Sometimes, if you have spent your life in journalism, it is hard to look at some of what passes for reportage these days without being forced to ponder whether a once-valued American institution has been taken over by simpletons.
Case in point, Al Jazeera America’s latest look at Alaska wherein Maggie Beidelman, a product of the University of California Berkley Graduate School of Journalism, paints an incredibly simplistic, historically flawed, black-and-white picture of a place where the old times were good and the modern-day changed everything to crap.
Here, she writes, is a land where oil wealth “created a divide between those who live off of the land, making little money from the oil industry and seeing the effects of climate change firsthand, and those who profit from its natural resources.”
Oh, if only the situation were that simple.
One would have hoped a reporter who wrote a story about a place where “living off the land is still a way of life” while filming hunters slinging tactical, semi-automatic rifles and riding four-wheelers might have found a reason to ponder how those now vital tools are purchased,or what fuels them.
The obvious question to be asked should have jumped out at any reporter: “What happens if there is no gasoline to fuel the 21st Century tools for living off the land?” This isn’t Silicon Valley or Princeton, New Jersey where urban society has reached a point where some totally green, college-educated professional with a pile of cash can build a solar-hydrogen house and escape the need for petrol.
Rural Alaskans lack for such options. There are electric cars, but as of yet no electric snowmachines or electric riverboats. And while there are battery-powered all-terrain-vehicles, they are so heavy that they are impractical to use in the Alaska backcountry.
One could use them to tool around some villages, but for getting around to where the living off the land takes place, rural Alaskans are now heavily dependent on gasoline-powered machinery and have been for decades.
Yes, there is no doubt someone (maybe more than one) out there somewhere in wild Alaska living a “true” subsistence lifestyle with a rifle, a canoe, some snowshoes, a trapline and an occasional air-drop of supplies, but these people are damn few because the subsistence lifestyle of 100 years ago, let alone 200 years ago, is hard, brutally hard.
Maybe Beidelman would have better understand if she spent a winter in the state’s ice-cold heartland with nothing but a handsaw to cut firewood to heat a cabin or wall tent promising survival over death by hypothermia.
Maybe then she’d grasp the Alsaka story of today isn’t as simple as the Russians making a mess of everything by stealing Alaska from the indigenous people who had been “living there for tens of thousands of years,” as she reports.
As a point of fact, humans have only occupied Alaska for about 15,000 years as best anyone can tell. North America isn’t Africa where the relatives of modern humans were roaming around 200,000 years ago. On the scale of archeological time, Alaskans – black, white, Asian, American Indian, Pacific islander, Native and total mongrel – are pretty much newcomers. It took us all a long time to get here.
Humans, the planet’s ultimate invasive species, didn’t start jetting around the globe until 1952. We only started flying 114 years ago this Dec. 17. Before we took wing, we stumbled out across the planet at a pretty pedestrian pace.
It took us 100,000 years or so to make it out of Africa into Asia, and another 85,000 or so to wander into the far reaches of Asia destined to split away to become part of the continent of North America. The oldest human remains found in the state date back only 11,500 years. Given that these were two cremated children, there were clearly people in-country before that. Stone tools would appear to push the date another 2,500 to 3,500 years.
But even then the history of human occupation is far from “tens of thousands of years,” and the prehistory is complicated. It isn’t like the first arrivals built MacMansions and settled in here to stay for “tens of thousands of years.”
It isn’t even clear whether the 11,500-year-old infants of the Sun River Site in Central Alaska are related to the Native people living here now. Alaska welcomed a lot of visitors in the 10,000 to 15,000 years before the White invaders arrived and took over.
The evidence would indicate that for much of North American humankind, Alaska was the place you went through on the way to somewhere else. There appear to have been multiple waves of people who traipsed through on their way south, and some locals who got tired of the place and simply went south long before the term “sunbird” joined the vernacular.
Linguists were the first to notice that the Navajo and Apaches of the American Southwest appeared to be related to the Athabascans of Eastern Alaska and Canada. Geneticists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign confirmed the link in 2008, reporting that “a large-scale genetic study of native North Americans offers new insights into the migration of a small group of Athapaskan Natives from their subarctic home in northwest North America to the southwestern United States. The migration, which left no known archaeological trace, is believed to have occurred about 500 years ago.”
So 500 years ago, along about the time Spaniard Ponce de León was invading Florida supposedly to begin a search for the fountain of youth, some Athabascans tired of the cold were setting up camp in Arizona and New Mexico.
Meanwhile, back on the ground in their home state, the situation was far from stable. Archeologists now believe there were at least three waves of migration that swept though, and few people settled in anywhere for long.
Early Alaskans appear to have been almost always on the move because they had to be on the move. They moved to fish camps in the summer to find fish, and from valley to valley in the fall and winter to find game.
Sometimes there were territorial wars. Sometimes people starved. One early arriving group of people – the Paleo-Eskimos of the Dorset culture – disappeared altogether only about 700 years ago. Pre-historic genocide and disease have been suggested as causes or, as Charles Choi wrote at Live Science, they might have fallen victim to “a mindset that eschewed adopting new ideas” for 4,000 years.
The good, old days were about as good as Ponce de León‘s search for the fountain of youth was real, and the search is now known to be a myth. All the evidence would indicate the good, old days in Alaska were tough and always changing.
Alaska as most know it today with its fixed overlay of cities and villages, its efficient air transportation system, its social safety net, its vastly improved health care and, of course, the internet is a historical anomaly. None of what any of us here now know has been around for long.
With but few exceptions, 2,500-year-old Point Hope being a notable one, most villages only date back to the Gold Rush days of the late 1800s.
Bethel, the regional hub in Southwest Alaska, grew up around a trading post and Morovian Church. Kotzebue, the regional hub in Northwest Alaska, started with a post office, although long before that Inupiat Eskimos of the region traveled regularly to the Kotzebue Peninsula to trade with Siberian Eskimos from the east and later with Russian traders and American whalers.
You’ll find none of this complexity in Beidelman’s reporting which is short on facts and long on emotion like so much journalism today. It’s like the whole business has been Trumped, as in President Donald Trump, as in facts are not a scientific construct but whatever you want to believe.
“Alaska Natives are hit first and hit hardest by global warming and climate change,” Beidelman quotes Faith Gemmill an activist with the group Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) saying.
First off, climate change has no racial prejudice. But more than that, the history of climate change in Alaska is far from black or white for anyone. The growing season in Central Alaska has increased from 85 to 123 days in the last 100 years, a big plus for agriculture. A warming ocean has tripled salmon production.
And life has become easier. Ask anyone in Fairbanks. Winters at 20 degrees below zero are half as bad as winters at 40 degrees below zero.
Gemmill is entitled to believe what she wants to believe, and she might be right about the future hitting hardest at Alaska Native communities. Because of where some were built, they today face greater than average threats from rising sea levels and increases in the force of coastal storms.
A small number of villages do appear in danger of becoming big losers, but across the breadth of Alaska there’s really no way to know whether climate change overall will be a net positive or a net negative.
The late Gov. Jay Hammond and his “special projects coordinator,” Bob Palmer, might simply have been decades ahead of their time with a 1980s plan to put 500,000 acres of the state into agriculture production by 1990 on the way to turning Alaska into a new American bread basket.
Russia, a country that occupies the northern latitudes of Canada and Alaska on the opposite side of the globe, appears to be embracing this sort of potential now.
“Countries across the globe are bracing for climate change. But Russia is positioned to come out on top,” The Moscow Times reported last month.
Climate change is a big, complicated issue compounded by a whole lot of unpredictable variables. The global risks of steadily increasing temperatures are undeniable. A lot of humans live in coastal areas subject to flooding. Drought in existing global bread baskets could cause widespread food shortages, but the outcomes are not purely one-sided or simple, most especially in the far northern latitudes.
Journalism’s job is to outline the complexities, not follow preconceived narratives about the good guys and the bad guys.
Good news/bad news
Al Jazeera is a state-funded, news organization based in Doha, Qatar in the Mideast. For almost three years from 2013 into April of last year, it ran a U.S. news operation called Al Jazeera America that supported some quality journalism.
It was for Al Jazeera America that Anchorage journalist Julia O’Malley did some of her best work – detailed, layered, nuanced and thoughtful boots-on-the-ground reporting. The life of AJAM, as those in the know called it, was short but impressive.
It won big journalism awards – a Peabody and an Emmy among them – and failed miserably as a business.
“AJAM was the most ambitious American TV news launch since Fox News in 1996,” business reporters Brian Stelter and Tom Kludt later wrote at Al Jazeera. “But Al Jazeera’s bosses underestimated how much had changed between 1996 and 2013. They sought respect and influence by buying their way onto cable systems at a time when the market was saturated and the audience was moving online.
“Al Jazeera had a chance to ‘do something unique,’ said Evan Hill, who worked at AJAM as a features writer for a year. ‘For whatever reason, the network’s leadership seemed more interested in an era of cable television news that had long passed.'”
When the company finally decided it had no hope of competing with Fox, CNN and MSNBC, it walked away from TV in the U.S., but hung onto online news. It now offers a largely international mix of news on its website, but clearly hasn’t lost interest in Alaska.
In a Nov. 13 story, it reported that if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were to be opened to oil drilling, caribou there could face “decimation.’‘ There is no credible evidence to support such a claim. The best available science on Arctic caribou indicates that in areas where oil is being developed, populations could go down, or they could go up, or they could cycle naturally up and down and thus remain in a condition that could be described as largely unchanged.
Beidelman’s story appears to be a follow-up on the earlier ANWR report.
Half a story
“In Part 2,” she write,”AJ+ introduces the Alaska Natives fighting to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where a 40-year battle over whether to drill for oil has resurfaced.
“AJ+ travelled to Arctic Village, which sits on the southern edge of the refuge, to learn about the importance of this fight.”
AJ+ is Al Jazerra’s California-based U.S. “news” operation. It did not travel to Kaktovik in the refuge to the north to learn about the importance of the ANWR fight there.
Kaktovik is a largely Inupiat Eskimo village of 260 people on the edge of Beaufort Sea north of the Brooks Range mountains. Arctic Village is a Gwichin Athabascan village of 180 on the south side of the Brooks.
Where Arctic Village is wholly opposed to opening ANWR to oil development; Kaktovik is wholly for opening ANWR to oil development.
“Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, an organization with 21 members from across the Arctic Slope region — including members from Kaktovik located inside ANWR — have voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting oil and gas development,” Matthew Rexford, president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, wrote in a commentary for the Juneau Empire in October.
“When oil was first discovered on our land in 1969, the Iñupiat were worried of industry activities and fought hard for self-determination in order to protect our subsistence resources. So, we fully understand the trepidation from outsiders; the fear that the presence of industry on the coastal plains of ANWR could disrupt wildlife and affect America’s manufactured perspective of our land and culture.
“However, we also have the benefit of decades of experience working with the oil and gas industry to implement stringent regulations to protect our lands, and the industry has consistently lived up to our standards. Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field on the continent located 60 miles to the west of the coastal plain of ANWR, has demonstrated for four decades that resource development and ecological preservation can and do coexist in the Arctic.”
This is the other “side” to a story so complicated, it really has facets more than sides.
Alaska’s oil development story today is about how to sustain a viable economy in the cold, dark north; how to preserve some paches of the continent’s last great wildernesses as historic touchstones; how to save rural villages that sometimes seem even more doomed than America’s small towns; how to keep afloat a government bureaucracy premised on continued oil wealth, how to provide hope to kids growing up in very isolated communities while interacting with that big, broad, diverse world that comes at them through the screen you’re looking at now, and a whole lot more.
Journalism is supposed to muck around in these complexities and tell the story. The whole story, the story that is never simple because life isn’t simple. Life is complicated and full of trade offs.
“The truth of the matter is, if we do not utilize our natural resources, we as a Native culture will cease to exist in rural Alaska,” a friend from a Bering Sea coast village texted today.
The statement is true on so many levels.
Alaska Natives have been using Alaska’s resources, both renewable and non-renewable, for thousands of years. The White invaders, and the mix of races they pulled east and north with them, have now been engaged in the same thing for hundreds of years.
First it was furs, then fish and gold and copper and timber and finally oil. Alaska’s history is all about using resources.
The Gwinchin worry about effects of oil development on the Porcupine caribou herd because they want to kill and eat Porcupine caribou. Plenty of people in America detest the hunting of big game animals. Some are no doubt offended by the Gwinchin’s use of this natural resource.
Should their resource use be prohibited, too? Some of Beidelman’s Berkley classmates might well say, “but of course.” Who knows, they might even view Gwinchin hunting worse than Inupiat oil drilling. A gang of animal-rights activists in Berkley are trying to make it the first “‘city free of violence toward animals’ – meaning,” as The Guardian summarized it, ” banning the sale of meat.”
The issue of right and wrong surrounding the uses of resources, renewable or otherwise, can get very complicated, but that is sometimes hard to tell from reading what passes for news these days.
Reporters like Beidelman make it all so simple.
“A spill like Exxon Valdez, which killed hundreds of thousands of animals on Alaska’s south coast, would be devastating here,” she says in one of the very nicely produced videos attached to her video. Really? One can only surmise she has no clue as to the difference between a marine oil spill and a spill on land, let alone a spill on rock-hard, frozen ground.
“Arctic Village is just one of many Native villages threatened by the oil industry in Alaska.” she says, “So the question is, is the oil profit worth it if it endangers the way people have lived for thousands of years?”
The historical ignorance there is troubling. The way people live in Arctic Village today is nothing ike the ways they lived in the area thousands of years ago. But the failure to connect obvious dots is even more troubling.
Gas, Beidelman reports in the same video, costs $10 per gallon in Arctic Village. She uses the number as a demonstration of how expensive life in rural Alaska with no seeming understanding of how much people need that fuel or how they pay for it in a place with no real economy.
The gas doesn’t fall from the sky. Neither does the money. But both are necessities of survival today in rural Alaska. There are big trade offs to be considered in deciding whether or not to drill in ANWR. Beidelman doesn’t seem to understand any of them.
And in that, she’s a like a lot of today’s fly-over journalists who look out the window, see what they want to see and write that. Maybe they should spend more time reading books while in the air. One can learn things from books.