I, too, am of this world

A guest post by this month’s featured author, Brett Dillingham

I recently took a trip to a Gwich-in (Athapascan) village just north of the Arctic Circle. I flew from Fairbanks in a single engine eight-seater. We landed in a small village of about 200 people. As soon as the plane hit the snow, ice and gravel runway, four-wheelers began buzzing and roaring towards the plane, reminding me of dung beetles in the desert flying and running over dust and sand to their resource base (dung). The villagers came to unload sacks of bloody fish and moose, newspapers, mail, crates of oranges. They came to pick up Uncle Jimmie, who spent the week in Fort Yukon with other relatives, or Donita who had some teeth pulled in Fairbanks. They came just to see who was coming or going, to smoke a cigarette and watch people live. Fifteen or twenty buzzing, roaring, or idling machines, exhaust floating above the snow, ciggies puffing, eyes watching. I sat on the plane and watched this churning social milieu. Then new passengers boarded and off we flew to another village.

Much the same scene as before greeted us: four-wheelers roaring and gouting exhaust while cigarettes hung from lips or pumped to and from eager maws, burlap sacks full of fish, moose or caribou stained the white fibers and snow red with blood.

The principal was an ex-student of mine. Mid fifties, wide strong shoulders, blonde hair, blue eyes. He smiled lots but was mostly sad- sad that he was stuck in a village of 150 people who were brown, sad there were no available women, sad that his Polish wife left him 13 years ago and he had not dated since. Sad that he put himself in this Village.

When my storytelling work was done the sad blue-eyed principal and I rode his four-wheeler on a trail to the ridge of a near mountain. I saw the tracks of a huge wolf and a medium wolf who had loped for miles on the same trail we drove on. Also fox tracks.

We reached the mountain ridge and drank wine and ate German cheese the sad principal brought in a small pack. The light glowing, the valley white started to fade.

Between the mountain ranges I saw a river freezing to ice. I know that herds of caribou and musk ox trundle in the valley and moose gallop with spreading antlers. Giant wolves and brown bears kill and eat all they can – young, weak, sick, injured. When they are hungry enough they kill the healthy. This is dangerous, because a moose hoof is as big as a plate and sometimes crushes the skulls of their ursine and lupine predators.

The river is full of whitefish and jack fish and salmon swimming lively with pulsing gills. In the future they will be caught in nets and become strips of smoked flesh at summer fish camp.

I saw all this in the valley, yet I am also lying because I really only saw the giant and medium wolf tracks. And the fox.

When I flew out the next morning to Venetie, I sat behind a young man of nineteen or twenty years. He was dressed in a puffy yellow parka with black elbows and stripes. He had earphones on. After we were airborne for about twenty minutes I saw his arms begin to spasm, to jerk like a chicken wing batting the air. I thought he was epileptic and that I should tap on the pilot’s shoulder and warn him of this health emergency. Then I saw the young man’s hands/fingers punching and swirling signs and symbols in the air, his lips synching to some L.A. or N.Y. rap tune, words sound-waving into his ears, his cranium, and I knew his seat-bound St. Vitus dance was a paean to the lofty and far away gods of corporate media meets street pain. This happened a thousand feet above the mountains and tundra where his ancestors and living relatives slaughtered caribou with arrows and bullets, picked blueberries and cranberries in bushes where thousand pound bears slept and ate, where his blood and bone and flesh genetic forebears made love on wolf and wolverine and fox parkas while mosquitoes bit their bare bottoms.

I, too, am of this world.

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