Monday, January 09, 2006

The Culture: Worshiping 'Subsistence'

During the American Bicentennial, my family hosted a cadre of Polish sailors as part of Buffalo, New York’s contribution to “Operation Sail.” While they were here, the Poles wanted to see an Indian reservation. Being close to several, my family gladly obliged. There we were able to witness the lives of tribesmen who lived in shacks without running water. In the shack of the tribal chief, there was a wall of law books. As best as I can recall, the chief explained that it was thorough his knowledge of those books that his people would survive.

Since I was only seven, the Poles’ true interest in the Indians was lost on me at the time. Poland lived under communism and the only people free to leave were those who supported the communist regime. The request to visit an Indian reservation on the 200th anniversary of the American founding was merely an attempt to underscore that America is less than perfect, leaving the Indians in abject poverty, as an example.

Even as a child though, I wasn’t sold on the "broken" America message. As I played with the Indian children, I felt no different toward them then I would any other bunch of kids playing in a sandbox. We were only a half an hour or so away from the city. Even seeing things as a child, I had a hard time believing that the Indians had it bad. Anyone who wanted to live, work and be happy in the city could. If the Indians on the reservation weren’t happy, I sure could not figure out why. In the intervening years, my opinion hasn’t much changed.

Yet as difficult as it was to understand the poverty of the Indians in 1976, it is even more difficult to understand it today. We hear a lot about Indian casinos and reservation gas and tobacco, and I look forward to the day some Indian entrepreneur gets smart and builds a WalMart on reservation land, offering tax-free shopping to his non-Indian neighbors. That will be a great day and we will all be a lot wealthier for it.

Yet it seems that some Indians insist on staying poor. Consider the position of the Gwich'in Athabascans in Alaska, who have been outspoken their opposition to the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil production. According to Indian Country Today:

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will continue to be locked away to oil drilling, which is a disappointment to the majority of Alaskans who support opening the refuge, but a cause for celebration for the Native tribes who live nearby.

"It was so close, it was going to open, then they fought hard enough and it stayed closed and our prayers are answered," said Margorie Gemmill, an environmental technician for the Arctic Village Council, a tribal council of Gwich'in Athabascans.

. . . [According to the office of Alaskan Gov. Frank Murkowski,] "ANWR is a safe, secure, domestic supply of oil for our nation. It can be developed responsibly, using the most advanced environmental safeguards that ever governed oil development anywhere in the world," the statement read. "This vote sends the world the message that the U.S. supports the production of that oil from areas that lack strong environmental protections and from regions that pose potential threats to our national security."

But Alaska Natives like Gemmill living just south of ANWR fear that opening even the coastal plain to drilling would hurt the Porcupine caribou herd they depend on for their subsistence lifestyle.
“Subsistence lifestyle?” Gemmill somehow considers maintaining a “subsistence lifestyle” the answer to her prayers? You mean to say this woman worships poverty?

The fact is, fully “exploiting” the energy resources of Alaska would be excellent for the Indians—Indians who desire more for their lives then suffering and needless hardship. I, for one would much rather enjoy the beauty of the land from a heated two story winter lodge, complete with picture windows so I could enjoy the northern lights from the comfort of my arm chair, then from a single-wide trailer as I attempt to endure yet another cold, jobless winter.

Yet when one worships the “subsistence lifestyle,” it’s hard to ever move beyond it. It seems that even in the 21st century, some Indians still practice human sacrifice—of the spiritual kind.

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