The Land is not for Sale

So I walk over to the community center this morning, and the door is locked. It’s raining, and I’ve got my life in my arms.

I knock on the door, and Syd appears in the window.

“We were hoping it was you,” she says.

I walk into the conference room, and the ladies are having a moment. Calmly and rationally losing their shit.

Heather had told them the same thing as she had told me, apparently. And had also told them that if they ever had any dreams of Peace Corps, they had better let it go. “You work with what you have in the area. And you can go home if you don’t agree with L and what she’s doing.”

Jess is expressing strongly that Peace Corps goes in with the mission of serving the people of the community, asking them what they need and going from there. And what we seem to be doing here is more like a science project. And telling people what to do, in their community that has existed for thousands of years. And has been beat again and again by globalized corporate bullshit stripping this land for its oil, and previously its whales. Isn’t it enough that they have restaurants and an airport here? Can’t we leave these people alone, or else at least come in here to serve them, not some white woman with good intentions, but a blindness to the project as a whole. To the safety, to the public relations, to the respect for culture.

And how are we supposed to be made to feel that we would be better off to just go home, by the person who is supposed to be supporting us?

While they are talking and spouting off ideas, I am furiously taking notes. And then, toward the end, I say that we really need to talk to our higher ups back on campus. As Heather walks in, I send an email to campus that we need to speak as soon as possible.

Whisked away to the hospital for lunch, we awkwardly grab our salads and coffee and head to the conference room. Lots of conference rooms these days.

L and A come to lunch, and they sit down with us. Small talk, we all know where this discussion really needs to go.

It goes there at some point, and the analogy, that cutting treated wood is just the same as bakers who are around flour all day, comes up again.

“You might want to wear a dusk mask if you are doing it regularly, but it’s not anymore dangerous than sawing any other wood, or any other fine particulate in the air.”

Not going anywhere with that one, that’s obvious. I’m done discussing it. But they did tell us that there is a difference between “science” and “opinion.” And our opinion that the wood is toxic and dangerous is our “opinion,” and there is science to back up the contrary. Which is rich, because I literally talked to the EPA last week. Do they not use valid science?

One of the girls asks if we will be letting the people know that this is treated wood, and the safety precautions that they should take with it. (i.e. not touching it directly, not sawing it, covering it in a protective plastic or sealant, and not planting root vegetables too close to the wood as it leaches out approximately two inches into the soil a season).

We are met with a resounding “no.” And told that people in Barrow are already super sensitive to environmental concerns, and we don’t want this to blow up and become a bigger deal than it should be. So we are just not going to mention that we are using treated wood.

I ask the big question I’ve been wondering all along. How does the population in Barrow perceive of the treated wood in general?

And I’m told that the people in general don’t really know much about it, and aren’t worried about it. The people who would be worried about it, however, are the Inupiat people.

The people we thought we were coming here to serve.

Turns out the Inupiat people have a great distrust of chemicals, and environmental additives. For good reason.

Number one, they were doing just fine before all of these chemicals began being dumped in their home. And number two, there was a horrible incident of human experimentation that happened years ago in nearby Wainwright. American authorities were injecting local Inupiat people with radioactive substances, to study the speed of the reaction.

Horrifying.

Absolutely horrifying.

These people have absolutely no reason to trust us, or any other white person who walks onto their land and claims to know something better than they do.

Fucked up.

And so, on top of the health concerns for our own safety, we ladies do not want to put more toxins into the land, into the people.

We are visitors, and we want to learn what the community wants, not what some white woman’s dream is.

If the toxic wood isn’t speaking to who it’s supposed to speak to, then let’s just forget about it. No?

The boys and the girls have this strained relationship now over the wood– which is odd, because we’ve never had a break in the group. There might be one or two people having a bad day, but everyone else was always able to pull them back on track. This new divide is something else– and it’s interesting because it’s happening at the very end of the program. Tony and Carinne are dating, and Dre and Jess are dating, but other than Tony and Dre, the guys are not talking to the girls. And vice versa.

Tony didn’t land tonight, by the way. His plane got all of the way here, we heard it in the air above us. And then the cloud cover was too great, and he had to turn around and fly two and a half hours back through Prudhoe bay, and back to Anchorage.

When we were landing a few weeks ago, Karlin mentioned that he hoped we would be able to land, as last time there was this much cloud cover and his plane had to turn back around and go to Anchorage for the night. Apparently it’s a thing that happens a lot here. Too bad it happened to Tony tonight.

I know he’s excited to get here. He has no idea what he’s walking into though. None of us really want to explain it all again either. Maybe we can just start from what we learned today, and move on from there.

At one point during our lunch conversation, Laura tells us the real reason that she is here doing this project: suicide prevention. She bursts into tears, and so do I.

Then, Heather announces that she has a arranged a call for us with campus. And it’s happening now.

We tell her we are unprepared. We have just been through an emotional two hour lunch, and need to prepare ourselves, and our agenda of what we want to cover during the phone call.

Thirty minutes later, the five of us girls and Dre are sitting around in a circle preparing for the conference call. And Heather pulls up a chair next to us. And we tell her no.

We had already told her that we wanted to talk without her in the room, but I guess she thought she could just stay if nobody noticed her.

Hour long conversation with staff back on campus. Main takeaways: the program did not know that we would be dealing with old treated wood, so did not know to prepare us with information and protective materials. The guy who came up here to check the project out weeks before we came– had no idea that we would be working with hazardous materials.

Also, we were supposed to have been given the authority from campus to opt out of work with the wood back on Friday. In this type of situation back in the lower 48, campus would have simply sent samples of the wood to a lab for testing to see if it was safe or not. But since they are unable to do that out here in Barrow, we are 100% not obligated to be around the wood.

And they understand the isolation we’re feeling, and they understand the cultural tensions that are tearing us apart morally. And that we seem to be standing on the side we don’t want to represent. And they support us in finding our own place here, and getting to know the culture as more of a full time job.

It’s still not going to be easy. And I’m sure I’ll still get pushback tomorrow. But I’m going to stand strong to what I believe. All of us are. And we’re going to find a way to make this something we can be proud of.

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