Community and Culture

The old Inuit man stood at the airport gate wearing his caribou hide jacket and pants, mouton vest, seal skin boots, wolverine fur hat and bearskin mittens over caribou skin gloves. The Aleyska pipeline representative looked him over to verify that he had the appropriate gear for the North Slope before he could fly north from Fairbanks.

During the Alaska pipeline construction in the 1970’s, Alyeska provided air service for pipeline workers, but required that they have the Alyeska-supplied cold weather gear. Too many Okies and Texans had gone north with only their cowboy boots and hats, and had to be treated for frostbite.

The gate representative asked the Inuit, “Where’s your cold weather gear?”

The Inuit, looked at him quizzically and held out his arms.

The rep shook his head, “It gets really cold on the North Slope. You need to have warm clothing.”

The old man gave him a piercing look, “Well, if it gets too cold for this gear, maybe I don’t want to go.” He turned and walked away. He’d find another way home.

The Public Health Service brought modern sanitary toilet facilities to some Pacific islanders in the 1960’s. Every morning, the islanders would get up before dawn, leave their thatched huts and ramshackle houses to climb up the hill or mountain behind the village to reach the coffee or banana groves where they worked. Amidst the lush vegetation, cool air and awakening forest, they squatted to perform their toilet as the sun rose over the far ocean horizon. The birds began to sing, small creatures rustled in the underbrush, and it was essentially a religious experience. Afternoon rains and a host of native biota dissipated the waste materials.

The Public Health Service (PHS) program, however, sought to improve their living conditions by providing modern housing with running water in the small bathrooms. Not surprisingly, the locals shunned the indoor toilets, in small airless rooms. The PHS couldn’t understand why.

On the Navajo Reservation in the 1960’s, the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the tribe worked to provide running water for a small community. The crowning achievement was a large water tank on the hillside above the community.

The local IHS engineer was sensitive to the community desires and environmental suitability. He provided an array of colors for the locals to help choose the paint to be used for the tank. Being environmentally sensitive, he laid out greens and tans to fit inconspicuously into the native vegetation. He also included color schemes consistent with Navajo culture and some others just for contrast.

To his consternation, the community voted nearly unanimously to paint the water tank International Orange. They were proud of having a water system and wanted everyone to know about it. Bowing to the community desires, it was painted orange, becoming becoming a navigation aid for passing aircraft.

Understanding another culture is an interesting past time for armchair travelers and tourists. But, becomes important if you are living or working within one. That is part of the attraction of living abroad or under newer circumstances.

With the IHS on the Navajo, I was asked to attend many chapter meetings, where the local community would gather for a potluck meal and discuss community issues. These meetings were held almost entirely in Navajo, so my interpreter, Sammy, would help with my part of the session.

Following a lunch of mutton stew and fry bread, I addressed the small crowd, usually thirty or so people, mostly older folks. I took a minute to introduce myself, thank them for lunch and for inviting me. Sammy would ‘interpret’ for me, talking on for about five minutes.

“What did you say,” I asked Sammy.

“Just what you said,” he replied.

An old man would stand up and speak and gesture at me for more than ten minutes. Even the elderly Navajo understood and usually spoke English, but were often uncomfortable speaking it with an official.

“Well, what did he say?” I asked.

“Welcome,” he replied.

I never quite got the hang of the conversation.

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