The story of the Fairbanks Four is old. So, so very old. This happened in 1997, but it was happening long before that, has happened each day since that, is happening now. 1492, 1513, 1667, 1897……in every numbered year this country counts as its own this same story is told. This story is older than any who are reading it today. As old as the first broken treaty, as old as the first proclamation. This proclamation is from 1513, but it could be from any year. They all say the same thing:
But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
Proclamations are the only promises made to Indians that never got broken. They all contain a singular threat – one hundred romantically penned variations of the same violent proclamation: cast away your story, strip away all that you are, shed yourself of the past. Take our ways into yourself so completely that you forget you ever had a story separate from the conquerer.Come to us as pilgrims, empty-handed and lost. And if you do not, we will be certain that you suffer in every imaginable way. And this suffering will be your fault.
It was and is a threat impossible to bow under, no matter its gravity. Because we, as humans, cannot shed all that we are. No matter how time marches, no matter how the world around us changes we are, all of us, born into something. Born into a story that began long before we came to this earth, that will continue long after we depart.
In Athabascan culture, in nearly every indigenous culture, there is a story. An idea. A truth. So old it cannot be cast away. It lives inside all the people who were raised with it. Taken at a mother’s breast, breathed in like a smell that can bring you to your knees with homesickness. Stained like a white porcelain cup that has held many years worth of tea. Soaked in like the faint smell of salmon on hands that have worked on the fish all day and all night. Lingering, like the scent wood smoke clings to long hair. Pieces of your distant history that remain. Traces of the place you came from. Bits of long-ago. They cannot be beaten, threatened, or proclaimed away. They remain.
The old ways. For hundreds and thousands of years, those with authority had earned it. These people lived through winters of suffering and summers of laughter, season after season of a life not lived by chance. They spent many hours in work and silence. They found stories in dreams and memory, through all of these things, they were listening. And in this way, authority came to them. A kind of medicine. Chiefs. Healers. Elders. Old warriors. Grandmothers. Among this people, authority was bestowed by fate and by time onto those who deserved it. And authority of this kind could be trusted. They, above all others, could be trusted. Their truth held more power than yours, their truth is more true. And that was the old way.
Yet, it is a new time. And in the new time came authority in new forms, it came to these en differently. Strong-armed, stolen, grabbed, wrestled from the hands of others. A kind of authority taken through vows, seminary, schools, presented in paper certificates, draped on in sashes, pinned on as badges.
You can scream at the top of your lungs, claw at the earth, write until your fingers bleed, and it is still so hard, so very very hard, to show someone a story like this one – so old, so buried, so deep. A story that refuses to rise out of the dream realm, a story that lingers in the in-between, a story that seems never told, just known or not known.
I have to tell you that story. Somehow.
No one wants race to be an issue in this case. No one wants race to be an issue at all. But in some ways we are all beholden to our history. When authority as defined by colonialism encounters children from a culture with a different concept of authority entirely, history bursts into reality. The two parts do not fit they way we wish they did. And it doesn’t make anyone wrong, it simply proves that everyone is human, and that we are not after all exactly the same.
In 1997 in Fairbanks, Alaska there were men in power who issued a proclamation. Not written, not official. Unspoken. Painfully familiar. So very real. We heard it – all the kids that ran around those dismal streets in the 90’s, always afraid, always looking over our shoulders. It shuddered through the air when the cars rolled into Midtown, crept through our streets. When they screeched toward us we could hear it between the pulses of the siren. It came from the static on their radios. We could hear it in our bones……we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Police and of their Court; we shall take you, and your women and your children, and shall make slaves of you all. We shall sell and dispose of you as the Court may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can – and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, not ours.
We were afraid of these men. We had fair reason to be. Nothing but little kids, chased and caught, pushed and harmed, by grown men. A deeper reason, too. Something like the way the fish moves from just the slight shadow of the spear, the way any animal knows when what would end it lurks near. We feared these men who were somehow also people with authority. We knew that there was something in us they sought to punish. And it shames me still to say it, but if we could have cast it away and freed ourselves of the dogs at our heels, I think we would have. But we couldn’t. And we didn’t know how to stand up against it.
Inside us with that fear – lingering, stronger – was a very old way. A way that whispered a contradiction: these men have authority. They possess a truth greater than our own. Perhaps not earned, but there nonetheless. They will tie you to a chair. Lock you away. Steal you from your family. Cut your tongue, take your breath, try, try to take away the story.
So, when they came to take away the simple truth from a dozen and more young Indians, they got what they wanted. Or at least, they thought they did.
Underneath, the truth remained. Proclamations were fulfilled and treaties broken, but still something kept the people and their story alive.The truth waited. It never changed and it grew only stronger. Because in these last fourteen years we did the work of remembering. Remembering that you cannot take away a person’s story. You cannot abduct, handcuff, beat down, or lock up the truth.
Some of us do not make proclamations or treaties. Some still prefer to lay in wait, to rely on truth and prophecy, to do our work and let the world do its work. So, we will not proclaim to you that something has changed. But we will be here, as present and as peaceful as shadows in the grass, because we have never left. And we are content simply to know, to feel the years blow through like winds, the push of something coming up through the soil. There is no proclamation, only the truth. We know what comes next. See, this is still our story, this is still a story where truth outlasts and outsmarts deceit.
We know the ending.