For an Uncertain Value of “Deals With.”

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Prudhoe Bay

Indigenous communities in Alaska are just like those in the lower 48!

…only not at all.

Seriously, there are some significant differences in the way these communities are defined, along with their relationship to the rest of us. I got an interesting glimpse into the differences one day about a decade back when I and a colleague were asked if we could find a local elder willing to meet by teleconference with a college class from a tribal college in the lower 48. We put the meeting together and it went really well.

But one moment from that meeting has always stayed with me.

One of the students from the outside college asked how the elder and others in the Inupiat community here on the North Slope of Alaska deal with oil companies. The elder said something to the effect that you needed strong leadership that could articulate the needs of his own community to those companies. His terms were pretty general, but the student seemed quite satisfied with his answer.

The thing is; I am pretty sure the student was asking out the local community protests with oil companies. I’m also, pretty sure, the elder was thinking about how the local community negotiates a deal with them. To be sure, that negotiation process too could involve active opposition, but for the elder in question, that kind of opposition was by no means a forgone conclusion. He was at least as concerned about a share of the profits as anything else. I do think opposition was for the student; it was the only thing he could imagine an indigenous community would want from an oil company. I don’t think either of them realized they were not really talking about the same things.

I hadn’t been here that long and so I wasn’t sure about this impression, and I really didn’t think these guys needed a white guy appointing himself as a translater anyway.

So I hesitated.

…and the moment quickly passed.

Over time, though, I’ve become even more convinced that my initial impression was correct. Of course, we can find differences between different indigenous communities in other areas, and even between different leaders in those communities. That’s not entirely new, but at least at that moment, I am pretty sure that the prior assumptions of the students in this class and those of the elder were sufficiently obvious to each that they didn’t feel the need to clarify their intentions.

But I really don’t think they were on the same page.

Father’s Can Be Hard to Raise

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Mom always said that Dad’s nose would turn inside out whenever he told a lie. She didn’t mean a terrible lie, the kind you’d feel really bad about; she meant the kind of bullshit people sling around at their loved ones in the course of a regular day. Note quite a white lie, but not a serious deception either. That’s the kind of lie Mom was talking about, and yes, she was right. When Dad did that, you’d swear his nose was trying to turn inside out.

That’s one thing I remember about Dad.

***

Here is another!

It was often hard to get his attention. If he was watching television, for example, you could chatter away and he didn’t hear a word you said. You could ask him a question, tell him something, even something important, or otherwise make an effort to get his attention, all in vain. Short of shouting at the man, he simply didn’t hear you.

Yes, it could be damned frustrating!

Mom and Dad always said this was on account of Dad’s years as a helicopter pilot in the early air-ambulance operations of the military. He had also experienced plenty of other loud noises in the military, including at least one very loud noise (complements of the North Koreans) that would have killed him had he not tripped and fell flat on his face at just the right moment just a moment before it went off. In any event, Dad had heard a lot of loud noises back in the military, and this had left him with hearing loss, so if he wasn’t focused on you, he just didn’t hear what you had to say.

I grew up knowing this.

It was annoying, being ignored like that, but that was the cost of Dad’s service to his country.

Mostly on account of the helicopters.

***

In time, I came to experience hearing loss of my own. It set in at around 22 or 23 along with a nasty dose of tinnitus. I don’t think I slept for about 6 months. The ringing in my ears just wouldn’t let me sleep.

The hearing loss itself was all kinds of disorienting. I remember that I could no longer orient toward a sound. If someone called me from the left, I would turn to my right and wonder where the Hell they were? In a crowded room, I could no longer tune other people out to focus on the person I was talking to. (I still find that impossible.) Also, I got a quick lesson in how much I relied on my hearing during day to day activities. Once I began to cross the street and got a honk from an oncoming car behind me. That’s when I realized I was using the silence in place of actually looking to see if the street was clear, which was about as far from smart as it could possibly have been. I didn’t even realize I had been doing this until it was no longer an option.

In the years since, I have come to live with all these problems, all without an aid. Mostly, things re okay now. I keep some noise going at almost all times, but the tinnitus doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I just don’t notice it. I can hear most things that I need to. It’s a problem when my students are shy and don’t speak up; otherwise, my hearing loss doesn’t affect my classroom. My fiancé gets tired of repeating herself, but that’s not the worst of her frustrations with me. (She’ll live!) I reckon, some day I will get the aid, but for now, I am fine,

The story of my hearing loss is nowhere near as interesting as that of my Dad. The truth is, I don’t exactly know what did it. It might be a particular guitar note from Toni Iomi on the Black Sabbath “Born Again” tour (which is incidentally the inspiration for the Stonehenge sequence in Spinal Tap). I always wore ear protection to concerts, but not that evening. I’m not sure why, but I decided to rawdog the sounds that night only to find Iomi’s guitar impossibly loud and high pitched. Still, I was enjoying the show when he hit one particular note that filled me with pain all the way to my toes. That might have done it! Still, that had been a few years before my hearing loss set in. More recently, I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix on earphones. That might have done it. Or perhaps it was all the shooting I did as a kid, all without hearing protection, at least until I joined a gun club, only to begin assaulting my ears once again with heavy met in my freshman year of high school. I really just don’t know how much any one of these could have contributed to my hearing loss. Any or all of these are good candidates for an explanation.

I also know that my own story of hearing loss doesn’t hold a candle to my Dad’s. My stories are stories of self-indulgence. His are stories of service to his country.

My sister made that pillow

In any event, it was Dad who took me to get my hearing checked. I had aged out of coverage on his own military insurance the year before, but none of us knew it at the time. We thought that was how we would pay for the inevitable hearing aid. At the time, I really couldn’t imagine going forward without some help, so off to the hearing doctors I went.

The technician at the testing center didn’t tell me much, except that I had lost some hearing in my left ear. I was to take this information back to my doctor who would decide where to go from there.

On a lark, my Dad decided to take the test himself. He came back fine. Had the hearing of a young man or so the technician described it.

It wasn’t until hours later, that it finally dawned on me.

“He Dad, didn’t you used to say that your hearing had been damaged from your years as a helicopter pilot? Back when you used to ignore us while watching television? You always said it was because you couldn’t hear us.”

Dad didn’t say a word.

But his nose turned totally inside out.

“Asshole!”

Not the Worst Dental Banter, But…

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So, I am sitting in the dentist chair for a deep cleaning, and the woman doing the procedure asks what I do? I tell her I teach.

“Oh really, what do you teach?”

I tell her its history. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but my jaw is sore, I’m stressed, and my whole mouth is numb, so this is more than I really want to say about this or anything else at that particular moment, really it is.)

My dental tech. (I don’t know her official title) then goes on to tell me that history has changed a lot lately. It’s one of those comments that could mean a few different things. Just too general to mean much to me, and I am still working on getting the ball back in her court, so I try to wrap it up with something equally vague and unworthy of follow-up commentary; “history is always changing.”

I know. That doesn’t mean anything either. What I really meant to say is; “Get on with it!”

I think she was waiting for the latest numbing shots to set in, so she added some commentary about how America used to be thought of as a good place, but now people thinks it’s awful, so they want to change history. She adds that some people should go back to their home country if they think America is so bad.

I didn’t respond at all this time, and she soon resumed her work.

Now before you imagine this woman in terms of redneck, xenophobic, white lady stereotypes, let me just add a couple important details. This woman was Asian. She had a very thick accent. I think likely that she is an immigrant. She probably finished her training as a dental tech. (or something like that) in a strange country speaking a strange language, and that HAD to be a Hell of a challenge. I will add to this that she did a good job and I am very happy with her work today. This woman is not an idiot, and I have no reason to believe her a bigot. She is an accomplished professional who has almost certainly experienced the difference between America and some other place in terms far more vivid than anything in my own background.

Still, muted as I was now by the sharp pointy things once again attacking the space between my teeth and my gums, I couldn’t help but think about her words. I couldn’t help but start down the paths toward answering her, the ones I would have taken had I more time, less stress, and a functioning tongue.

And also if I was free of the pointy things.

I wanted to tell her that I teach at a tribal college and that my indigenous students have legitimate complaints about America, complaints that are not well answered by telling them to go home. (Indeed, some of those students might suggest a fitting answer would be for me to go home.) Of course, I would want to expand on this by suggesting that “go home” or “go somewhere else” doesn’t really answer any questions about injustice or oppression, even when such arguments are not made with perverse irony. Sure, there may be some folks with less to complain about than they imagine, but there are also plenty with more cause to complain than they themselves imagine. And of course many with legitimate grievances of which they are quite well aware.

Whether or not this all adds up to America being a terrible place is another question. Being critical of America doesn’t necessarily entail such a sweeping condemnation, and in my experience, that sweeping condemnation has as much to do with the way some people hear the criticism as it does with the intent of the critics. Slavery, genocide, patriarchy, colonialism, and many other themes can be voiced with or without the rancor. For some these are causes to hate America; for others they are simply things that must be abolished, and that in and of itself is the point.

Bottom line is that I think there is more to the criticisms my dental tech alluded to than this she might have imagined. I could be wrong. I mean, details matter, but absent a specific reference to a specific complaint, I think it rather likely that I would be inclined to support at least some of the complaints she was unhappy about.

I do think it rather likely that this woman picked up on some of the recent right wing response to critical race theory (CRT). To be honest, I was never that keen on CRT, but I must say, the right wing effort to quash it, ban it from the schools, and use it to scare the shit our of parents and political donors all over the country has certainly given me good reason to reconsider my take on the subject. The right wing makes a good case for critical race theory. I don’t think they mean to. But they sure do.

All that said, I can imagine at least one line of thought that works positively in favor of this woman’s narrative. As I said, I do think she is an immigrant. Given her allusions to going back home, it seems pretty clear that America has been a positive experience to her, one that likely brought her increased possibilities and genuine improvements in quality of life. Maybe not, of course. But, given her comments, this does seem likely. I can well imagine that someone with such an experience would find those critical of the United States quite objectionable. I can well imagine that their narratives might strike her as wrong-headed, even as deceitful and clear evidence of bad faith. I can well imagine that her own life story, had she the time to give it to me, might well have served as a great reminder that there are some good things about this country, and that those good things are not limited to the experiences of the dominant white majority.

So, what am I left with? A sense that this woman was unfairly dismissing the legitimate grievances of people who have been treated unfairly in this country. It’s not that I think this woman is wrong to love America; it is that I think she is wrong to dismiss who seem to think otherwise. As I see it, she is right to think of America as a wonderful place. I also think that others are right to think it a terrible place. It’s not even that I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I think both of these takes are true at the same time.

Of Powerful Dogs and Fractured Frontiers

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(A bit cryptic, but still kinda spoilery)

***

The frontier has always been a story of progress…

Pardon me!

‘progress’

Turner’s old “meeting place between savagery and civilization” isn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game; it is virtually always understood to be a transitory phase, an early chapter in the story of progress. For those that count as people in such stories, the frontier is a challenge to be met and a potential which must be brought to fruition. The story of the frontier will end when the savagery recedes, replaced once and for all with the civilization. The frontier is full of dangerous animals, untamed rivers, and wild Indians, but it bends towards a time when the only wolves and the bears left will be in the zoos, safe crossings will have been forged upon every river, and the Indians have all been placed on reservations, their children hauled off to be white-washed in the boarding schools. The frontier isn’t supposed to last. It is supposed to end. It is supposed to end in civilization.

But what if the frontier doesn’t want to end?

What if the agents of that frontier do not fade into America’s past, to become mere fables of a bygone era? What if those agents do not walk calmly back out and into the wilderness at the end of the movie, as John Wayne does at the end of The Searchers, knowing as his character did, that he character didn’t belong safe inside a well kept home. What if one of those agents insist on sticking around to crash the dinner parties of the civilized world? Worse yet, what if they want to teach the youth about the ways of the wilderness?

This, I gather, is the central question of “The Power of the Dog.”

One might, of course, be inclined to put another question ahead of this one, a question about the sexuality of men who live much of their lives so far from the company of women, but of course this too is a question about what people do well beyond the reach of ordinary virtue and what happens when someone from that world brings their wild ways back into the world of ordinary virtues.

Folks may have grown accustomed to thinking of cowboys as the manliest of men, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether that means what we might imagine it does within our safe and civilized – and very hetero-normative – world. It’s damned uncomfortable question; what are those cowboy’s doing out there? The last major movie to ask that question broke a mountain. This one crashes our dinner party.

And then it wants to spend time with our son!

It might seem incongruous, the possibility that the cowboyest of cowboys in this story could be so, so very not like we imagine cowboys to be, but this too just makes the central villain of the story that much more of a threat to the civilization we might have thought he helped to create. He didn’t vanish with the frontier, and he welcome the changes of the civilization he helped to create. The man doesn’t smell right. He doesn’t talk right. Maybe, he doesn’t even fuck right!

What the Hell is to be done about him?

Yeah, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Statehood of the 49th State

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This last December (2021) I spent a few days in the Rasmuson library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They had an interesting display on statehood just outside one of their public entrances. It’s 21 total posters. (Is that the right word?) Kind of a nice tight introduction to the subject. I took pictures to share with my own students.

Thought I’d share them here too.

One of the more interesting themes brought to the fore in this series would have to be the complaints about exploitation by outsiders. The word “colonialism” even makes an appearance. Of course there is something more than a little ironic about the appearance of these themes in the rhetoric of whites just a few generations into America’s own entrance into the region, but then again, there is probably something ironic in my own swing at this issue, sitting as I am in Inupiat territory a couple generations further into that process colonization.

Meta-Irony, the white liberals burden!

Anyway…

I have enhanced the clarity of most of these pictures a bit and tweaked the lighting where necessary to try and reduce the light glare in a few of them. My main goal was to make the writing as clear as possible. I think you can make most of the main text out if you embiggen the pictures.

(Click to embiggen!)

1: Origins

2: “Seward’s Folly”

3: District
4: Territory
5: Half Step
6: Roots of Campaign for Statehood

7: Alaska for Alaskans

8: Bartlett and Gruening
9: Too Much Going Out
10: Not Enough Staying Here
11: Denied!
12: Uncaptioned Photo
13: Redenied (The bastards!)
14: Model Constitution!
15: Colonialism
16: Calling for the Convention
17: Organizing the Convention
18: Convention in Action

19: Ordinances, Tennessee Plan, and Fish Traps

20: Rights!
21: Adjournment

Revolutions, Republics, and Republicans

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One of the most profound moments in American history came in “the Revolution of 1800.” This phrase refers to the election of 1800 in which Democratic Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as winning the Presidency, effectively wresting control of both the executive and legislative branches of government from the Federalists who had retained it since the Constitution first went into effect. This may not sound like much of a revolution. After all, that is just what the Constitution tells us will happen when an election. They takes over the relevant seats of government, and if that means control government switches from one faction to the next, then so be it. That is how republican government works.

But…

It is one thing to put that plan of action on paper, and it is quite another to put it into practice. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is by no means a forgone conclusion, as many people from all over the world can tell you. Those voted out of office, do not always leave peacefully. Sometimes they never leave at all. Given the rancor between the newly formed parties, and the scale of conflict occurring during the Adams administration, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that the plan of the Constitution would be followed. Could those behind the alien and sedition acts really be expected to surrender power to those who had produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? The answer was by no means obvious.

What makes the revolution of 1800 significant is the fact that it took place without violence.

Oh there were plenty of efforts at manipulation to be sure. Lots of games in the counting of the votes. Still more games played in the effort to control the judiciary going forward. At the end of the day, however, the Federalists respected the outcome of the election, and they peacefully surrendered control of American government to the Democratic Republicans.

It has been that way ever since.

At least until January 6th, 2021.

A Southerly Glimpse of Our Northitude

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Someone (Oscar Alajandro) one from Venezuela recently put together a video on our little town in the edge of nowhere. My fiance assures me that it’s worth watching. I can see a few errors (For example, there are definitely more communities north of us than he suggests), but overall, it’s certainly an interesting view.

Decolonizing The Moon!

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In my last post, I wrote about the notion of outer space as an extension of the western frontier in American popular culture. I mentioned in passing the connection to Native Americans and the dispossession of their lands. As a follow up, I thought I might comment on a little story connecting all three themes in one narrative.

Here is the story as it was related on Indian Country Today:

When NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they did some astronaut training on a Navajo Indian reservation. One day, a Navajo elder and his son were herding sheep and came across the space crew. The old man, who only spoke Navajo, asked a question, which the son translated: “What are the guys in the big suits doing?” A member of the crew said they were practicing for their trip to the moon.

The old man got really excited and asked if he could send a message to the moon with the astronauts. Recognizing a promotional opportunity for the spin-doctors, the NASA folks found a tape recorder. After the old man recorded his message, they asked the son to translate. He refused. So the NASA reps brought the tape to the reservation, where the rest of the tribe listened and laughed, but refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.

Finally, NASA called in an official government translator. He reported that the moon message said: “Watch out for these guys; they’ve come to steal your land.”

It’s a great story, but if you’re like me, you have to spend a moment or two wondering whether or not it’s true. Turns out, the answer is ‘no.’ According to Snopes, the joke appears to have come from Johnny Carson. It was part of his monologue on July 22, 1969. Of course it is possible, that Carson’s writers picked it up from an earlier source. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence for it.. In any event, there is no record of this with NASA or any of the other Federal Agencies that might have been involved at the time. So, the story is very unlikely to be true.

That said…

It’s damned telling that the Carson camp thought to put this joke together back during the days of the space race. They clearly got the connection between the western frontier and the space program. They even got the violence implicit in westward expansion. They got all of this in the service of a joke intended for a mainstream American audience.

These weren’t activists; they were comedy writers working on a relatively non-partisan show, and they decided that it would be funny to compare the Apolllo moon landings to the dispossession of Native Americans. Judging by the longevity of this gag, it would appear that they were right.

The thing is, this joke is only funny if people get the connection between exploration and colonization, if they know that someone planting a flag in ‘new’ territory has generally meant someone else gets screwed.

It’s almost as if awareness of systemic racism isn’t limited to critical race theorists.

Shhhh!

Don’t tell the Republicans!

Go to the Moon, Young Man. Go to the Moon!

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In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.” In it, Turner bucked the prevailing historical wisdom of the day to say that American history was in fact quite distinct from that of Europe, and that this was due to the existence of the frontier. The opportunity to move freely into unoccupied land, and the struggle with nature to carve civilization out of that land, that wilderness, gave America and Americans a unique character.

…according to Turner, at any rate.

Suffice to say, the Turner thesis caught on, not just in the historical professions, but also throughout American popular culture. One can hardly imagine western fiction without it, or even the lyrics of mainstream country music. So, when I say, according to Turner, I of course mean, “and a whole lot of other people right along with him.” The Turner thesis has become so ubiquitous it would be hard to find a single genre of artistic expression or a vein of American politics it has not influenced, or for that matter a person who doesn’t invoke its themes from time to time.

To say that all of this is problematic is putting it rather mildly, and countless books have been written exploring the many problems of the frontier thesis, just as countless books have been written applying it to various aspects of American history.

Needless to say, Native Americans have come up a few times, particularly in reference to that notion of free and unoccupied land so central to the frontier thesis. We’ll save that for another post.

…or maybe 10 other posts.

One of the most interesting problems with the frontier thesis has to do with the timing. See, most people would reckon that the frontier was basically closed by 1893, not too long before that, to be sure, but by most accounts, it was certainly closed by 1893. So, if that frontier is what makes America and Americans unique, then what do we make of everything that comes after its closure? If the frontier was the driving force in American history, then what is significant about America and Americans long after the became an ex frontier?

To raise the question in a more practical tone; if the original is already gone, then can we find another? What is the new frontier?

Yes, that question has been asked many times by many people.

Various answers have been offered.

Of course.

What has me thinking about all this today is a recent visit to a museum, The Spirit of the West Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. More specifically, I am thinking of one of the exhibits on the second floor of this museum. It is entitled, “From the Mountains to the Moon,” exploring the life work of the artist Paul Calle. The man was an amazing artist, and the exhibit carries a good deal of his work, much of which deals with themes quite closely connected to the frontier, but what specifically gives the exhibit its title is the contrast between his many paintings of mountain men, and his depiction of the Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, taking man’s first step onto the moon. This might seem a Hell of a leap, from Mountain Men to the moon, but of course, there are certain elements of continuity.

You can see these traces of continuity in at least two of the paintings in this exhibit, along with the narratives attached to them. The first of these is entitled “The Great Moment.” It is most remarkable for its presence in an exhibit otherwise filled with western Americana (and a few other things to be sure), but the mere presence of this great painting alongside so many depictions of mountain men, Indians, and western landscape creates an interesting juxtaposition. It is enough to get someone asking, how and why did this piece get here?

“The Great Moment”

“This painting of my friend Neil Armstrong by my friend Paul Calle combines for me the best of two worlds. NASA’s technological achievements and an artist’s exquisite interpretation of it. It looks as beautiful today as it did forty years ago, and it will one hundred years from now.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11, Command Module Pilot

So, how and why did that painting get here?

Well, the best explanation can be found alongside one of Calle’s more typical pieces.

John Colter

“I have always liked the image of mountain man John Colter his moccassin clad foot first stepping on the newly fallen snow of the Yellowstone Valley to the Moon boot of Neil Armstrong stepping in the dust of the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Two worlds apart, yet each of a new frontier. – Paul Calle

Captain Kirk could not have said it better himself.

A few extras (click to embiggen!)