Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Response to California Medicine Man

Last night I was reading through the many excellent posts included in this week’s Grand Rounds (yes! It’s up at Health Care Law Blog). I clicked on a blog I had not visited before called California Medicine Man, written by Dr. John Ford, a physician in southern California who is on the faculty of the UCLA Medical School. I was stunned and amazed to see his post “Regarding Tundra Medicine Dreams”:

I have read extensively from the blog of this southwest Alaskan-based physician assistant. She is a incredibly authentic writer and has an amazing story to tell. Her descriptions of "tundra medicine" and her beautiful, evocative photographs are captivating.

Click on the link and read his entire post; he says even more nice things about my work. I read through his post several times, with my vision becoming blurred by the accumulating moisture. I was so deeply touched I was speechless. I wanted to respond and tell him how much I appreciated his kind words, but I wasn’t sure how to do so. Leave a comment on his post? Write him a private email? For several hours, all I could do was to hold his words like a beautiful crystal, turn them over and over, and feel the warm glow inside me that they generated.

This morning I decided to put up a post thanking him publicly, and that is what this is. I went to his blog to get the precise URL of his post, and found a new post entitled “Why I’m Not a Hunter”, inspired by my moose-hunting story from last month.

This post is an eloquent description of how many people in the lower 48 feel about hunting, and with good reason. Down there, hunting is not a necessity, it is purely recreational. Hunters quite often spend huge amounts of money on all the right gear, pay a knowledgeable guide to take them to just the right spot, kill whatever walks in range of their high-powered rifle scope, then pay a taxidermist lots of money to mount the animal’s head so they can hang it proudly in their home. If the hunter is responsible, he will pack the meat out and pay to have it processed by someone else; but he may or may not have had the knowledge and spent the time and energy to field-dress the meat properly. And when he gets the processed packages of meat back, he may or may not have much luck getting his family and friends to eat it. “Tastes too gamey,” they usually say; and they are usually right.

Hunting in southwest Alaska, at least by the people who live here, is not recreational. It is part of survival. It is necessary to a subsistence lifestyle; most families here would go hungry through the winter without a few successful hunts. Certainly, there is plenty of beef for sale in the meat department of the two grocery stores in Bethel. New York Strip steak sells for $10.79/lb. Most Yupik families in Bethel can’t afford to eat beef very often. In the villages there simply is no fresh meat for sale. The small village stores carry canned, boxed, and some frozen goods, all at prices even higher than Bethel’s. And let me say it right here: moose is fabulous! Sweet, tender, succulent, flavorful. I'll take moose over beef any time.

My friend and I are adequately compensated for our work as health care providers, and we can afford to buy fresh meat at the store. But part of one’s acceptance in this culture, and one's understanding of it, is governed by one’s participation in it. Yupik culture is entirely oriented around subsistence activities, and the people here appreciate that I participate in their activities. My credibility as a health care provider is markedly increased by the fact that I mush dogs, fish for salmon with a drift net, travel alone on the river, pick berries, and eat agutuk.

What I tried to convey in the story about my one-and-only moose hunting experience is that hunting has a completely different context here than it does in the lower 48 (or any other highly populated area of the world). Certainly, the trip I described was a tremendous experience that was a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work. There was respect, and a certain level of grace in our attitude towards the trip, the river, the people who helped us, and the moose whose life we took.

I left a very long comment to Dr. Ford’s post on hunting. I hope it did not come across as strident or defensive, as that was not my intent. It was passionate, however, which I hope did not override the context I was trying to present.

I think it is extremely difficult—if not nearly impossible—for people born and raised in urban American culture to understand just how vastly different life is here. The difference is not just about fancy houses and paved roads. It’s not just about wearing high-heeled shoes or dry-cleaned clothes. It’s not just about going to movies, plays, and nice restaurants. We don’t have all those things, and that constitutes an obvious difference; but it runs much deeper than that. Life here is about survival—in a cold, harsh, unforgiving and often cruel environment. The things that matter here are about taking care of each other and helping those around us. That is the most basic value in the Yupik tradition. Underneath all the noise, that is basically what life everywhere is about.

So, Medicine Man, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your beautiful tribute. It means more to me than you know. I think, underneath it all, we are not very different. I think our hearts are in the same place, it’s just the rest of our bodies that live in two different worlds. I hope, someday, you can make it up here for a visit.



Blogger The Medicine Man said...


I'm glad that you didn't take my "critique" of your hunting experience with your friends the wrong way! And no, I don't think we're different at all. Trust me, I admire and love your spirit. We just see this issue differently.

If that trip represented no more than a desire to provide food for your community, I would never have written what I wrote. As I mentioned, I too am a carnivore and I know where my meat comes from.

My sense from your post was that you invoked the description of Yupik Eskimo values to justify, if not in your eyes then in your friends', the mystical connotation associated with taking the life of a beautiful creature. To me, it was tantamount to reducing the act of killing to a form of conceptual art.

I understand the historical context of Yupik Eskimo beliefs and how they may have arisen centuries ago. The world has always been a “messy” place and killing for food has always been (and still is) a necessary part of it. To imbue such a bloody act with deeply mystical (and honorable) connotations seems perfectly in step with the understanding subsistence hunters had of nature in those times.

What I wished to say in my post was that such thinking that the moose “is offering itself to be taken for the hunter’s needs” is indeed fanciful and anthropomorphic. It is also self-serving in that it suggests a dignity to the act of killing that I do not believe is deserved unless done strictly for food.

If I thought that your friend was giving “thanks” for the fact that the moose remained stationary facilitating her kill for the food it provided her community (as you suggest), we wouldn't be having this discussion.

However, when I read this after-the-fact description in a later post:

“It was so incredible,” she said several times. “So absolutely incredible.” Tracy was very quiet. She simply nodded at this. Taking the animal’s offering had been a profound experience for both of them.

I am convinced that this is not the case.

For your friend, the adrenalin rush she experienced seems far more associated with the kill than with thoughts of the food she'd be bringing to her community.

Of course, I can’t reach into her mind. Only she knows the true source of the joy she realized from her action.

I’ve misjudged people before!


Thursday, October 26, 2006 1:55:00 AM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...


As an aside, "make it up here for a visit"? I'm wondering if you can use another internist!


Thursday, October 26, 2006 2:04:00 AM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

John--all I can tell you is that killing a moose is about providing food. A whole lot of food. 800 pounds of meat will feed a village for a month or a large family for an entire winter. Eating moose is one of the most-desired treats in this culture. Gifting moose is one of the most generous things a person can do. The hunter who brings home a moose has done a wonderful thing for many people.

And that aside, the act of killing an animal, especially an animal that is capable of killing you, is an adrenaline-producing experience, regardless of the reason for the act. What I tried to convey in the moose hunting story was that taking that animal's life was a very profound experience. It was not done lightly, or blythely, or with any lack of gratitude for the hugeness of the "gift". I do not know how hunting can be done any more honorably.

The Yupik truly believe that the animal has an active part in the giving and taking of the gift of its life. Perhaps that is a convenient way to reduce cognitive dissonance for the hunter; but believe me, a Yupik hunter has NO cognitive dissonance about killing a moose, a caribou, a black bear, a beaver, a musk rat, or any other food animal.

A cow is just as beautiful an animal as a moose. Its life is just as sacred. If you have ever been to a slaughterhouse, you know that the way a cow dies is far more bloody, violent and fear-producing for the animal than the single shot that killed our moose.

You repeat several times that if killing the moose is about providing food, you don't have a problem with it. I can't think of any more ways to say it. Killing a moose is about providing food. Lots of food. Going into the wilderness and camping for two weeks to bring the moose home was certainly more enjoyable than going to a slaughterhouse. That doesn't make it wrong.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 7:57:00 AM  
Anonymous rjh said...

The lower 48 still has slowly shrinking similar areas. When I was growing up in New England I had neighbors whose winter nutrition depended on the fall hunting and year round fishing. When working in Montana I had neighbors with similar dependencies on hunting.

It was not the live or die that I've seen in Alaska (Barrow, southeast). It was the difference between hunger/malnutrition and adequate food.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger scalpel said...

I'm a fan of elk too. Nice pictures here:

Wild game tastes wonderful.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous cush said...

People like Dr.Ford just "don't get it". The idea that there are people who live in the US, both Alaska and the Lower 48, who hunt to supplement the larder seems to escape him. In some cases, even in the Lower 48, this is an economic necessity. There are plenty of deer availabe to be harvested, they are pests and a danger to vehicles in many parts of the country. Sport or trophy hunting is not to my taste but the distinction between killing only for thrills and responsible hunting is "do you, or others, eat the animal?" We are, after all, the products of our evolution and generations of hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is exciting to hunt. Sentimentalization of game animals seems to me somehow silly. I don't see why anyone has to "justify" lawfully killing a game animal as long as the animal is killed cleanly and used to sustain life.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 3:17:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

rjh, scalpel and cush--

thanks for chiming in here. Of course you are correct that people hunt for necessity in rural areas of the lower 48 as well as in Alaska, and do so responsibly. Cush, your last sentence says it all.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 5:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this blog only about 72 hours ago and my first reactions have evolved into a real appreciation for the thought and contemplation and reality of life in Bethel Ak posted by a health care pa who is living in where she works and ties both the outside world and AK together. I live in AK too, in Anchorage and am Ak Native, so there's the added plus to the appreciation of your effort and concern. And I say, (i'm very new to the blogger thing and still learning and apoligy for not knowing enough yet to place my identity hence the anon).. there are sights to be seen and tundra to travel amongst the people one chooses to live and work and heal with. Respects I send.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 7:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny. I come from rural Newfoundland, from a dying culture that hunted for meat to survive (moose, seabirds, rabbits, seals). And to this day the annual moose hunt, from getting the license, to going out to get the moose has been an eagerly awaited tradition amongst the men in my family.

Do I find it barbaric? Of course. But understand, I have been away from NF for a longish time, and I am very disconnected. Do they NEED to hunt, today? Well, when I was a kid, yes, but largely not these days, however there are exceptions.

Nevertheless, it is a part of our life and livelihood. Wild game is very sought-after in that part of the world as meat, and your comparison of hunt versus slaughterhouse rings true. I am fairly certain that there is no mystical value to the hunt in the eyes of my relatives, a pragmatic bunch with little romance in them. They don't see a beautiful animal, they see a literal tonne of meat.

And after years of being disgusted by the whole thing, I finally realise that in the end, it's better than MacDonald's.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 9:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I add this because I think you'll appreciate the story. Many years ago working with adults who were receiving funds for self-managing their government funds for attendant care (mostly adults with severe CP/Quads/Para's) I had a very fun encounter of the bureaucratic kind. This particular fellow was a Cree man, incomplete quadraplegic, and very independent. And living in a very remote village. He was applying to have his attendant care funds renewed, and had to supply documents for how he used his attendant care hours. One of the things he used an attendant to help him with was hunting. This man enjoying participating in Moose hunting, and had a very adapted ATV and several friends who would help him. He also wanted his attendant to accompany him on this trips. However, 'hunting' was considered 'recreational' not subsistance, and the program would not allow this as a legitimate use of his attendant care hours. In fact it was outright banned. He and I spoke at length on the phone about how to fight this restriction, as we agreed the rules had been written for an entirely different setting, and shouldn't really apply to subsistance hunting. In the end, we decided that the hours would be logged as 'outdoor grocery shopping'. His funding was approved. T.C.

Friday, October 27, 2006 7:50:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Anonymous Alaska Native in Anchorage--thanks so much for visiting, and for leaving a comment. I hope you will visit often and read through the archives. Welcome to TMD!

NewDoc--yes, definitely better than MacDonalds, in so many ways. It is interesting to me (and to Traveling Doc of Borneo Breezes, who suggested it) how immersion in a culture different from one's own leads one to adopt the mores and belief structures of the new culture, despite them being at odds with what one came from. I wonder if you found the moose hunt "disgusting" when you lived in Newfoundland, or only after you left. Thanks for visiting; I hope you'll come back. And good luck in your residency!

Anonymous 7:50:36--what a GREAT story! Thanks so much for sharing that. Good for him (and you) for finding a way around the bureaucratic mindset that totally doesn't get it. Outdoor grocery shopping had Dutch and me both laughing out loud!

Saturday, October 28, 2006 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi TundraPA:

I don't actually find the hunt disgusting, but I did go through the teenage city-girl thing of wanting to be a vegetarian etc. In my case a phase, because I was rebelling against my culture and trying to find a new niche... same old same old. And this was while in NF.

With time and distance, I can reconsider my attitudes. Ask me about Paul McCartney and Greenpeace vs the seal hunt and you'll get a rant about context.

And about immersion in a new culture, well, of course. If you don't adapt to your new environment and adjust your attitudes, you can get very mired without good reason. Living in a village in Malawi for three years taught me that. Atheist is fine in Canada, but you have to go to church in the village. Guinea pigs are cute pets, but they are also fantastic livestock. It's not about pretense, it's about social norms, practicality, and acceptability.

And Outdoor Grocery Shopping? That is creative. Great story.

Sunday, October 29, 2006 1:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hunt or not to hunt. The meat most families eat comes from meat farms. Are they more humane than a hunt. I doubt it.

Monday, October 30, 2006 2:30:00 PM  

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