observed that consultants charge thousands of dollars to provide a superficial editing of what they had done for other clients, without adjusting the product in any meaningful way. Other students, suspecting more clandestine motives, asserted the consultants are working “hand in glove” with outsiders in ways that undermine Inupiaq needs, priorities, and desires.

Several people complained that outsiders tend to come and go. They offered the example of public school teachers, who come ill-prepared to serve rural Native students or to live in bush communities; as a result the students often suffer. This is all the more tragic, they said, because the young people want to learn. Anecdotes of teachers abandoning their jobs without warning in the middle of a school year are commonplace. A classic tale tells of a basketball coach who took his team to an away game and without warning flew away forever on another plane, leaving the team stranded without a leader or chaperone. I do not know if these stories are exaggerations, but they do portray a significant distrust of outsiders. My students said they believe that business people are likely to treat them in the same way as these irresponsible public school teachers.

They bombarded me with questions about how to effectively explain the needs of the people when dealing with outsiders. They realized that the mainstream population of a nation hungry for oil easily becomes impatient when the 6,000 people who live in the far north throw stumbling blocks in the path of exploration and development. They feared that the cards are stacked against them.

They were especially concerned because they live in a very fragile environment, and they were alarmed because development often undercuts the ability of the people to maintain their subsistence way of life. They complained that many outsiders view their world as a wasteland of little value that is easily sacrificed. They wanted to learn how to express these feelings strategically and negotiate effectively.

One woman complained that when the oil companies held meetings, the people were often called “out of order” when they attempted to speak, so their point of view was never documented, especially in the written reports made available to regulators and ultimate decision makers. A short seminar on Roberts Rules of Order, she said, would give her people the tools they need to more effectively participate in these meeting with outsiders.
The next part of the class dealt with the planning process. I started with a brief retelling of the “Monkey’s Paw,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling that is the quintessential be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale. I asked the students to relate this story to economic development and asked if they and their community had ever made economic decisions that had backfired.

Immediately the conversation turned to some proposed oil drilling activities that are being negotiated and coal mining prospecting that is currently in progress. While I was serving Point Hope, various oil leases and the rights to explore for oil were sold by the United States. The people of Point Hope wanted to stop these actions because they worried that exploration would damage the animals they depend on for their subsistence. Maybe the polar bears, seals, and walruses would be scared away. Perhaps the whales would shun the region if too much exploration took place.

The class agreed that there is more than money at stake in these projects. A strong middle-aged man in overalls asked, “What will happen to us if the animals abandon our world?”

We talked about how to design a business plan, emphasizing that these documents often dictate the future once they have been agreed upon. “What are the pitfalls of the opportunity?” I asked. “How will a project affect the environment and your community?” I observed that suicide is already at an epidemic rate, as students nodded their heads, and I asked them whether changes from development might make that situation worse.

I admitted to the class that I didn’t know the answers to these questions, that they needed to find the answers that applied to their own situations. I quickly pointed out that the same basic process takes place within the not-for-profit realm, too. After all, a grant is really a payment from an organization to accomplish work it deems important. Funding agencies can be viewed as “customers,” but granting agencies should not totally control those they support.
This discussion prompted one student to suggest a future seminar on grant writing and a further discussion about the challenges involved in grant writing and the need to understand the foundations’ goals and interests.

One of the topics we discussed is the common “top down” development model that encourages communities to give power to outside specialists. This is often a seductive trap because it may provide short-term benefits, but with significant long-term costs. True development, I said, comes when people cultivate their own talents and refine their visions. When people gain skills, knowledge, and perspectives, they become better leaders, which, in turn, helps their organizations and communities.

We also talked about how most development is based in a market-economy model that might not be appropriate for rural indigenous communities, because they do not take into account the value of non-cash subsistence work. An economic development project might bring in money that will “show up” in a mainstream economic evaluation, but actually will reduce the wealth of the community by displacing the more valuable subsistence activities that can’t be connected to money and markets. The students immediately saw an example in some proposed mining projects that they feared would divert the caribou away from the region, which would have severe long-term costs that would not be accounted for in the development plan. We talked about how to calculate the “hidden costs” that may happen when non-cash options are sacrificed or undermined in order to embrace the mainstream economy. It was not, they realized, always a simple decision. While the students didn’t want to go back to a world without electricity and motorized vehicles, for example, they did recognize that dependency on  these things makes them vulnerable. How can the community benefit from modern ways and the outside world without becoming enslaved by them? More important, how can the community participate in the world economy without destroying their environment and way of life in the process?

The discussion then turned to tourism. The people of Point Hope are not against tourism, but they to be controlled in ways that serve the community and treat it with respect. Several people in class said that they worried that tourism would attract insensitive visitors and people who would loot their sacred grounds. In that case, they said, the community would be better off without tourism even if it could generate cash.

I told them that while their fears were legitimate, some cultural tourists are respectful, and if they could be attracted, everybody might benefit. Well-conceived cultural tourism programs often build pride within the local community while simultaneously helping outsiders understand the people and their concerns. This, in a nutshell, constitutes the major issue: how can the community exercise self-determinism even when dealing with outsiders who inevitably bring disruption and change? And how can local people control that process?

Leaving Point Hope for home, the small plane took off on a runway next to the old village that was abandoned years ago because of flooding. Looking down, I saw an ancient settlement pattern and traditional houses that used giant whale bones as support beams. Today, many roofs have caved in and the giant bones, bleached white with age, are exposed.

Looking at the bones, I realized that the Inupiaq are resilient. The culture can survive if people learn to negotiate with the outside world as equals and if they develop tools for assessing the full impact of the choices they make.

Alf Walle teaches at Galen University in San Ignacio, Belize. Because the program under which he did his work in Alaska was new at the time and is still evolving, the institution that funded the work has asked that the program not be named in this article.

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