Dear Mr. Dalby

Mark Delgado

Writer’s comment: Although “Dear Mr. Dalby” began as an English A assignment to write a rebuttal to an article, it quickly grew into more than that. In reading the article “The Alaskan Subsistence Myth,” I came across many statements regarding American Indians which angered me. When I realized the difference of opinion between Mr. Dalby and me was largely based on cultural values, that insight became my starting point. I wrote the paper attempting to explain our cultural differences and how they affect our perceptions and beliefs.
      A danger in writing about “differences” is that the audience might read into the message something that is not there. Having this occur is my biggest fear. “Dear Mr. Dalby” is not intended as some sort of political statement and should not be interpreted as such. Instead, it is an observation of many cultural differences I have witnessed and an attempt to enlighten the reader about an often misunderstood people. Most of all, this paper is not intended to tug at the reader’s heart and make him/her feel sorry for American Indians. But rather, I wrote “Dear Mr. Dalby” to offer a Native perspective so that the reader will gain a new respect for the many differences in our cultures and to realize how these differences, when not respected, lead to misunderstanding.
—Mark Delgado

Instructor’s comment: “Dear Mr. Dalby” is modelled after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s well-known “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Adopting a strategy similar to King’s, Mark exposes the superficiality of the original letter by exploring not merely the narrow issue of subsistence rights for Alaskan Native Americans, but the underlying moral questions, the long-term consequences and the hidden conflicts which Mr. Dalby so conveniently ignores. In short, he allows Mr. Dalby to hang himself, all the while using Mr. Dalby as a symbol for white society’s historical indifference to and ignorance of Native American ways. In the process Mark is able to inform his readers about Native American history and religion in a non-threatening way—after all, it is Mr. Dalby, not us, he is addressing. Or is it?
—Ann Marie Wagstaff, Lecturer, English Department

Dear Mr. Dalby,
      I recently delved into your article entitled “The Alaska Subsistence Myth,” in Outdoor Life magazine. Though I’m not normally a reader of Outdoor Life, my attention was brought to your article by a fellow university student who felt I would be interested. But, in fact, the article disturbed me. As I perused your lengthy argument against the validity of subsistence as a legitimate need of Alaskan Natives, I found many aspects of your article I do not agree with. I feel it my duty as a Native American with roots from within the great state of Alaska to take the time to discuss these points, while enlightening you about the facts and the Native perspective on such matters.
      I feel qualified to do this because of my bicultural upbringing. Having been raised in the white society, I can understand and communicate on your level—it is an adjustment I have had to make in order to succeed in your world. But I can also understand and communicate with my people, in our way. The many differences in our cultures (such as communication and understanding) may to you seem subtle or superficial when, in fact, they are quite profound. But this is because you think like a white man and I like an Indian. Our different perspectives make my attempt to impart to you the Native viewpoint that much more difficult—and that much more urgent.
      The case argued in your article concerns the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act—ANCSA for short. Enacted in 1971, this Act states that Alaskan Natives are to surrender all future aboriginal claims in exchange for 14 million acres of land and $982 million. As demonstrated by the entire message of your article, you feel that Natives were overcompensated by ANCSA. Considering the very large population this was distributed amongst and the fact that much of the land in this settlement is frozen tundra, I would hardly call this deal a “steal” by Alaskan Natives. To be precise, the pro-rated share of this settlement award is $13,000 per individual—far lower than the average American yearly income.
      You argue that with the world population growing as it is, Alaskan Natives do not deserve as much land as they now “own.” But, in fact, a good bit of your article, as the title suggests, is dedicated specifically to subsistence. I consider it quite a coincidence that you argue against the lawful ability of Alaskan Natives to fish for a greater number of fish and to hunt for a greater number of land animals than you yourself are lawfully allowed to fish or hunt for. Also, I noticed that your article appears in a magazine frequently read by white hunters in the same position you are in. You choose to present your argument in a location where, for the most part, only people agreeing with your view will come across it. Why not publish this article in a public newspaper or even a Native American periodical?
      At one point in your article, Mr. Dalby, you ask if “we are not overcompensating for our past.” By this you refer to ANCSA and the subsistence laws awarded Native Americans. If by the past you mean the practices of outright genocide, constant ethnocide and forced assimilation, the religious persecution, the breaking of 371 treaties, the expropriation of the remains of as many as 2.5 million American Indians for “display and study” in museums and colleges (such a huge number that most colleges and universities in this country have the skeletal remains of more Indians stored away in back rooms and basements than they have living American Indians attending as students), the blatant neglect of the many contributions made by Native Americans to your society, the stealing of massive land tracts, the dismal quality of life many Native Americans now live, as well as the racism and many stereotypes suffered by Native Americans—then, no, sir, you have not overcompensated for your past.
      Throughout the article, Mr. Dalby, you imply that you are overcompensating for the actions of earlier white men and that “small groups in Alaska and elsewhere in this country are demanding and getting everything they want from our modern industrial society.” If you truly believe this, Mr. Dalby, then I invite you to visit any reservation in this country and witness the poverty for yourself. You constantly suggest that all injustices suffered by Native Americans at the hands of the white man occurred in the distant past. Well, sir, Native Americans did not demand or want Termination or the Indian Removal Act of 1950—both less than forty years ago. These federally initiated plans, continuations of assimilation, moved Native Americans in large numbers to the cities with no job training or preparation for surviving in the cities. The Native Americans who moved to the cities were expected to learn the ways of the white man and to fit in and become like the white people. Also, at the stroke of a pen, many tribes simply ceased to exist as far as the white man’s government was concerned. By uprooting families and taking children away from their Native lands, these two plans did far more damage to the Native American culture than did Custer.
      You also, quite ignorantly, state that “recently another idea has generated—that Indian/Eskimo bands should become sovereign nations.” To set the record straight, the “idea” of Native American groups as sovereign nations is hardly new: the vast majority of treaties written even before the existence of the United States of America recognize different tribes as sovereign nations and in times of war as equal allies. In fact, Chief Justice John Marshall in his decision on the case of Worcester v. Georgia stated, “The Indian Nations have always been considered as distinct, independent, political communities, retaining their original natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the land, from time immemorial.” It was not until March 3, 1871, that an Act of Senate declared “hereafter no Indian nation or tribe will be recognized as an independent power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” After this time, American Indian tribes were referred to as “domestic dependent nations” by those in Washington D.C.
      In your article, you allude to “the men who followed Columbus” and how they “came to settle a wild land and make it productive.” In this one sentence, you manage to illustrate beautifully the most basic and striking difference between Native American beliefs and the mentalities of “the men who followed Columbus.” This difference of values is, I believe, the basis for many conflicts, misunderstandings and difficulties that have occurred and continue to occur between Native Americans and “the followers of Columbus.”
      The conflicts began almost immediately upon the immigration of white men in large numbers to the “New World,” as they called the land where Native Americans had resided for hundreds of generations. The Europeans brought with them an extremely ethnocentric philosophy based upon a very rigid and one-dimensional view of civilization. Europeans, in their ethnocentricity, viewed their own lifestyle as the only proper and just manner in which to live. When they came to this “wild land” as you termed it, they knocked down forests to build their cities. When they encountered Native Americans, they referred to these indigenous peoples as savages or heathen. To these “settlers” forests were the unknown and thought of as wild. By their standards, civilized people did not live in the forests but lived apart from them. Instead, the settlers developed the frontier concept and purged the land to extract natural resources for monetary profit, regardless of the effects upon the natural balance of the land. When “savages” happened to live on the land the white man wanted, they were simply moved or killed.
      Similar to his concept of land ownership, the white man’s concept of religion is very different from that of the Native American. If one were to ask a white man about God, in many cases his reply would be an abstract, almost certainly imprecise and perhaps nearly surreal representation of a faraway heavenly entity. In all likelihood his answer would have nothing to do with the land on which he stands. If a Native American were to be asked the same question, in many cases his reply would consist of just two words: Mother Earth. Native Americans view nature and nature’s creatures as the work of The Creator. Thus, they are to be respected and treated accordingly. We Native Americans lived with the land (as opposed to protecting ourselves from the forests as the Europeans did) because we were close to nature and thus to The Creator and our religion. Though cultures do differ among the many tribes of American Indians (which at the time Indians discovered Columbus numbered at least five million individuals), this belief of nature as a thing to be respected and thankful for is a common thread among the many “scattered bands of peoples,” as you choose to call us.
      I also find it interesting that in the white culture man is considered second only to God, and in some cases it seems white men even consider themselves above God. This is not so in Native American culture. In our culture, the Stone People, representing the earth, are the first Spirits. The Stone People give us the beautiful land we walk on. The Plant People are the second Spirits. The Plant People give us medicine and food. The third Spirits are the Animal People, who give us food and companionship. The fourth Spirits, the Human People, are ourselves, and we must respect the earlier Spirits, be thankful to them for giving us life, and return what we can.
      The Europeans who followed in the paths of Columbus viewed land as a thing to be owned and profited from; this whole concept was completely foreign to Native Americans. In no Native American culture is land owned, though Europeans have forced us to exist with this concept. Instead, areas of land were understood to be where certain clans made their living. These common areas were where the group resided and the individual was merely one amongst that group. Individuals did not have areas exclusively for their own use. According to Native American beliefs, one does not own land. One borrows from it only what is needed to survive and returns what is not needed. To many of European descent, this concept, even with a drawn-out, detailed explanation, is beyond comprehension since it is quite different from “ownership.” Also, land is not a resource to “be made productive,” which in your words was the goal of Columbus’s followers. Land is to be taken as is, and changes made to it, such as irrigation for crops, are minor.
      Thus, the issue of subsistence that you argue merely perpetuates this difference of beliefs. You feel that Alaskan Natives do not deserve higher bag limits than white men when hunting. Sir, many of the hunters in the great state of Alaska (especially the regular readers of Outdoor Life) hunt merely for recreational purposes. Alaskan Natives (as do all Natives) hunt for food and to preserve our precious heritage. Is it not common sense that a person hunting to feed his family should be allowed higher bag limits than someone hunting merely for the sake of killing one of nature’s creatures? I do not blame you for holding the same limited views your forefathers held. I merely wish that you would be more open-minded and appreciate the differences between our cultures instead of continuing in the ethnocentric views of white man.
      Granted, many Native Americans live in the same type of home you yourself reside in and enjoy the same television shows you watch. Native Americans enjoy many aspects of the white culture. Yet you fail to understand that subsistence is indeed a lifestyle and has not been “convoluted...into meaning a lifestyle,” as you word it. You cannot understand what it means to be Native American in today’s world, though I will try to explain this to you. Often, it involves making a choice. A choice as to whether to follow our heritage and our Native American beliefs or to forsake this in order to succeed in the white society. It is incredibly hard to follow both paths, though we try. When living in the white society, Native Americans get caught up in the common problems of living in that society and, without extreme effort on the part of each individual, lose touch with our Native roots. A non-Native American viewing such a person would simply think of him as “Indian” and leave it at that. But if this same person were to return to the reservation, the people there would view him as an outsider and not one of them. An analogy might better allow you to understand this. Think of the ball bearings in large machinery. As the ball bearings go around, the friction causes heat which causes the metal of the bearings to expand. Over time, the metal of the bearings loses its temper; it can never again be the same. A Native American in the white society is changed by the experience and can never again be the same. As a result, numerically, the Native American population is growing, while culturally, it is losing touch with its roots.
      When you, Mr. Dalby, as a member of the melting-pot society wake up in the mornings, you find yourself surrounded by your own culture. This is not so for most Native Americans. When Native Americans wake up in the mornings, we find our culture drowned out by the much larger American culture, or we find our personal experiences with our own culture to be so limited as to be inconsequential. We Native Americans must fight to preserve our culture; you take for granted that you are surrounded by your own American culture. In your words, Native Americans “claim they belong to and practice another culture.” This is so incredibly true that the tone in which you present this fact is insulting. Of course we are of different cultures—our religions, languages, histories, traditions, values, thought processes, and even humor are quite different. I fail to see why you cannot respect this as we try to respect the difference in your culture.
      Mr. Dalby, subsistence is a lifestyle in the Native American culture just as “nine-to-five” jobs are a lifestyle in your society. We have different cultures. Our culture brings us close to nature and Mother Earth. We do not “own” the land you “give” us. We live with it and respect it as the giver of life. We see that our culture is in danger of fading away if traditions are not kept up. Many times I wish we could simply be left alone to continue our culture unmolested. But I am realistic and see that this will not happen. You ask why Native Americans “waste” large sums of money in court costs attempting to correct past and present injustices. Besides pride, besides the desire to give our Native heritage a chance for survival, Native Americans have a philosophy referred to as the Seventh Generation. This all-encompassing religious philosophy states that people alive today are responsible for making sure that our descendants seven generations in the future have a secure and pleasant place in which to live. If we do not fight to make sure our descendants are born into a world they can be happy in, who will? You make it sound as if we ask so much of you—but look at what you have taken from us.
      In our culture subsistence is a lifestyle because it is a tradition going back hundreds of generations. It is a part of our culture that without a great effort on our part will fade away. Your culture is in no danger of fading away, yet you insist on taking from us what little we still have as a people. Why? Alaskan Natives seek to preserve their ancient heritage, and hunting is but one part of this heritage. Subsistence laws protect that for Alaskan Natives.
      I am a member of the Seventh Generation that the chiefs you are so familiar with (such as Sitting Bull) had in mind when they fought for our people and signed treaties which they hoped would safeguard the future of our people. Please understand that I do not mean to point fingers and say “It is all your fault.” I want our cultures to co-exist, and I want to preserve my heritage for the seventh generation after me. The Great Eagle has two wings, which must work together in harmony for the Great Eagle to take flight and soar through the skies. In my culture we understand this and want to work with you in harmony so that we are able to fly as the Great Eagle does. In order for this to happen, you must try to understand our culture as we do yours. Or if you cannot do this, at least respect our differences. If you can do this, you will realize how very valuable subsistence laws are to Alaskan Natives and how valuable similar laws are to all American Indians.