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TV Changes Forever Alaskan Tribe

May 22, 1999

ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska (AP) _ This was a gift from the Creator, like the caribou or the snow: A plane from Fairbanks was bringing the Gwich’in tribe a strange black box with aluminum antlers _ a thing, they’d heard, that never stopped talking.

So the Indians stood in the snow and waited until the twin-propellered bird dropped out of the sky and met the Earth. A white man hopped out, threw open a cargo door and pulled out the thing everybody was so curious to see.


More precisely, a 12-inch, black-and-white Zenith. A milestone in 1,000 generations of Gwich’in history, a leap out of the then and into the now.

The proud owner was Gideon James, a member of the tribal Council. He rushed his talking box straight home, where a throng had squeezed into his log cabin. James fiddled with the rabbit ears, and within moments they saw Johnny Carson, grainy but live from some place called Burbank, Calif., uttering jokes no Gwich’in quite grasped.

Still, no one left until Channel 9, the only station available 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, went off the air at 2 a.m. Four hours later, when the box started talking again, the crowd returned. They watched and watched and watched. Twenty straight hours. Six straight days.

It was January 1980. Two-and-one-half years before a satellite dish went up behind the Council office; three years before Gwich’in tots began zapping Atari space invaders with joysticks; four years before the first VCR brought Rambo to the northernmost Indian village in North America.

Today, all 67 cabins in Arctic Village, population 96, have at least one television. Gwich’in young are so drawn by television that they have no time to learn ancient hunting methods, their parents’ language, their oral history. They dream of becoming professional football players, though none has ever touched a pigskin.

Most of the elders, meanwhile, are learning what has been missing in their lives: Denim wear. Farberware. Tupperware. Four-wheelers. Touch-tone phones. Can openers. Canned soup. Canned peaches. Cabinets (for all the cans).

Their shortcomings, they are coming to understand, stem from not being like the families they see on the screen. They get plenty of advice on how to correct these inadequacies, of course.

Their boxes never stop talking.


Before the coming of the tube, the Gwich’in lived much the way their ancestors did for hundreds of years.

They were a people toughened by immense sweeps of tundra where the cold chased even the hares underground. They ate raw caribou, roast caribou, caribou stew, caribou-hoof broth. They wore caribou skins, slept in caribou-hide tents, paddled caribou-skin kayaks. They fashioned utensils from caribou antlers, weapons from caribou bone. They told caribou tales, prayed caribou prayers, sang caribou songs, danced caribou dances.

They were the Gwich’in, the People of the Caribou.

Over time, they were touched by the coming difference: Sugar, metal fishhooks, tobacco, alcohol, gunpowder. None of these things, however, altered their subsistence outlook, their fundamental character.

Theirs was a way honest to Earth Mother, the family, the spirits. True, life expectancy was low, diet was limited, and the best hope against disease was often hope itself. But the Gwich’in had independence.

Even when every other aboriginal group in Alaska agreed in 1971 to give up their land claims in return for $1 billion and a tenth of state territory, the Gwich’in wanted no part of the deal.

The 7,000-member tribe held on to 1.8 million acres of ancestral land and, for a time, kept outsiders away from their highwayless, fenceless, wireless universe.

Until Zenith came to town.

``I couldn’t sleep I was so excited by that TV,″ says Albert Gilbert, a 43-year-old Gwich’in who, at 25, got his first hit of late-night comedy the day the future dropped out of the sky.

``I wanted to watch it and watch it and watch it,″ he said. ``I woke up at 6 a.m. to watch it more. I did this for two weeks. When I went out in the country to hunt, all I could hear was the TV in my head.″

As the boxes multiplied, mothers stopped making ice cream from caribou-bone powder and river slush, in deference to Ben & Jerry’s. They stopped preparing ``tundra tea″ with alpine spruce needles in favor of Folger’s instant coffee.

Kids began chomping Bazooka bubble gum rather than dried caribou meat. They no longer waited for the elders to finish eating before starting a meal. Old legends told around campfires could not hold them when Bart Simpson was talking.

Soon, beaded moccasins were outmoded by Nike sneakers, the sled dog by the gas-powered Ski-Doo Alpine, the wood stove by the microwave oven.

The well-to-do came to be envied for their home entertainment centers. The average Gwich’in _ living on unemployment, welfare, Social Security, food stamps, Alaska dividend checks or handouts from the Bureau of Indian Affairs _ made do with 20-inch Sonys.

Several elders cautioned against the excesses of the tube, but listening to the old ones had fallen out of vogue.

``For these natives, like anyone else, television is a cultural nerve gas,″ explains Dr. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. ``It’s odorless, painless and tasteless. And deadly.″

Sarah James, a Gwich’in artist who runs a committee that works to preserve tribal customs, believes the tube has done what no invader could: kill the Gwich’in’s primal soul.

``The TV teaches greed. It shows our people a world that is not ours,″ James says. ``It makes us wish we were something else.″


Cora Christian trudges up the dirt trail and huffs to a stop. Beneath caribou antlers nailed to the front of a cottonwood-log cabin hangs a hand-painted sign:


``I hope they’re not out of M & M’s,″ she says. ``My granddaughter will scream if she doesn’t get some today.″

She pushes the door open and sees Julie Hollandsworth, a short woman who lives down the road. Hollandsworth is holding a few bags of microwave popcorn. She says her husband just put up their very own satellite dish. He paid $635 for it, plus another $215 for shipping on the Frontier Airlines DC-3 that makes the 200-mile flight from Fairbanks once a month.

``It gets 320 channels,″ Hollandsworth says. ``I counted them all.″

Christian is impressed. Her five daughters would love it, she says. Her family is finding it a little tiresome watching just the one channel, KUAC-TV, hour after hour.

Christian scans Gilbert’s shelves: Canned wax beans, Sun-Maid Raisins, condensed milk, Pringle’s, cartoned fruit juice, paper towels, microwave popcorn, Tide detergent, buttermilk pancake mix, yeast, rock salt, Mr. Goodbars, Dr. Pepper, Marlboro cigarettes and, there they are, M & M’s. That’s all there is, except for the two walls of videotapes.

Christian picks up the M & M’s and hikes a quarter-mile across a purple-and-green quilt of reindeer moss, lichens and sedge tussocks studded with baby spruce. The big trees are gone. Cut for firewood.

``Woodcutting is the only way to make money here in winter,″ she says. ``The young guys charge you $30 for three days’ worth of logs. Another $10 to split it, the cheats.″

She slides a key into the back door of her two-bedroom frame house. ``We started locking it ever since someone stole our chain saw a month ago,″ she says, remembering the time before TV when Gwich’in didn’t need locks.

Inside is a room crammed with convenience: propane range, can opener, two televisions.

``Is all this modern stuff good for me?″ The 43-year-old woman chews her lip, then recalls how her uncle, Albert James, a few months earlier charged her $40 to haul two couches home from the airstrip, a half-mile away.

``I didn’t have the money right away,″ she says, ``so my uncle let them sit out there for a month, until my federal relief check came. My own uncle.″

Now, she says, ``nobody will give you a stick of wood for free anymore. All anybody wants is money.″


Davy Peter, a 9-year-old Gwich’in in an oversized Chicago Bulls jacket, is excited. After school, he raced over to Gilbert’s and nabbed three ``Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles″ videos, and he can’t wait to watch them.

Rocky John, a pudgy 12-year-old with a wad of Snickers bar in his cheek, and Walter Nollner, 9, are going along. Rocky wants to be a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers when he grows up. Davy wants to be Michael Jordan. Walter, a hunter. Check that. Scottie Pippen.

None has ever played a down or shot a free throw. They can’t stop to explain. ``We gotta watch all of these movies by tomorrow morning,″ Davy says.

James John watches the youths scatter like waterfowl. ``Kids,″ he mutters. ``All they do now is play board games, watch TV, act like they’ve done it all.″

John is 37. He’s got that wiry look, like a scarecrow made of cables. He wears camouflage pants, black army boots. A white eagle’s feather dangles from his mane _ for ``spiritual power,″ he says.

One of 14 children, he considers himself trapped between two generations, those of his forefathers and the ``MTV wimps.″

In the summer, John cuts wood and repairs TV sets. When he accumulates $350, he orders ammunition, then disappears into the Brooks Range for weeks at a time. He hunts and traps caribou, moose, lynx, wolf, fox, beaver.

His cabin, where he waits out the winter, is not quite four steps by six. The television talks from its stand. A 55-gallon-drum wood stove and a bunk fill much of the room.

``Before the TV, we were a tough people,″ he says. ``Not anymore. Now people only go hunting if they have a four-wheeler.″

His friend, Dennis Erick, 39, laughs. ``These modern kids go out there and kill anything they see,″ he says. ``They don’t know which is a bull and which is a cow. They don’t care.″

Once, Gwich’in tracked caribou hundreds of miles into the Canadian Yukon. Today, Erick says, they follow the herds via satellite.

There are two signs tacked to a bulletin board outside the Gwich’in Council office. One reads: PRIDE. COURAGE. TRADITION.


Below these words hang eight satellite photos of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ``10 cow caribou have been fitted with satellite collars,″ the announcement continues. ``Locations for these caribou are received each week ... Good hunting.″

When the caribou come within a few miles of town, the Gwich’in fire up their four-wheelers or snowmobiles and rumble off for a shootfest.

``The satellite pictures help save gas,″ says Gideon James, the council member. He owns a Dodge pickup. ``Gas costs $5 a gallon up here.″


Terry Sikvayugak and his live-in girlfriend, Marie John, own a piece of Arctic Village’s future.

They have what’s called a ``HUD House″ _ a 20-by-24-foot, plywood A-frame built with 14,000 federal dollars. It’s the only painted dwelling in a 200-mile radius. ``I told the government guys I’d never seen a colored house in Arctic Village,″ Sikvayugak says. ``So they painted mine lemon.″

The couple added a few touches: A meat drying rack made from the shoulder blade of a moose, a caribou-skin rug. And, of course, three TV sets. Two VCRs. A Sony PlayStation.

``The boy, Jerrald, he needed a second TV in his room so he could watch his shows while playing compact-disc video games,″ Sikvayugak says.

In the den is a third television, a 28-inch Samsung TV/Video combo. ``It’s never turned off,″ Marie says, without looking up from a movie about a huge ship that sinks in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg.

They have a lot of time for the tube. They are the conscribed components of a distant system known as the dole. Marie, 37, receives $821 each month from the BIA’s Temporary Assistance Program, plus $300 in food stamps. Each year, the Arctic Slope Native Corp. sends an $1,800 ``subsistence″ check to Sikvayugak, a 31-year-old Inuit. And this year, the state sent all three family members $1,540.88 ``dividend″ checks _ the annual payout each Alaskan receives from the state’s $26 billion oil-royalty savings account.

Sikvayugak collects firewood, hauls buckets of water from the Chandalar River. Then it’s time for ``Wheel of Fortune.″

``It’s so easy to sit around and watch movies every day,″ he says. ``Now Jerrald comes home, eats, plays Nintendo a couple hours with his friends, watches TV, a video movie, then goes to bed.″

Is Gwich’in spoken in the home? ``It would be nice,″ Marie interjects. ``But Jerrald wants to learn about the Western culture. He wants to learn to fly a plane, play football. We want him to know English well. That way, he will be more successful than we are.″


Arctic Village has a landing strip. It has a tower filled with chlorinated river water. It has a bulldozer. It has a 1906 Russian Orthodox steeple. It has a school with 58 students, 13 Garfield posters, nine Apple computers, one bilingual instructor. It has a youth center with a pool table. It has a 25-foot satellite dish.

It has no garbage plant. No plans for one.

So when a GMC pickup lost its muffler a year ago and the owner couldn’t afford to order a new part from Fairbanks, the truck was abandoned on the side of Mountain Road. It sinks a little each day. The Gwich’in figure the marsh may swallow it all in three years.

Outside the WASHETERIA, a laundry center, 12 Maytags sit in the mud. They look new. But they need new gaskets, new lint trays, maybe a loose wire tightened. Kids play on them.

The rutted roads are a garbage picker’s dream. A bicycle with a flat tire here. A chain saw with a severed starter cord there.

Either no one knows how to fix these things or no one has the tools or patience to do it. There are no televisions lying about, though.

``They get fixed,″ says Leonard John, 21, who then gives a Mountain Dew can a drop kick into a mountain creek.

Occasionally, the village council will haul refuse out past Lilly’s Lake and dump it in a ditch straddling the airstrip. When planes lift off, plastic bags, foam cups, soiled toilet paper take flight in their wake.

A window of Isaac Ross’ cabin frames a postcard view of the typical Arctic Village yard: empty Chef Boyardee tins, bales of fiberglass insulation, Hills Bros. coffee cans, shotgun casings, plastic Pepsi bottles, oil drums, dry-rotted tires, grease guns, a gas range, Pennzoil jugs, propane tanks, plastic forks and spoons, two discarded chain saws, a sink, two stripped bicycle frames and two snow machines in different stages of dismantlement.

``All of that junk comes from the city, from down below,″ Ross grouses. Down below is Fort Yukon, 150 miles south, the outpost where he was born 45 years ago. He lights a Marlboro, adjusts the red headband that confines his bear-black hair.

``The white man should come here and collect all this junk and take it away,″ he says. ``Hey. Wait a minute.″

Ross clicks up the volume on his 13-inch Symphonic TV and stares bug-eyed at a 30-second ad for the new Honda all-terrain vehicle, which retails for about $6,500.

``Not a bad price,″ he says. ``Who knows? Maybe next year.″

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