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It is difficult to acknowledge loss where it is misunderstood. Do we have the capacity to recognize that our actions can at times result in loss for those we are tasked to serve? And when we bring about sacrifice on the part of others are we prepared to face the inevitable question of can this person or population be made whole again?
There are more than 500 former military sites scattered throughout rural Alaska. The people whose lives are most impacted by these sites are the Alaska Native people who live in villages near the sites. Many people in the villages perceive that the emergence of certain diseases such as cancers coincides with exposure to environmental contaminants from these past activities. Our best science says this may not be the case. And this is the dilemma.
“Our people…in history we have been told what to do, when to do it and how to do it by people who say they are helping us. We have grown to this day where we have learned that the people who are supposedly helping us are not really helping us, if you know what I mean…we don’t want to be against or make any problems for anyone…but I think it is important to understand that our people, this area was pristine, good food and if it wasn’t for that site, I don’t think any of these contaminants would be in our food,” from a meeting with village leaders and government agency representatives on the cleanup of a former military site in Alaska.
This urgent expression reveals a devastating place from which to experience life despite what the science might say about relative risk. Do we have an obligation to acknowledge perceived irrevocable yet unempirical loss? Well, yes. A reluctance to acknowledge this loss in and of itself contributes to the perceived loss and produces secondary effects that come back to government in the most unexpected and costly ways.
Consider this example from Alaska. For more than a decade a federal government agency has been working on a costly clean-up of a remote former military site located in a tribe’s customary and traditional use area. Historically the site was used seasonally for subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering and for a period during the military presence was the site of a permanent village. The relationship between the federal government agency and the tribe has been divisive. Conflict resolution to establish a productive dialogue with all parties involved has not met with any hopes for success.
Despite efforts to establish an overarching dialogue government agencies have been challenged to move outside the prescribed lines of their programs: regulatory, contaminated sites clean-up, and public health. The tribe wanted more of an opportunity to express their concerns and when they were given the opportunity recently and the following is the story that emerged.
The river that drains the area of the former military site was described as a lifeline for the people living there, “year long supply of fish,” and other subsistence species as well as the source of drinking water for the village. At some point there was a dramatic decline in the water quality and productivity of the river that coincided with the military presence. The people cited several reasons for the decline including military activity that allowed contaminants from raw sewage and catastrophic fuel spills to reach the river.
People described what followed as, “once the contamination began the fish dwindled to nothing,” “fishing went real bad, real fast,” “not enough fish to last through winter,” and “hard times.” In the winter time food became so scarce that people began to eat food waste thrown into dumpsites by the military. One person recounted seeing military personnel dump garbage on the heads of the people who were searching for food waste. Another told of military cooks that discarded fully cooked, carefully wrapped meat to the dump so that the people could find it to eat. Everything that was salvaged was distributed amongst the families who were “eating off of the dump.” The same dumps were used to dispose of other military waste such as batteries, paint, and abandoned fifty-five gallon drums.
It may be that this is not the first time this story has been revealed to the federal government. But there is little doubt that the government’s failure to elicit and understand the significance of this experience informs the current predicament. The failure of government to acknowledge this tragic episode contributes to the ongoing assertion of the people that, ‘something is terribly wrong here and we are the ones who have lost.’
How can people who have faced the sacrifice of a traditional way of life be made whole? This question remains unanswered but it is clear that millions of dollars in clean-up costs have not succeeded in bringing about this outcome. In fact the unexpected secondary effects of this tragic episode continue to impact government in unresolved and costly ways. The observation of one tribal member that, “to this day actually, I can still taste the sour taste and smell of waste food,” is not only disturbing but also an analogy for the on going relationship between the tribe and the federal government.
It is difficult to acknowledge loss where it is misunderstood. Our relationship with those who have experienced loss plays out within the context of our capacity to understand events through the eyes of others. In order for people to be made whole we must be able to acknowledge their sacrifice. To show that their sacrifice affects all of us humanly, deeply and leads us to a renewed effort to address wrongs real and perceived. To commence a healing conversation with those who have lost with, “I will think of you everyday.”
Author: Joe Sarcone is a regular contributor to PA TIMES. His most recent commentary was, “Social Vulnerability and Social Justice: Government’s Role in a More Equitable Society.”