I have a confession to make, which I know is long overdue. I, not unlike a portion of our society, have a tendency toward prejudice and ignorance.
Let me explain. When I reached the age of 6 many decades ago, I came to a brief conclusion that white people had physical bodies different than we Inupiat in that they did not have to go to the bathroom — or, as the case was at that time, the outhouse. I based this childhood assumption on the fact that I observed only my people hauling their honey buckets to the sea ice, and never once did I notice our friendly white neighbors doing the same thing.
Years later, after moving to Nome, it shocked me that my Caucasian classmate entered the bathroom with me and used the toilet alongside me. For years, I kept this silly false assumption to myself, until one day I shared this with a few of my new Caucasian friends and co-workers here in the big Interior Alaska city of Fairbanks. I brought it up because many of my new friends, who grew up anywhere from small Midwest farming towns to East Coast establishment suburbs, were saying that I was the first real “Alaska Native” they were getting to know and work alongside. Many of my acquaintances range from religious or non-religious to liberal or conservative philosophical backgrounds, with a few claiming non-status of any sort.
After living in Inupiat society for a good part of my life, I found myself having to, for the last 20 years, navigate through western American society. With the help of my newfound friends, wife and in-laws, I am learning its customs, norms and taboos. I am learning that, in many ways, I am just like them, minus a few outward physical characteristics.
The most notable similarity is that I have a tendency to make rash and ignorant conclusions about their behavior and way of thinking. My main tendency is to ally people together and think that because one of their particular group did something or thinks a certain way, then they are all exactly that way. Most of our society, by now, probably knows better than to think this. However, I am learning that the tendency to judge people in lump sums is strong and easy to do. Unfortunately, the path of least resistance or way of thinking is still the norm in society as a whole.
I am concerned that recent events in the “Alaska Native” community are leading down this broad path of ignorance and maybe destruction. Ignorance, because we think that just because a young man was charged with a heinous act (the killing of a child), that a good part of the society to which this man belongs could or might do something similar and thinks little of their fellow human beings, much less children. Destruction, because now men of similar physical characteristics could be suspect and untrustworthy in our communities across Alaska.
I want to be one of the first of many to proclaim that none of us, irrespective of our physical characteristics, must walk down this path of ignorance and destruction. We can, because we have qualities of fairness, kindness and a wish for truth and justice, live lives of honesty and integrity, standing above the terrible tendency of prejudice.
During the years I’ve lived in this great land, I have been assisted, loved and nourished by Alaska Natives, Caucasians, blacks, half-breeds and even Chinese, Indian and Pakistani friends and families. My work place is primarily Caucasian, where we cooperate, carry on friendly conversation, argue, get a little short sometimes and drink from the same pot of mocha together. The church I am a part of is also primarily Caucasian. We sing, cry, laugh and share our trials and successes together. My family is mostly Alaska Native, part Norwegian, a mix of European Russian, and slew of this and that. We laugh, argue, fight, cry and share meals of stink seal flippers, krum kaka, hamburgers and milk.
Yes, in some ways I can report that I’ve gone a long way toward reconciliation of certain societal fears and judgments. On the other hand, you’ll have to bear with me, as I have a long trail ahead toward the hope of God and humanity — justice, integrity and kindness toward my fellow human being. And, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to go potty right this minute.
Phil Kugzruk of Fairbanks is an Inupiat, a power plant operator and a student of circumpolar and Alaska Native issues.