August 9: a flight that never took off and a few thoughts on ‘the Native’

It looked good. When I arrived at the air tourism company’s barracks near Fairbanks Airport, the plane and four other passengers were there. We checked in, or rather, checked our names so that they would be spelled correctly on the individual Arctic Circle certificates (notably the part of the trip I was least gung-ho about). Then we were told that there would be a 20-minute delay, which of course no one was worried about. After half an hour, we were informed that because of persistent smoke over Coldfoot, the plane would instead fly to Bettles, thirty miles southwest of our initial destination. Flying to Coldfoot would have allowed us to see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and visit a former gold mining site in Wiseman; Bettles on the other hand is a village located south of Gates of the Arctic National Park that is inhabited by members of a Native American tribe.

None of us ended up flying to Bettles. The company generously issued full refunds and even gave one couple a ride back to their hotel. I took the other couple to the main terminal where they had rented a car. I then treated myself to another excellent Thai lunch–it turns out that despite having only 32,000 residents, Fairbanks is host to a large Thai-American community–and stocked up on groceries.

Since I arrived in Montana about three weeks ago, I have on occasion been warned–without exception by Caucasian men–that ‘the Natives’ are (a) “rapists” [on a parking lot in Helena], (b) “not to be trusted” and “lazy” [in a cafe in St. Mary], or (c) “different; they just won’t talk much” [in Fort St. John]. Olivier, the French canoeist I met here in Fairbanks, shared very similar experiences: that he should try not to camp near Native villages and ought to be extra-cautious when there’s no alternative.

A guy in his late twenties with whom I had a longer conversation in Michigan and who identified himself as Native American was courteous and concerned about me not carrying a gun to ward off bears; he also provided directions to the nearest gas station and even offered to escort me there in his own truck. Another, a member of a Canadian First Nation holding a stop/slow sign in front of a road construction project in Yukon, told me about his daughter and her love of ice cream, and that he was the proud owner of a car as a result of working hard.

These contrasts seem to highlight a dimension of North American racism that I had only read about but not yet witnessed in person. Native villages are paraded to tourists; their art–carvings, textiles and Chinese-made knick-knacks bearing their signs and symbols–is sold in museums and visitor centers; and their names and history are alluded to incessantly to exotify the Northern experience. Dignity and respect, however, still appear to be more of an aspiration than a reality.

Tonight Olivier and I are off to Denali National Park and Preserve, about two and a half hours south of Fairbanks. I’ve booked two nights in the park’s main campground and look forward to some mountain-biking tomorrow.

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