Differing Perspectives

Though formally designated a military installation, many of the logistic, maintenance, and construction tasks of the radar station were contracted out to private corporations. The sector superintendent in charge of all the stations between Demarcation Po int and Barrow was a long-term employee of one of these companies; a person with considerable experience in the Arctic. Having been given his name before leaving Barrow, I at least knew whom to ask for on my arrival.

Opening the thick metal door of the modular-constructed building, I was met by a civilian clerk, who, on learning my reason for being there, quickly ushered me into a small office at the end of a long narrow corridor. There, in a small cubicle surrounded by files and other symbols of his status, sat a short dark-haired man in his late 40s. Gesturing with his hand for me to sit down, I accepted his offer and then proceeded to explain the nature of my visit.

"Oh, several people have already told me you were living down in the village. I also got a message from the Arctic Research Laboratory. How is the research progressing?" The manner in which he asked the question encouraged a pro forma response.

"Fine. But I'm just settling in so I have mostly questions at this point."

"What can I do for you?"

"I'd like to get a better understanding of the kind of work villagers do at the site and and what your experience with them has been."

"I see. Well, they do lots of things, maintenance, mostly; although some of the men run heavy equipment and repair machinery - both here and at the smaller stations. It's a six day work week beginning at 7:30 in the morning. All permanently employed Eskim os work on rotation. They spend six weeks here at the main site and then six weeks at a smaller one down the coast a ways. Right now, we badly need eight more Eskimos and will probably have to go to Barrow to get them."

"Sounds like there's a quota."

"No, not exactly. But hiring local people keeps the labor costs down. Since there is no union and the Eskimos live here, they don't have to be paid as much. Getting people from outside to come to the Arctic is expensive. You have to offer all kinds of ind ucements, high wages, bonuses, benefits, and that costs money. The ones that sign on often have families down south to support. Or they want a nest egg, pay off mortgages - something like that."

"But why are local people paid less if they do the same work?"

"Do you know what Eskimos get in Canada for working on the DEW Line? Two hundred a month. We give them three times that amount. By comparison, the people here are making out really well. Sometimes I think we do too much for the Eskimos. Eventually, they b ecome unappreciative."

"Why go to Barrow to find them?"

"Some people here don't want to work a six-day week. Others can't because of health problems. Most are in good shape, but anyone with a history of tuberculosis is automatically turned down. Before an Eskimo is hired, he is given a complete medical exam an d X-ray at Barrow. Some of these people have spent considerable time in a sanatorium down south. They are not exactly happy when they hear that due to their previous health problems, they are excluded from working here. But that's a firm company policy wi thout exceptions."

"What about women?"

"Women? No women have ever been hired at any DEW Line site, Native or otherwise. Strictly a man's world up here. Got enough problems as it is."

"Do any involve local people?"

"Sure. The worst one is that some Eskimos just up and quit whenever they feel like it. From our standpoint, it's difficult to count on them for steady employment over long periods of time. We have, for example, an excellent mechanic, an Eskimo boy who liv es down in the village. About two weeks ago, he just took off and went hunting. He didn't say anything to us about it at all. He just left. I know they look at the world differently than we do, but if they want to work here they are going to have to learn to be responsible."

"Perhaps they have responsibilities at home."

"Could be. But that's no excuse for just taking off. If they want to work, they have to follow the same rules as everyone else. Imagine the kinds of requests I'd get from the other workers if I let Eskimos take off and go hunting whenever they want to. Li ke I said, sometimes they are unappreciative. Even take advantage of us."

"Really? What's an example?"

"There are lots of them. Take food, water, or fuel oil. Instead of throwing away excess food, our cooks used to pass it on to the villagers. But after awhile they just came to expect it. Or water. In the old days, the people here had to take a dog sled ou t to a fresh water lake, chop up blocks of ice and bring them back to the village. When the Air Force came, they let them use a weasel tractor to haul ice. But that didn't work out too well so they decided to get the water themselves, put it in 50 gallon drums, and place them along the road. Each family had its own drum. Now, they simply go over to one of the quonsets at the construction camp, turn on a faucet and get their water - hot or cold."

"And oil?"

"It's company policy not to supply heating oil to the village, but we don't care if they use abandoned and dirty oil. The other day, several of the men at the construction camp rounded up 57 barrels of oil and took them down to the village. Some had dirt and water in them. They filled nearly empty drums with oil that had lain around the supply depot for some time. They aren't supposed to do this on company time, but they went ahead anyway. Put the drums on a truck, drove them down to the village and left them for the Eskimos to use. Other times, I've seen new oil drums sitting next to the houses of men working here. After while, they come to expect these things."

"I expect they see it differently. It is, after all, their land."

"Not really. Of course, they can use any land that is not needed by the military. But they don't control it."

"Who does?"

"The Air Force."

Trying to reduce the growing adversarial nature of the discussion, I shifted my questioning to another topic.

"What about alcohol use here at the site?"

"To my knowledge, there is no problem either here or in the village. Very little hard liquor is brought in although beer flows fairly freely. All the men at the site have a quota of a "six-pack" a week. Occasionally, Eskimos will take advantage of this op portunity, but they can't do much damage on six cans of beer. As for the village itself, the local council determines whether liquor is allowed. But I know of no instance when it has been. I'm sure bottles are flown in on the mail plane once in a while. S ome of it comes here and some goes to Kaktovik. But it isn't at all common.

"I did have one problem a while back. A village leader came up to our storekeeper and asked that the beer ration for Eskimos be withheld. Without contacting me, he went ahead and stopped selling them beer. In a very short time, tensions began to rise. One guy in particular, one of our best Eskimo workers, got very angry thinking he was being discriminated against. He was on the verge of quitting and yet he wouldn't tell me or the storekeeper what was bothering him. As soon as I learned what had happened, I called in the local leader and told him under no circumstances were we going to refuse beer rations to any worker at the site, Eskimo or White. He didn't get angry, though. Just accepted the situation and went away."

"How well do the people work together - those in the village and Whites from outside?"

"Quite well really. Life is hard up here, especially in winter. The Eskimos often know more about the weather than we do - what to expect, how to take care of themselves in a snow storm, that kind of thing. You have to respect them for that. We have reall y bad storms up here with lots of wind. Once, several years ago, a local superintendent got lost in one of those storms. Would have frozen to death if the Eskimos hadn't found him. They are also good workers, too, especially when they think what they are doing is important. It's just that they always want time off to hunt. That's the big problem."

"I guess they are trying to keep their options open. Hunting has got to be their major form of security - that and sharing," I responded, thinking back on the discussion with Harold Kaveolook several weeks previously.

"That may be, but I don't think the emphasis on sharing will last much longer. A doctor at the Barrow hospital told me recently Eskimos making high wages over there are plagued by relatives looking for handouts. An uncle or cousin will come around and exp ect to receive food, clothing, even money and other things from any family that is bringing in the bucks. Some are even sponging off their relatives right here at Barter Island."

At that point the superintendent indicated he had other work to do and would have to excuse himself.

"If you need anything, just let me know. We show movies most week nights. We often loan them to the people in the village too. So you can watch either place. And feel free to use our camp facilities if you wish. You'll want to shower once in a while livin g down there in Kaktovik."

Later that morning, sitting in my tent with the comments of the sector superintendent ringing in my ears, I tried to summarize the two pictures of Arctic life that had been presented to me over the summer. One emphasized the intimate relationship with th e land and the importance of sharing among it's Native inhabitants. In the other, the land and its people were simply a means to the end of winning the Cold War. The former stressed ecological knowledge and cooperation; the latter, political power and com petition.

Putting pencil to paper, I jotted down questions I thought needed further exploration. Some dealt with the impact of technology on Iñupiat culture and identity. Others concerned issues of local political autonomy and economic self-reliance. Still others focused on American Arctic policy and how it related to the Iñupiat. As a world power, the United States was basically interested in developing its natural resources and expanding its military strength.

Still, looking over my list of questions, I felt dissatisfied. Something was missing, but what was it? Eventually I realized what was wrong. In not a single instance had I made any reference to the region's history. If I really wanted to grasp the signifi cance of changes in Arctic Alaska I had to examine the interlinkages between what was occurring in the present and what had transpired in the past. Only then could I begin to understand what was going on now and perhaps even project a little into the futu re. I promised myself that on returning to the States, I would dig more deeply into the literature on Iñupiat history and early Euro-American contact.

A Moment of Reflection
Postscript