Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2006

Arctic Son

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

Film crew with Stanley Njootli Jr. and Sr.

Alongside "Smoke Signals" and "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner," the new documentary "Arctic Son" is distinguished by its depth of understanding about indigenous life as well as its ability to tell a story, a sine qua non for any film.

"Arctic Son" refers to Stanley Njootli Jr., a young member of the Gwichin Nation that is spread across Alaska and the Yukon Territory. When the film starts, we see Stanley Jr. getting drunk in a Seattle bar. As is the case with far too many Indians, the temptation to abuse drugs and alcohol is enormous. Although he calls this "partying," one can only feel pity for this deracinated youth. When he is seen weaving across the street after leaving the bar, some friends shout out to him from a passing car, "Go get treatment, Stanley, get treatment." He stands in the middle of the street and curses them out.

The movie documents his visit with his father Stanley Njootli Sr., who tries to live according to Indian customs in Old Crow, a tiny village in the Yukon that is home to the "Vuntut Gwichin," which means "People of the Lakes." After learning about his son's dissolute life-style, his father (who is separated from the mom who lives in Seattle) invites him up to Old Crow to wean him away from drugs and alcohol and to teach him Indian ways. There certainly will be fewer temptations in Old Crow as the town has a drinking ban. We do eventually learn that there are ways around this as there would be in any Indian reservation. People desperate enough will make their own home brew with anything that is handy, including potatoes.

Although Stanley Jr. has little to live for, he holds out hope that he can become an artist. Throughout the film, we see him almost constantly at work on drawings. His work incorporates elements of hope–such as a rainbow–mixed with hellish imagery. It certainly can be said that his work mirrors his life experience.

Stanley Sr. lives in a Spartan fashion in a Spartan village, where indoor entertainment consists mostly of telling anecdotes, playing cards or listening to the radio. This is not to say that he is ever bored. He is far too busy mending fishing nets or tending to his dog team to ever complain about boredom. Moreover, he can always entertain himself by singing traditional (but not Indian!) songs like "In the Pines":

In the pines
In the pines
The sun never shines
And we shiver
When the north wind blows

That song sets the mood completely for life around Old Crow, which is inaccessible by road. To get around you need a boat, a plane or a dog sled. You can also use a snowmobile that for the Gwich'in serves the same purpose as the horse served for the Northern Plains Indians in the 19th century. It is an essential tool for navigating and making use of the environment, just as is the rifle and the flashlight.

In the film's main action, father and son travel by snowmobile across miles and miles of deep snow to get to the Yukon River where they will fish and hunt for Caribou. Stanley Sr. makes expert use of both new technology and ancient ones as he shows his son how to live off the land. It is just another demonstration of the ability of native peoples to adapt to the modern world while preserving values that sustained them before they were colonized by the Europeans.

Although they never once discuss issues of their relationship to each other as father and son, it is obvious that this is on their mind every moment they are together. Stanley Sr. takes a gruff attitude toward his son, but it is obvious that he loves him. While Stanley Jr. complains constantly about the lack of entertainment in Old Crow, it soon becomes obvious that he is bonding both with his father and this remote, foreboding but extremely beautiful wilderness.

Although the film focuses almost exclusively on the father and son relationship, there are occasional references to the outside forces that threaten indigenous life. The most acute of these is global warming which is rapidly changing the ecology of the region and threatening the natural balance between wildlife, the land and water that sustain them and the native peoples who seek to co-exist with them. Stanley Sr. says that the temperature has begun to reach 80 degrees in summer, the first time in his memory. When it gets hot in an urban area, one can always turn on an air conditioner. In the Yukon, the consequences are much direr if your livelihood depends on Caribou herds.

There are other threats as well that like so many others in the world today are connected to the deadly nexus of fossil fuel production and consumption:

Scotland on Sunday, June 17, 2001

Rajesh Mirchandani Visits The Gwichin Indians Who Fear Bush's Plans To Allow Oil Exploration In Alaska In Defiance Of Kyoto

By Rajesh Mirchandani

"WHEN we have a new class," says 22-year-old Tonya, "we have to stand up and say who we are. I always say I'm Gwichin."

Tonya studies in Alaska's second city Fairbanks but comes from Arctic Village, a tiny community of Gwichin Indians 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Around 120 people live here in a ragged cluster of log cabins in a wide valley bordering the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The snow is knee -deep, although the sunshine means it's not cold: in fact, the sun won't set from now until the end of summer.

There are no roads to Arctic Village; the only way in is by small plane: the nearest settlement is half an hour's flying away. The only buildings with running water are the village's 'washeteria' and the small school house. More than half the population is of school age and take lessons here. Some of the older ones go on to college in cities like Fairbanks and Anchorage but choose to return.

Tonya explains: "There's nothing to do in Fairbanks, just go to the movies or the mall. Here we are always busy, there are people visiting or there are community things going on."

The Gwichin – sometimes called the Caribou People – used to be nomadic but were forced to settle by the need to have contact with a modern infrastructure, namely a landing strip. They are fiercely independent and suspicious of strangers. Their history is bound up with the porcupine caribou, a type of reindeer. The herd numbers more than 100,000 and every spring they migrate from north-west Canada to the coastal plain of the ANWR, turning south into Gwichin lands in the summer.

Village elders talk of dreaming of the caribou and being able to predict their arrival. One of them, Trimble, told us: "We know this valley so well that the slightest change will be a sign to us that the caribou are on their way. When they come we are happy."

The connection is ancient and spiritual, but a necessity too: caribou meat makes up nearly 80% of the Gwichin diet. In the late summer whole families spend up to a month living on the mountains hunting the animals, storing all the meat they can to see them far into the harsh winter.

But the Gwichin fear that disaster looms for the caribou herd because their breeding ground, the coastal plain of the ANWR, is the exact region earmarked for oil exploration.

Exploration has shown, as Bill van Dyke of the Alaskan division of Oil and Gas put it, "the right rocks are there." Estimates suggest there may be enough oil in the ANWR to supply 5% of America's needs for around 30 years.

President Bush is adamant that America must cut its dependence on foreign oil. Adverts on American TV paid for by the oil lobby talk of states like "Iraq holding the key to the US economy." Add to this increasingly frequent power cuts in big cities like Los Angeles and raising domestic energy production seems an obvious solution.

But the environmental lobby argues that such wilful destruction of a pristine environment is avoidable. Deborah Williams of the Alaska Conservation Foundation said: "It would take only a 1-2% increase in the fuel efficiency of the American vehicle fleet to obviate the need to develop the ANWR."

Back in Arctic Village Sarah James takes one tea bag and dunks it by turn into three cups. The water has been heated up in her microwave because she doesn't have any propane to fuel her stove. Now in her 60s, she is the feisty matriarch of this community and has heard every single argument for and against oil development in the ANWR.

"Of course the caribou will be hurt," she says. "It is a breeding ground, it is sacred, every mother knows. The caribou cannot breed anywhere else because there are too many predators. They have nowhere else to go." It is clear she believes the same is true for the Gwichin.

In a large, warm cabin further up the village, Tonya is making sandwiches and putting them in a big box: tuna on one side, peanut-butter-and-jam on the other. They are for the local Gwichin chiefs, arriving that day for a meeting to discuss the ANWR. On the stove is moose stew. It looks like beef but tastes like lamb.

"If we were to lose this way of life I don't know how I would be able to define myself. I would lose my self-identity," she said, laughing nervously as if it's a thought she has never had to entertain before.

Sitting watching her is 14-year-old, Gerald, who tells me his favourite pastimes are duck-hunting and ice-fishing. Asked if he will stay in Arctic Village, he says: "Dunno, can't tell the future. But I'd like to. It's quiet… you can hear the birds."



  1. this is me in the real world where two major rivers meet in my life. then crash and erode into many channels of water. there are many to take.

    Comment by sgnjr-111 — September 7, 2006 @ 9:37 am

  2. outstanding. This is the best doc…..hands down , I have ever seen with complete enjoyment and entertainment. To watch a relationship between a father and son rekindle, reform and rebirth was wonderful. The complexity was not only in the enviorment but in the struggle and difficulty to agree, conform, assist,and communicate…at first. Once it came togther they were beutiful.

    mIKE Donegsn.

    Comment by Mike Donegan — August 23, 2007 @ 2:47 am

  3. I was engulfed all the way through. There’s so much of Jr. in me that it isn’t funny. Wonderful storytelling by the camera. It’s heartwarming to see the transition both men make. The past is never discussed, and both men try to just ‘start’ and go from there. An award worthy docu.

    Comment by Ryan — August 28, 2007 @ 8:45 pm

  4. […] enough, the movie reminded me very much of Arctic Son, another movie about the clash between nature and “civilization” focused on a father […]

    Pingback by Alamar « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 14, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

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