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September 24, 1989
Centuries of tradition ... and a televised disaster
The native village of Tatitlek sits behind Bligh Island, behind Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground. It is a settlement of about 100 people. Its wooden houses hunker down in the perpetual rain, puffing smoke out of their chimneys, with wooden walkways that bridge the perpetual mud. Tatitlek voted itself dry in 1983, and such rowdyism as exists takes place quietly. People know each other very well. Even the dogs look related.
Tatitlek seems not much changed since the times its residents plied the waters of the Prince William Sound in skinboats. But time has altered Tatitlek. Catastrophic news comes via strange messengers.
Ed Gregorieff, who can sit by his window and watch the glow of the tankers in the night as they pass, first heard about the oil spill on "Good Morning America."
The scene from Ed's window has not changed much since his birth in a mining camp 2 miles away, 66 years ago. A sea otter paddles back and forth, back and forth by the dock, using a rock to crack open the clam it holds in its paws. Terns swoop and dive. Evening light illuminates a Russian icon of Mary and Jesus, hung on Ed's wall, passed on to him by his mother. Ed knows his boats. As he talked, he watched a large fishing boat cruise past. "That's the Moonlight Maid, out of Seattle," he said.
Ed Gregorieff belongs to a race who have peopled south-central and western Alaska for thousands of years.
He remembers paddling in baidarkas, native kayaks, clad in rain gear made from the stomachs of black bears. His parents told him he was an Aleut. One day, a man from the government came into his house, pointed at him and said, "I bet you think you're an Aleut, but you're not. You're an Eskimo." The profound presumption in the man's approach caused Gregorieff, a gentle man with thick reading glasses and a shock of white hair, to suggest that his visitor take his opinions elsewhere. The man didn't take the hint. Ed still gets a lot of visitors. He keeps saying he's talked out, but then he keeps talking and offers them breakfast to boot.
The villages of Tatitlek and Chinega Bay were uniquely affected by the spill. While the currents kept oil from Tatitlek's beaches, large portions of the sound where the villagers hunted and fished were polluted. Though the subsistence lifestyle is somewhat romanticized, some Tatitlek old-timers, such as Elaine Totemoff, still salt and preserve and freeze and cook just about every part of every fish and marine mammal they can get. Elaine may be the only visitor to the Seattle Aquarium whose response was uniquely appetite-based. The aquarium's creatures made her mouth water.
Most people don't salt fish heads like Elaine, but many people fish commercially or to supplement their diet. This year, the herring harvest was canceled because of the oil. Commercial and subsistence salmon fishing for the humpies, the reds, and the dogs were canceled in large portions of the sound. Birds died by the tens of thousands. Seals were oiled. Deer were found floating dead in oiled kelp.
These animals are more than wildlife, and more than a meal. They tie the villagers to the gentle landscape of the sound.
Ed's family used to fish commercially. The entire family his wife and seven children would load up on his 40-foot boat and spend the summer fishing. They seined in the sound, gillnetted in the Copper River Flats, until his wife died, some 20 years ago. "It was kind of a family deal," Ed said. "When the old lady died I kind of fell down and never picked myself up again." In recent years his children have brought him the seal and fish meat he craves.
For the past six months, most of Tatitlek's villagers have worked on the cleanup. Exxon hired almost everyone who wanted to work and shipped load after load of food into the village eggs, sausage, chicken, canned vegetables. The good wages were some comfort in a place where fuel and electricity bills can top $300 a month. They'll need wages and food, come winter, because no one hunted or fished this summer. After the spill, the state warned villagers not to eat their traditional fish and game because of the danger of oil poisoning.
"I'm old-fashioned, in the old style," Ed said. "The younger people are living in the white man's world. They're not moving one way or another. They're right in the middle. I can remember when people had no money to buy vegetables. If you had a platter of pork chops and seal ribs, I'd take the seal ribs. The younger generation would take the pork chops."
Ed cradled his coffee cup in two hands. Fish-and-game authorities have advised against eating seafood, he said. "I'm just beginning to accept it," he said. "It's early yet. When you crave something, when you're used to it and you don't get it . . . it's like you crave candy or a soda pop. That's the way this stuff is to me. A hunk of seal meat means as much to me as prime rib means to you."
Ed Gregorieff remembers when hospitality was essential to survival, where pioneers left provisions in wilderness cabins for whoever might need them. He is of the old Alaska. He is a physical link to a race of people who are the true natives of Alaska.
Alaska, though it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, has poor soils, long winters and a short growing season. It is a place for hunters and gatherers. Alaska's natives could get just enough meat, skins and fish to eat and to clothe themselves, with a little left over for trade.
In the 1700s, the French, the Spanish, the English, the Americans and the Russians sent ships to explore Alaska's coast. They were another variety of hunter and gatherer, but their superior weapons would alter the balance between man and nature.
They were not drawn to Alaska's beauty or grandeur, for it was often obscured by fog, and the explorers were preoccupied with survival in an environment of freezing temperatures and lacerating winds. They came for the pelt of the sea otter, the lively, thickly furred animal that the Aleuts believed contained the soul of a transformed human. The Chinese demanded sea otter as the sole fur for imperial court winter wear. They paid a premium for the skin. Ships came from Alaska laden with otter pelts, and traded them at Canton for tea, money or other goods of value.
But only the Russians, at home in the formidable climate, settled the place. For 122 years they claimed and occupied Alaska, subordinating and intermarrying with the natives, sending forth missionaries of the Russian Orthodox religion, making what, even then, amounted to millions of dollars in the fur trade unprecedented profits for a very few Russian investors and entrepreneurs. The promyshlenniki, a Russian word for free-lance exploiters of natural resources, had a saying about Alaska. "God is high in his heaven," they intoned, "and the czar is far away."
The United States bought Alaska in 1867, and most of the Russian presence proved ephemeral, except for the religion that endures among many natives. Ed Gregorieff's blue house is a stone's throw from Tatitlek's Russian Orthodox Church. The villagers still go to the baroque sanctuary to listen to the sonorous half-Russian, half-English liturgy.
The Russians' treatment of Alaska seemed almost benign compared to the first years of American territorial rule. The federal government's only presence was that of a military occupying force. Sitka, the old capital of Russian America, became a ghost town. Then came the gold rush of 1897 and 1898 and a new wave of promyshlennikis arrived American ones, in search of gold. A new era of colonialism began, and the state was run by mining, fishing and transportation interests, many of them headquartered in Seattle.
"Alaskans," wrote Ernest Gruening, for many years Alaska's territorial senator, "were always inhibited by the efforts of the strong mining, fishing and transportation interests, which were almost entirely absentee-owned, and their active resident allies in the form of local agents, members of chamber of commerce executive committees, insurance-company representatives and the like."
Those interests were not happy with the idea of statehood, ardently supported by Gruening and others. W.C. Arnold, managing director of a Seattle-based consortium of canning companies, testified before Congress, "We're paying most of the cost of running the territory now. We don't propose to pick up the check for the additional cost of statehood."
Nevertheless, the pre-state Legislature passed a series of taxes, including an income tax, a business-license tax and others. After a long battle, Congress bestowed statehood on Alaska. (The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Gruening noted later, held out against statehood until the bitter end.)
Alaska would need those taxes. When the federal government pulled out, it left the young state holding the bag for many services formerly provided by U.S. taxpayers. The sparse, widely scattered population could only contribute so much. Irving Warner, the Kodiak writer and teacher who worked as a state fisheries technician in the early 1960s, remembers that the pay was so poor, the only way the state could attract workers was to offer them room and board to boot.
There was oil development in Alaska then, small and scattered but nevertheless providing the state its largest single source of natural-resource income. It was nothing compared with what was to come.
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