Thursday, April 29, 2010

Promised Land II -- A Guest-post by Barry Zellen

Concluding thoughts from our guest-poster. Thanks Barry!

When I first came North two decades ago, I met the editors of a now defunct magazine called Dannzha, which aspired to be a Tundra Times for the Yukon but which was doomed by a lack of funds and a tiny market to a short life. But in its brief reign, it gave me my first opportunity to publish my thoughts twenty years ago this week (April 1, 1990), with no editorial constraints. I was free to write what I truly saw for the very first time. Here’s how it began:

In October of 1988, I hopped on a small, cherry red Honda Rebel 250 motorcycle, and rode up the ALCAN to Alaska. I stopped in the Yukon and NWT, discovering a unique world that reminded me of my own heritage – as a Jew, a wandering Jew in a strange and in so many ways foreign land. I found the Aboriginal peoples of the North to be in a state similar to my own people, in conflict with a White European culture that rejects tribal relations and nations without states as anachronisms, primitive and obsolete in a modern age. My people were almost exterminated by the hatred of the Nazis, and brutally suppressed by the Spanish Inquisition and repeated European pogroms. My people almost lost their Old Law and their old ways, and by almost forgetting their old knowledge came close to cultural extinction.

I saw the First Nations at a similar crossroads, with signs of cultural renewal mixed with the decay of the traditional ways. Each revival and remembrance seems to come at the expense of several things forgotten - be it language, religion, social relations or other aspects of aboriginal culture. The fate of the First Peoples seems to hang in an unsteady equilibrium, much as Judaism did throughout the modern era.


After describing in brief the historical struggle of the Jewish people to survive a world of pogroms, inquisitions, and holocausts, and the modern world’s constant effort to oppress its tribal remnants from an earlier time, I went on to describe the world I found in the North, a world I fell in love with:

Up here, I found the first landscape that truly felt welcoming to me. Vast, open spaces; large gaps between those ugly pockets of civilization with Fast Food and shopping malls. I wandered up the Dempster, staying a while in McPherson and Inuvik, and later Tuktoyaktuk. I met the Gwich'in and Inuvialuit and I discovered people not unlike my own. Fellow wanderers, who went east instead of west, and who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia; the people of the north came to North America thousands of years before my people crossed that hot, dry desert to build their nation. The people of the North are still wanderers of a sort, hunting the migrating caribou or living along the icy Arctic coast. They follow the seasons and live close to the land – just as my people subsisted in the desert, rendering dry waste land into fertile and productive soil, living in a place considered barren by those who knew less, and by those who failed to see life growing where their minds said it couldn't.


... I met Elders that still spoke their native tongues, who still wore traditional clothing. Who still ate of the caribou or the Beluga whale, and lived close to the land. And this made me happy. But I met so many – especially among the young – who knew not their traditional language and customs. Like my people, they had become assimilated, their culture eroded and consumed. Many had been forced by missionaries to abandon their native language, torn from their families and ripped out of the fabric of their societies … I full well understand the power of the white world, as I am borne of it. I likewise know its danger: I saw so many young people turn to the poison of alcohol and drugs and to the temptations of the bootlegger… poisoning themselves with an opiate foreign to their land, and introduced as a tool of repression. The cross and the bottle seem to have come together, agents of a slow and silent conquest. And this made me sad, and sometimes frightened.


But while I saw much to fear, I knew from my people’s own struggle to survive, and to overcome its brush with cultural extinction, that there still remained much reason for hope. Since in the end survival comes to those who hold on and ride out the storm – and who never give up:

The strength and power of my people came from within, by resurrecting our old ways. It came from the heart and soul, the very source of our identity. And it came from the faith that we kept, in the face of adversity, condemnation and ridicule. White society has the powers of numbers, just as Ancient Egypt did. And it has the wizardry of technology. But its power is not eternal nor is it infinite. The Jews learned this by keeping their Faith, and after almost losing it, restoring it with a cultural renewal and national rebirth. We did not fight back so much as we held on, until they stopped beating us into submission. Our victory came from our endurance against all odds. And so can yours.

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