Throwback Story inspired from recently found journal
May 10, 2015 – Etok was in the news today. He died while whale hunting just like I imagine he would want to. Etok had principles and he made me defend mine.
I read Etok’s book, “A Story of Eskimo Power” in 2002. Mike Zacharoff from Saint Paul Island gave the book to me. At the time, I was the interim President/CEO for the Alaska Native Health Board. Mike was the Chairman.
Sometime in 2005, I traveled to Fort Yukon for the International Gathering of Gwitchii’n. I never been to Fort Yukon before. I saw that Julie Kitka, AFN President/CEO and Orie Williams, Doyon President/CEO were the main speakers. I was going to listen to the Gwitchiin people – nothing more.
And then, neither Julie Kitka or Orie Williams showed up.
I was shuffled off the plane, onto a 4-wheeler, to the front of the gathering and handed a microphone. II cannot stress heavily enough how much I was expecting to be a listener and learner, not a presenter – especially at this meeting, in this location, at that time. But, one must quickly adjust and adapt. So I did.
A few months before this day, I proposed a resolution to the Alaska Native Health Board of Directors that they approved. The Council of Athabaskan Tribal Governments (CATG) was a new member organization to ANHB; this was our new Gwitchiin member organization based in Fort Yukon.
The political environment in Washington DC held a strong likelihood that there could be an approval to open a small area within the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for oil exploration.
My resolution was for our statewide Alaska Native organization to support the opening of ANWR provided some conditions were guaranteed. The resolution was approved by the 24-member organizations. The purpose of the resolution was:
* to create an Alaska Native Health “Endowment” Fund,
* Ensure that the federal government included language in the terms for oil exploration and drilling companies to be legally bound to effecting the Fund
* that as the President/CEO of ANHB, I would be guaranteed a seat at the negotiating table to ensure Alaska Native people interests were represented.
Believe me, I was not prepared to make this presentation “off the cuff” with no planning on how I might approach the presentation. Anyone who knows about the ANWR issue, likely knows the Gwitchiin people’s passionate opposition to the opening ANWR.
This is the day I met Etok.
This gathering was held outside on a beautiful day, along the riverbank of the great Yukon. I felt right at home in this setting. I grew up in McGrath, on the riverbank of the Kuskokwim.
That is what I began with when I found myself speaking. It helps me to say something that calms me or admits right away of my nervousness.
I talked about the drive from the airport to the gathering place. I noticed the dust and how that is hard for our elders to breathe with excessive dust. I stated that the Gwitchiin communities have been wrongfully overlooked with federal appropriations because of their opposition to ANWR. I talked about the state never living up to its inherent government function to provide infrastructure and services to its citizens.
Right about this time, someone asked for the volume of the microphone to go up because this was being aired over the radio.
WHHHHAAAAATTTT? I almost choked hearing that.
I told the people there exactly that. Then I just said something along the lines of, “I may as well just tell you my purpose of being here because who knows if I will still have this job after everything I just said – which now I know was aired on the radio!!”
I talked about the Alaska Tribal Health System, the self-governance and free will we had over our own destiny. I explained the purpose of the resolution to support the opening of ANWR.
I had the greatest day that day. I had a rare opportunity to interact with and hear the people tell me about their points of view.
One of those people was Etok. Etok was handed the microphone and he said (paraphrasing) – The Alaska Tribal Health System is failing. It may have been signed over to native people, but nothing else has changed. He was yelling at me.
I responded when he finished. I said, “You are absolutely right! I agree with everything you said. That is exactly why I believe we need to do things differently and try something different. That is what this resolution is for, to do something differently”..
The Gwitchiin Gathering approved the resolution that day. And I got to meet my hero, Etok. My fellow Eskimo.