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Anthropologist at the Kitchen Table : RAVEN'S CHILDREN; An Alaskan Culture at Twilight By Richard Adams Carey (Houghton Mifflin/A Richard Todd Book: $19.95; 377 pp.)

July 05, 1992|William T. Vollmann | Vollmann's latest books, "Fathers and Crows" (Viking) and "An Afghanistan Picture Show" (Farrar Straus Giroux), will appear this summer. He has traveled extensively in the Arctic and subarctic

The story gets worse. When Oscar goes out to catch herring, the processing ships only want the roe. And the roe is all that Oscar is paid for. "Twenty bucks," he says when he comes back, speaking evenly and without emotion: for 378 pounds of herring; for six hours on Kinak Bay in hard weather, and for 10 gallons of gas, this costing a little more than $2 per gallon. Oscar's wife Margaret is a secretary at the high school, and it is a humiliation to this man who is still partly of the hunter tradition that her earnings are essential to support the family.

I've often thought that the only way to preserve the North would be to banish all non-natives except those who were given permission by the locals to stay. Of course, not only is such a fantasy politically absurd but it's also insufficient. The Japanese trawlers that respect the 200-mile offshore boundary can still suck up a significant percentage of the fish migrating to Kongiganak. The world is simply too small.

So what is there to do, really? Carey has no solutions to suggest. I don't know if there are any. Obviously the commercial-licensing procedures could be improved, but that won't matter when the fish populations continue to dwindle.

In the Canadian Arctic there are still a few tiny outpost camps, but most people live in towns now because most people want to live in towns. One old man in Resolute Bay told me that he would be glad to live in the original way but that his grandchildren were too softened by central heating: They'd die. I take it from Carey's book that living on the land isn't even a hypothetical option any more in Kongiganak.

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