“Those birds are pretty dumb. Why don’t they get out of the way?” We are bouncing down a narrow two-track road, headed to the north side of the island for a walk along the shore. I’m guiding two clients, who came to the island to take photos of puffins and Arctic foxes. We’re driving slowly, because there are lots of fledgling Lapland Longspurs and Rock Sandpipers on the road, and I’m trying not to run over them. “Well,” I explain patiently, “they’re young birds and they’re just learning how to fly. Some of them might not even have all their flight feathers yet. The road is smooth and is a good runway for them to practice taking off and landing. See how thick the vegetation is, off to the side? That probably looks like a wall, a big forest, from their perspective. Maybe they’ve never seen a car before. We don’t drive out here very often. They don’t know what a car is.” I stop the van at one point, get out and chase a fluffy Rock Sandpiper chick down the road for a bit, and am able to catch it and set it gently off to the side. Otherwise, it may have kept running down the road ahead of us until it exhausted itself, or we ran over it. “Sorry, little one,” I whisper to the chick, as I release it from my big paws. “Take it easy, and watch out for foxes!”
The birds aren’t dumb. Their reality is simply different than ours.
Last week, a cruise ship visited the island. I rode along in the bus with the visitors, on the way out to the seabird cliffs. Neon, one of my co-workers and a local who grew up here, was driving the bus. The cruise ship people asked me questions. One of them was: “How do people make a living here?” Sometimes I feel funny, answering questions about the locals (since I am not one), so I yelled up to the front of the bus, “Hey, Neon! How do people make a living here?” He answered, “We fish, and hunt reindeer, and order groceries from the internet.” The cruise ship folks looked puzzled, so I said, “People work for the Tribe, the City, the airport, the grocery store, the clinic, do construction, fish for halibut…” But I was smiling inside, getting a kick out of Neon’s answer. “How do you make a living” to him means “where do you get your food.”
On my day off, I stop in at the civic center, where the Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. Paul Island holds language classes. I’m interested in learning some Unangam (Aleut), especially words for birds, plants, and animals. When I open the door to the Arctic entry, there are lots of shoes and boots lined up. I slip off my shoes and leave them with the rest. Reaching for the interior door, I see a small poster showing two Native Alaskan women, dressed in traditional clothing. They are hugging a Holstein calf. The poster says, “Don’t Kill Baby Veals!” and across the bottom, “Be aware of cultural differences.” I laugh out loud, which goes to show that my attitude has changed since I was a kid, when I had a baby seal poster on my bedroom wall. Yep, humans’ interactions with animals are complex; as a cornfed mid-westerner who drinks milk and eats a lot of cheese, I probably shouldn’t judge those who use animals in different ways. If anyone offers me a baby seal shoulder at the Labor Day barbeque, I will definitely try it.
Cultural sensitivity. Is it learned? Can it be taught? I think so, but, unless there is behavior occurring that’s negatively affecting the wildlife or the human community members here, I’m not sure being the teacher is necessarily my role this summer. As a guide, the clients are my customers, and I feel uncomfortable correcting them. Most of the clients are lovely, or at least okay to be around. But occasionally I find myself gritting my teeth and faking my laughter. Some clients tell stories like this: “I was in a village in ______ (names African country). The people there live mostly in a state of undress, and I mean that literally. One woman was flirting with me – at least I think she was – and asked me how many horses I have. I told her I had three-hundred and eighty: they’re under the hood of my Lexus! Heh heh heh! She was impressed. And I don’t think she even knew what a Lexus is.”
I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to be aware of others’ perspectives and my own errors, and learn from my mistakes. When I was seventeen, a friend and I took a road trip to the East Coast, and eventually ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. We were walking through a market and crafts area, and I took a photo of a woman who was sitting and weaving a basket. She yelled at me. “What’s wrong with you, taking my picture without asking? I’m not on display here!” I was mortified, and a little scared, and shamefacedly walked away without apologizing. But now I’m glad she taught me that lesson. I never made the same mistake again!
In my defense, what experiences had I had up to that point in life? I grew up in a mostly-white, suburban community. I was the photographer for the yearbook, and my schoolmates were used to having me around, snapping photos. I’d been to a few living history museums, and Disneyworld and Epcot Center, and the Renaissance Festival, where hired performers act out traditional crafts. And my mom is a basket weaver, so I was genuinely interested in the work that the Charleston lady was doing. I felt too shy to actually speak to her. So, I hid behind my camera. But I didn’t hide quite well enough.
Now, I could say that she was a big mean black woman who yelled at me and didn’t understand my culture or respect where I was coming from, but that would be absurd. I was in her town, invading her privacy, and had behaved badly. That’s how she saw it. And she was right.