Meeting two Alaskan Eskimos Saturday this past afternoon brought me back to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, the Cree Indian community where I lived for two years beginning in August 1964. " Fort Chip," while still located on the North American continent, was a world quite separate and apart from Todd's Trailer Court, where we had been living, Todd's another kind of different and alienated world, situated just east of Aurora upon the eastern Colorado prairie, similarly socially isolated like Fort Chipewyan, proving once again, as if further evidence was required, that discrimination prospers everywhere in any and all environments.
Due north of Edmonton by approximately 350 miles, Fort Chipewyan is a historic fur trading post founded by Peter Pond at the southwesterly end of 170 mile long Lake Athabasca in far northern Alberta. Why my father took us way up there to the northern tundra is one story. And another of many other stories were the Woodland Cree themselves, relative innocents haphazardly floating upon an artificially created culture constructed (and operated) jointly by the Canadian government and its religious surrogates, the Roman Catholic Church, two less than benign institutions slowly strangling the Cree minute by hour by day by year.
This is what I saw and lived peripherally, witnessing an ongoing anguish and abuse translating into the day to day lives of a people imprisoned by another, the local Cree forced to transform from what they were into something that was never intended: from an aboriginal people designed to live in the frozen wilderness that is their special home to instead, forcibly adopting a lifestyle imported from French and British Europe and brought to Canada. But no, they were told, you must be someone and something else, and if you die, and if you go crazy, well, so you do---adapt or perish, no other option made available.
Which brings me to Robby and MJ, two Yupik Eskimos I met late Saturday afternoon, two individuals adrift but currently assigned to a seafood processing ship introducing them, and for the very first time, to a state in the lower Forty-eight. Robby came first, coming out of a Ballard bar needing to cash a check because the not-so-friendly folks at the Ballard Bank of America branch refused to serve him due to a firm 1:00 PM closing time. Taking him to the Greenwood Money Tree, our next destination was to to pick up a passed-put MJ who was sleeping off a drunken bout somewhere behind the Ballard Fred Meyers store. Due back at six, they were both facing a 16-hour shift off-hauling frozen hake.
Coming out of the Money Tree, Robby suddenly announced that he wanted to go to a strip club. Intervening I strongly suggested that instead we continue on to the sleeping MJ, which Robby quickly agreed was the best plan. They were a couple, and I assume married, as I later saw a wedding ring on MJ's hand. I have no comment upon Robby other than he too had been drinking. I did request that he give up his bottle but refusing as we drove toward the Fred Meyers.
Finding MJ behind a large shipping container, we got her up and eventually in the cab. One motivation for MJ's afternoon binge was the sudden news of a best friend dying in her sleep a mere five days previously, MJ's constant tears testament to her grief.
Taking them to Starbuck's around the corner, we all drank coffee and talked about what had been happening. With both lacking sleep, neither were looking forward to their upcoming long shift. Beyond some trifle arguing, they were fairly amiable, and pleasant, both polite to me.
Upon understanding that the meter was still running, MJ pressed us to go, not pleased that it was nearing 60 dollars. Dropping them off at the Pier 90/91 gate, MJ gave me a innocent smile 30,000 thousand years in the making, coming across from Siberia and the Bering Strait to the Norton Sound, and as I said, transporting me back to Fort Chipewyan and one person in particular, the sixteen year old Dorothy Cardinal singing the Herman Hermit's hit to me "Can you hear my heart beat?" and yes, all these years later, I can.