At the far side of Alaska’s Kenai Fjord glacier, a heavily armed rock-and-roll band held lock-down control of the politics and treasury of Nanwalek, a Chugach village, until four years ago.
Rock came to the enclave at the bottom of Prince William Sound in the 1950s when Chief Vincent Kvasnikoff found an electric guitar washed up on the beach. By the next morning, he had mastered it sufficiently to play passable covers of Elvis tunes. Of all the lies the natives told me over the years, this seemed the most benign.
We sat in the chief’s kitchen facing an elaborate Russian Orthodox altar. It was a golden day, late summer at the end of the salmon run, but the chief’s 18-year-old nephew hung out in the bungalow watching Fred Astaire movies. Fishing was excellent, the chief assured me. He’d taken 12 seal this year. I didn’t challenge the old man, legless in his wheel chair. Everyone knew he’d lost the boat when the bank his fishing license. Besides, the seal had been poisoned eight years earlier in 1989.
On Good Friday 1964, the snow-peaked mountains of Montague Island rose 26 feet in the air, then dropped back 12 feet, sending a tidal wave through the Sound. In the village of Chenega, Chugach seal hunter Nikolas Kompkoff ran his four daughters out of their stilt house and raced up an ice-covered slope. Just before the wall of water hit, he grabbed the two girls closest, one under each arm, ran ahead, then watched his other two daughters wash out into the Sound.
Chenega disappeared. Not one of the homes, not even the sturdier church, remained. A third of the natives drowned. Over the next 20 years, Chenegans scattered across the Sound, some to temporary huts in other villages, others to Anchorage. Every Holy Week, they sailed to the old village, laid crosses on the debris and Kompkoff would announce another plan to rebuild. As the prospect of a New Chenega receded into improbability, Nikolas became, by turns, an Orthodox priest, a notorious alcoholic and failed suicide. He was defrocked for the attempt.
In 1982, Nikolas convinced his nephew Larry Evanoff to spend his savings building a boat that could traverse the Sound. The boat was not finished until the winter had set in. Nevertheless, he sailed to Evans Island with his wife and two children. They built a cabin and, for two years, without phone or short-wave radio, a hundred miles from any road, they lived off seal, bear and salmon while they cleared the land for New Chenega. Over the next seven years, 26 of Chenega’s refugee families joined the Evanoffs and, with scrap wood from an abandoned herring saltery, built a tiny church with a blue roof for Nikolas Kompkoff, whom they still called ‘Father’.
On 24 March 1989, they commemorated the 25th anniversary of the tidal wave. The same night, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground and killed the fish, smothered the clam beds and poisoned the seal.
In mid-century, the average life expectancy for Chugach natives was 38 years. They had next to nothing by way of cash and the state moved to take even that away. ‘Limited entry’ laws barred them from selling the catch from their traditional fishing grounds unless they purchased permits that few could afford. They did have tenuous ownership of wilderness, villages and campsites, however. In 1969, America’s largest oil deposit was discovered on Alaska’s North. The Chugach campsite on Valdez harbor was the only place on the entire coast that could support an oil tanker terminal. The strip of land grew in value to hundreds of millions of dollars. In June of that year, Chief Vincent’s father Sarjius, representing Nanwalek, and ‘Father’ Nikolas, representing the non-existent Chenega, agreed to sell Valdez to BP and Humble Oil (later called ‘Exxon’) – for one dollar.
The Alaskan natives could not afford legal counsel, so they were grateful when Clifford Groh, head of Alaska’s Republican Party and the most powerful attorney in Alaska, volunteered to represent them without charge against the oil companies. Some months after signing the sale of Valdez, Groh took on work representing his biggest client yet, ‘Alyeska’ – the BP-Exxon oil pipeline consortium.
Before he was done with the Chugach, Groh transformed them utterly and forever. Groh incorporated them. The tribe became Chugach Corporation; the villages Chenega Corporation and English Bay (Nanwalek) Corporation. The chiefs’ powers were taken over by corporate presidents and CEOs; tribal councils by boards of directors. Once tribe members, the Sound’s natives became shareholders – at least for the few years until the stock was sold, bequeathed, dispersed. Today, only 11 of Chenega’s 69 original ‘shareholders’
live on the island.
I first met the president of Chenega Corporation, Charles ‘Chuck’ Totemoff soon after the spill when he missed our meeting to negotiate with Exxon. I found him wandering the village’s pathway in soiled jeans, stoned and hung over, avoiding the corporate ‘office’, an old cabin near the fishing dock. Years later, I met him again at Chenega Corporation’s glass and steel office tower in Anchorage. The stern, long-sober executive sat behind a mahogany desk and an unused laptop. A huge map of Chenega’s property covered the wall,
colour-coded for timber logging, real estate and resort development.
It took a month for the Exxon Valdez oil slick to reach Nanwalek. Still, Exxon had not provided even simple rubber barriers to protect the five lakes that spawned the salmon and fed the razor clams, sea lions, bidarki snails, seal – and the people of the ice. But when the oil did arrive, Exxon put virtually the entire populace of 270 on its payroll.
The place went WILD. They gave us rags and buckets, US$16-something an hour to wipe off rocks, to BABY-SIT OUR OWN CHILDREN.’ In this roadless village that had survived with little cash or store-bought food, the chief’s sister told me: ‘They flew in frozen pizza, satellite dishes. Guys who were on sobriety started drinking all night, beating up their wives. I mean, all that money. Man, people went BERSERK.’
With the catch dead, the banks took the few boats they had and Chief Vincent’s sister, Sally Kvasnikoff Ash, watched the village slide into an alcohol and drug-soaked lethargy. Sally said: “I felt like my skin was peeling off.’ Nanwalek’s natives call themselves Sugestoon, Real People.” After the oil, I thought: This is it. We’re over. Sugestoon, we’re gone unless something happens.’
Sally made something happen. In August 1995, the village women swept the all-male tribal council from office in an electoral coup plotted partly in the native tongue, which the men had forgotten. Sally would have become chief if Vincent, she says, hadn’t stolen two votes. Once in power, the women returned native language to the school and replaced the rock-and-roll parties
with performances of the traditional Seal and Killer Whale dances.
They put the village on a health-food regimen. ‘We’re fat,’ says Sally, who blames the store-bought diet flown in twice-weekly from city supermarkets. The council banned alcohol. To show they meant business, the women jailed Sally’s disabled Uncle Mack for bringing a six-pack into the village on his return from hospital.
The takeover set the stage for a battle with the real power, the corporation that, as owner of the land, collected millions annually from Korean logging companies. To protect its stockholders, the corporation resisted investments in hatcheries and other infrastructure which could restore fishing and shake the village out of its torpor. The corporation’s president was a white man living in Anchorage. But unlike Chenega Corporation, the Nanwalek board included village natives, Chief Vincent’s sons. They used their authority to maintain a monopoly on cigarette and junk food sales on Nanwalek. (Sally shut their lucrative operations.)
The chief’s sons’ fronted a rock band, which had built a Sound-wide reputation for dark, edgy music. They also had a reputation for violence or, at least, the threat of it. In one incident after the ‘women’s revolt’, Bobby Kvasnikoff, the band’s lead guitar, put an automatic rifle to the head of his cousin, Tommy Evans. Evans had avoided Nanwalek for years, but he’d accepted an invitation from the new council to return as health monitor. Bobby’s armed greeting was meant to convince him that some family matters should remain secret.
But secrets are badly kept in Nanwalek. Evans’ job was to staunch the spread of the HIV virus that had infected one in seven adults. It came with the oil, when Exxon’s clean-up crews shared their needles and sexual appetites with village residents. Nanwalek’s unhappy secret was the women’s discovery that children had been molested by drunk, possibly infected, relatives.
I returned to Chenega in 1997 on the worst possible day. Larry, the pioneer of New Chenega, was out leading a crew cleaning up the tonnes of crude still oozing out of Sleepy Bay eight years after. They’d lost a day’s work that week for the funeral of Frankie Gursky, an 18-year-old who had shot himself after a drink-fueled fight with his grandmother. Larry’s team scoured the beach, his family’s old fishing ground, but it wasn’t theirs any more. The day before, the corporation sold it, along with 90 per cent of Chenega’s lands, to an Exxon-BP trust for US$23 million.
‘Corporation can’t sell it,’ Larry said. ‘People can’t own land.’ He rammed a hydraulic injector under the shingle and pumped in dispersants. ‘The land was always here. We’re just passing through. We make use of it, then we pass it on.’ Nanwalek also sold. Before he died of AIDS, Bobby Kvasnikoff authorised Exxon’s purchase of 50 per cent of the village land.
I was in President ‘Chuck’ Totemoff’s office the day Exxon wired in the $23 million for Chenega. When he moved out of the village, Totemoff announced: ‘I hope I never see this place again.’ Now he doesn’t have to. I asked Chuck if, like some city-dwelling natives, he had relatives ship him traditional foods. ‘Seal meat?’ He grinned. ‘Ever smell that shit? Give me a Big Mac any time.’
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Gregory Palast worked with the Chugach Native Alaska Corporation on its inquiry into allegations of wilful deception by oil companies, which led to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989. Palast writes a fortnightly column, ‘Inside Corporate America,’ for the Observer of London.