Tribal Council

by Guest Blogger

August 22, 2007

The Disclaimer: Today’s blog is of a more serious nature than some of my previous ones, as I take you into some very heavy meetings that include complicated issues and language I haven’t had the chance to educate myself enough to talk about except in the most basic terms. I hope there are no inaccuracies, and if there are I apologize and beg your indulgence as a blog is a like a daily diary and on this ship there is scant time for intensive study in my schedule so far! For more information on this very important issue, please see George Pletnikoff’s blog on the Bering Sea Voices website.
Today we’re in St. Paul, but three days ago we were still in St. George, an island so remote and underpopulated (by humans) that as we walked around part of the village, photographing the Russian Orthodox Church where George used to be parish priest, we saw no-one at all. Everything was shrouded in mist and fog, and the words "desolate" and "beauty" came to mind twinned, each perfectly applicable. I wondered what it would be like to live on this windswept island among the hundred-odd men, women and children who reside here and whose ancestors have lived off the sea for so many centuries.
The next day George took four of us to a Tribal Council meeting, and unlike the witty garrulous George who had driven us around in a mini-bus the previous afternoon, stopping to speak in both Aleut and English to friends and pointing out sights like the house he grew up in, he is completely silent. So are we. Everyone knows this mission, which he is leading, could scarcely be more difficult for an Aleut from the Priblof Islands. He is here to convince the people of St. George, whose lives depend on fishing and hunting fur seals — practises Greenpeace has not exactly come out thumpingly in support of in the past — that we are here to help support their traditional practises, and to ask for their help in ending the bottom-trawling that is destroying the rich marine environment of the Bering Sea.
The meeting is held in a one-story community hall/office building. We clamber out of the bus, troop in and are offered tea. Julie (a cultural anthropologist and the Espy’s champion knitter), Samantha (assistant cook, a 23 year old who converys a remarkable serenity), Brent (our Aussie videographer and resident smart…er, mouth) and myself pour ourselves hot water, dunk tea bags and settle into chairs around two long tables that have been pushed together to form one. Facing us are Ted, in a T-shirt that says "I’m a multitasker, I can talk and piss you off at the same time"; Sally, in a black windbreaker, who sits with arms crossed over her chest and a tense expression; and Phil, whose eyes are unreadable behind rectangular silver glasses. Their unsmiling faces don’t inspire hope. Also there is Andy, who was on the Espy for several days and avoids eye contact. I don’t envy George one bit right now.
He begins by saying he was reluctant to work with Greenpeace, but over the past year he’s come to the conclusion that the organization is making a real effort to protect the marine habitat. He elaborates, talking for a long time, maybe twenty minutes, about the need to establish "cultural marine heritage zones", then hands around a draft resolution. The Council scans it and questions begin. How far out would these zones be? How much support is there for this resolution from the other communities? George replies that the community will need to decide where and how those zones should be created.
Heavy footsteps are heard and Chris, Chief of the Tribal Council, strides in wearing a sweatshirt that says "The Deadliest Catch". He warily examines the resolution. He wants language about local needs in it. It needs to be specific, and this needs "to be made clear to your group". George offers, as an example, that the resolution might say certain types of fishing gear are used. He states the problem for the community as he sees it: "You people are sitting right out here in the middle of the Being Sea and have no say", and Chris explodes: "They don’t care! They’re just gonna come along and kick your butt."
Andy asks, "Are you open to language change in this resolution?" and George says, "The best thing would be for you people to take this resolution and totally rewrite it." It is as if the room exhales. Discussion continues, but the atmosphere lightens noticeably, and we leave the meeting with a feeling of optimism and relief, tempered for me by angst about the fact that at several points in there I shot my mouth off in support of the resolution with scant preparation and knowledge of the issues. I’m aware that in speaking from my heart I’ve waded into politics, which inevitably involves compromise, some results of which, who knows how far down the line, I may end up intensely uncomfortable with.
I ask Samantha and Julie for feedback and for their thoughts on the resolution. Both respond that my contributions were helpful and I am also reassured by the fact that Julie, a vegan, firmly supports the right of communities who have always fished and hunted for their food to continue to do so. Nonetheless I find myself having to walk around for a long time as everyone else visits the local store, asking myself some hard questions. The answers that I come up with satisfy me, at least for now.
That evening we hold a meeting in the community hall, which is well attended, and George introduces the film shot in the canyons where we sent a submarine down to find out what was down there. As we wait for Julie who has stepped up to the plate as volunteer techno-whiz to get the video recorder going, a young boy puts up his hand. "Is our culture dying?" he asks. It’s like a punch in the stomach. "No," George replies. "No, don’t you worry about that. You let us worry about it." Julie signals that the video is ready to play and it is a relief to have the lights go down. The child’s question underlines the real crisis this community is going through, a crisis we have embroiled ourselves in by connecting with this village, and the weight of this responsibility seems immense and terrifying at this moment.
The video shows tracks bottom trawlers have left on the bottom of the ocean, cutting a swath that Marge, a woman sitting next to me, whispers: "looks like a road". There is bubble gum coral and scant other marine life in the area examined. Most moving are the interviews with people whose livelihood depends on fishing, notably one woman who speaks of knowing, from the food her mother insists on storing, that the time is coming when her people will starve. She weeps, unable to continue.
.As the video ends, the boy…I think it is the same one who spoke before but is now sitting in a different place, but I’m not sure, asks: "Will you help us protect our cultural heritage?" This time George, who looks like the wind has been knocked out of him, can’t offer unrestrained hope. He offers tempered hope: "We’ll try. We’ll do our best".
Then Sally, from the Tribal Council, stands up and asks me to tell the community what I said in the meeting this morning. Which words? I wonder. What, of the several things I spontaneously said resonated? Feeling like I’m about to fail, I wobble to my feet, and what she said to me at the close of this morning’s session comes back: "We love our animals, our seals. We give thanks for them." This is a person connected to her food, not a "fish and meat coward" like me, who eats flesh but does not kill it.
I dredge up words. I say how my husband quit eating fish earlier this year because the fish are dying off in the Bering Sea, and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. How I still eat fish, and how my husband will sometimes bring it home and cook it for me…because he loves and cares for me. And how when people think of the environment they think of grass and trees and earth, but the environment includes all the creatures of the earth, including humans, and how Greenpeace cares for them all. I speak of Kelly, the marine biologist on board the Espy, and how she uses the term "Killer Whales" rather than "Orcas" (as some of us call them, because the word "Killer Whales" is feared as unempathetic), and how the fact that they kill other whales doesn’t make her love them any the less. (As her cabin mate I can attest to the fact that Kelly is in fact utterly and completely obsessed by and devoted to Killer Whales). And how Greenpeace basically handed the Espy over to Kelly, even though she isn’t a member of Greenpeace, asking her to direct us, to help her find and observe the whales. And how I hoped they’d think of Greenpeace as a boat they could drive, because we’re here to help.
Afterwards, a man says something like, that until now he’d thought Greenpeace was the devil, but now he understands, and appreciates what we’re doing, and a woman seconds him, and George reiterates a very important point I’ve forgotten in my emotion: that Greenpeace won’t do everything the community wants, that we want the community’s response to the resolution, and then we’ll negotiate back and forth.
As the meeting closes a woman who is probably my age or younger but whose face and several missing teeth speak of a far harder existence than mine comes up to mewith tears in her eyes and hugs me and says, "Thanks so much for all you’re doing for us", and I accept her thanks silently on behalf of all the work George and John and everybody has been doing on this issue for so long, because I’ve only been on this boat for a week, but what a privilege it is. And what a responsibility.

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