State of Nature, State of Mind Pt II — A guest-post by Barry Zellen

Our second post in a three-part series from March featured author Barry Zellen.

Many years ago, I lived in Inuvik, wearing the hat of a small town journalist, with the coolest job in the world, publishing a bilingual newspaper serving the Inuvialuit villages of the Western Arctic, with half the page in English and the other half in Inuvialuktun, trying to balance two worlds, two traditions, at a fascinating but uneasy crossroads. By day I was a journalist, but by night I was fast becoming an amateur historian, learning as much about the grand sweep of northern history so I would understand the issues of the day with greater depth and clarity.

In the course of being a journalist, from time to time I would report on what might be viewed by political elites as bad news, the kind they hoped might never be written – stories of local corruption, land claims money wrongly spent, placed into the pockets of a few board members and not the people for whom it was meant. The more I read and the more I learned, though, the more I came to understand that these setbacks were temporary, that these early scandals in the post-land claim era appear to be a common growing pain across the entire North, and reflect a common vulnerability for all societies new to capitalism, where democracy and accountability have yet to mature, so when the windfall comes, temptation soon follows, and before you know it corruption sets in. But if you wait around long enough, that corruption is eventually unmasked, as newer, wiser leaders step up to fix what’s broken, to reboot a system that is not irreparably damaged, but merely off course.

This happened in Alaska in those first post-land claim days, and sadly recurred in the Mackenzie Delta after its claim was settled in the mid 1980s, and followed in turn to Nunavut and Nunavik further east. It’s not that the North is inherently corrupt; in fact, it is one of the most honest, wholesome places on the Earth, a place with no secrets. It’s just that the rapid introduction of capitalism and with it economic modernization, in a culture where subsistence reigned supreme for untold millennia, is at heart a traumatic change to undertake in a single generation. Heck, on Wall Street, the ground zero of modern capitalism, two centuries of experience has not yet been enough to purge the system of a recurring greed that rises up anew each generation, resulting in a crisis of trust and confidence in the system itself.

Indeed it was not much more than a year ago that we all appeared to be poised at the very edge of a global systemic collapse on a scale comparable to that which destroyed world communism. Only one generation later and nearly on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s remarkable fall, the globalizing system of world capitalism nearly imploded, taking with it the wealth of an entire generation. This, in the very nerve center of our global economy, where a deep and festering fraud set in, exacerbated by the complacency of regulators and fueled by the greed not just of the elites but those who aspired to join them. It will be some time before the mess that we created is sorted out, and while the crisis seems to have subsided, a total collapse of a system that is rooted ultimately in fallible humanity seems to be inevitable, some day. Few systems endure so long; even the template of endurance, the Roman Empire, would prove to be as mortal as the rest, collapsing in the end after a millennium of rule.

So what does this mean for us? First, it means that when we watch capitalism, modernization, and globalization take root in the Far North we should not forget how new modernity itself is here, how young remains the very presence of the modern state. It was not that long ago that the Age of Empire brought Europeans to the North, from both the East and from the West. It was not that long ago that colonization quietly surrendered to self-government of a sort, albeit one from afar; that Alaska ceased to be Russian and Canada ceased to be British, all within a single day in 1867. Fast forward only a century and we see territorial status give way on our side to a state, and on the Canadian side to a process of northern balkanization resulting in three distinct territories north of sixty, one overwhelmingly non-Native, but still partly indigenous; one about half non-indigenous and half indigenous; and the newest, Nunavut, still 95 percent indigenous. Three snapshots of northern demographic evolution, one taken after the Klondike gold rush; one taken after World War II; and one taken just a decade ago. Each has had its own unique relationship with the southern world, its own level of economic integration and modernization. And each retains its own connection with its indigenous past, to varying degrees. Each, as well, has experienced the land claims process, the shift of investment capital to new Native elites, that first generation of growing pains before the new system takes root, and in the end, a new balance between the forces of tradition and modernization.

But just as the modernity of land claims eventually affected the entire Arctic rim of North America, the persistence of indigenous subsistence also unites the Far North. And it is this endurance that I believe is the greatest lesson the North can teach the South. When the world economic order looked like it was on the edge of an abyss, as if a great depression might once again restore poverty to the most modern of the world’s nations, as retirement nest eggs evaporated, housing prices collapsed, and banks collapsed like dominos, nearly taking the world economic order with it, the places that proved most resilient were those where subsistence economics, subsistence values, subsistence culture, remained. And some newly modernizing corners of the North, like the island-state of Iceland, saw their new and shiny modern economies collapse entirely, realizing at the end that their humble yet self-sufficient roots as fishermen were what would get them through their cascading economic collapse, as their currency quickly became worthless, their stock market a field of dreams that in the end did not come true. Their banks went under, taking into oblivion the investments of countless millions, from not just Iceland’s 300,000 citizens, but from many more citizens of the UK and mainland Europe, drawn to the icy waters by high (and in the end unsustainable) interest rates. The shiny office towers, not so different from those that sprouted up in Anchorage or Inuvik or Yellowknife with new land claims money, emptied out, the fishing boats were once again full, and subsistence proved to be Iceland’s constant, its connection to a more natural temporal flow.

Sometimes the villages of the Far North are called a “Fourth World” and the lack of cash economies perceived to be a failure in economic development. But the absence of a vibrant cash economy masks the presence of something more enduring, a subsistence economy well suited to the land, one that is self-sufficient, whose values tie humanity to the land from which we evolved, and upon which we still depend. The hunters and the trappers of the world possess a wealth and a power that investment bankers and hedge fund managers will never know, something enduring, something spiritual, something that is more essentially human than any modern artifice. The same is true of fishermen and farmers, who live on a more harmonious plain. Many post-apocalyptic and sci-fi stories speculate that the future world, after a great calamity, whether by alien invasion or some Armageddon-like event induced by fallible man, will be one where subsistence once again is essential, whether the surviving humans waging war against the machines as in the Terminator saga, or in another more recent James Cameron tale, the idyllic people of Pandora, the Na’vi, who are hunters still, and who live in perfect harmony.

Their collision with modern, corporatized, invading humanity, while simplified for the sake of the big screen, captures an essential truth: that there is much of beauty worth preserving in the traditional life, a beauty we can still find here, amongst ourselves. And that much of our modern world, for all its many advantages, should never entirely replace that which came before. Just as there is wisdom in the elders and their stories, there is something sacred in the values that they’ve carried across history to us. Even as we continue on the path of modernization, we should therefore maintain our connection not only with the past, but with the land in its most natural form – something we in the North can still do with relative ease, the footprint of modernity being still just a tiny part of our world.

Barry S. Zellen is an author and political theorist. After riding his 250cc Honda Rebel up the Alaska Highway in 1988, he settled down in the Western Arctic region, living in Whitehorse, Inuvik and Yellowknife, working in the field of indigenous language media. Since 2004, he’s been with the Naval Postgraduate School where he directs the Arctic Security Project, edits journals, and writes books on various subjects including Arctic political and cultural history, political philosophy, and strategic studies.

2 thoughts on “State of Nature, State of Mind Pt II — A guest-post by Barry Zellen”

  1. Love what you say here about the tension between old and new, and what the North has to teach. Also interesting to hear the rest of the story on Iceland. As in so many sound bites these days, we'd been left thinking the whole place had collapsed.

  2. Thanks, Barry. I enjoyed your post.

    For years I have been dabbling in the "what if" of something going wrong on the Outside and what that would look like in Alaska.

    Some might argue that there are places in Alaska the apocalypse hit a hundred and fifty years ago…and what we see now in rural Alaska are the post-apocalyptic survivors of a world destroyed. Perhaps not a world with as vibrant of colors as the Na'vi on Pandora, but as strong and tens of thousands of years in the making.

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