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Before the Beginning

Raven, that Lying Little Bastard
by Greg Palast for
“If I had a machine gun, I’d kill every one of them white sons of bitches.” Makarka didn’t say, “white.” He used the unkind Alutiiq phrase, isuwiq-something, bleached seal.
As a bleached seal myself, I couldn’t blame him, not if you saw what I saw, the documents that British Petroleum buried deep as they could.
In my investigation of the blow-out on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, I knew key evidence could only be found in the files in the hands of the Chugach Natives of Alaska. The story involved the usual mix of big oil, suicide, murder, rock and roll, and fish. Whatever, I had to get from Asia to Alaska. To understand the full story, how America went, in two centuries, from British colony to British Petroleum colony we have to go way back to …
Alaska, before the beginning
from Vultures’ Picnic. An investigation of the One Percent. Chapter 7 as excerpted in
Raven, that lying little bastard, came to Chenega Island, where the people slept and slept because there was only darkness. From His kayak, Raven gave them a box filled with Daylight, and in return, He demanded and they gave Him a wife, Qaleratalik, “Weasel in a Summer Dress.” He fed Qaleratalik only moss from His beak, which she could not eat.
One day, when Raven was hungry, He told His grandchildren, “I have captured a huge seal just around the point.” And when His grandchildren left their fire to look, Raven ate all their food. They returned, and Raven, laughing, asked them if they found the seal although He knew that there was no seal. And so, His grandchildren died of disappointment.
Uncounted millennia later, Russians arrived on Chenega Island. They told Chief Axuna about an Old Deceiver, Satan, who lives on this Earth; and Axuna, whose name meant “Cowardly Otter Anus,” was christened and re-named Makarichemovitsky, which means “Little Bird.” Then they took Little Bird’s furs and whale oil.
The Orthodox priests in dark caftans christened another family, naming them Totemoff after the fancy sticks they worshipped, which the Russians burnt. Then, on Nuciiq Island, the priests baptized their cousins Kvasnikoff (“Whiskey- children”), kidnapped them, and abandoned them on the isolated end of an impenetrable glacier surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska. If the Whiskey-children didn’t die, Russia would gain a supply depot and whaling station conveniently located at the entrance to Prince William Sound.
Axuna already knew all about the Old Deceiver; and Axuna knew Raven, the lying bastard, wasn’t what he pretended to be, that Raven used charcoal and sorcery to appear handsomely black. For a thousand years, the Chugachmiut warned each generation that underneath, Raven is white, ugly like ice.
Mudqnò. That is all. There is no more.
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In 1867, Abraham Lincoln’s nasty little Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from the Imperial Czar for two and a half cents an acre. Of course, the Czar never actually owned it. Our young, troubled nation and Lincoln’s successor, who despised Seward and especially his “polar bear garden,” were happy to forget about Chenega village and the Chugachmiut Natives until Good Friday, 1964, two days too late to warn them . . . .
Natives of Chenega tell the story of how the ice peaks of Montague Island jumped twice a man’s height and just minutes later crashed back down.
Good Friday, March 27, 1964. At 5:36 p.m., seismologists’ machines worldwide recorded a monster shake, 9.2 on the Richter scale, shimmying down Alaska’s coast. Tsunami waves big as battleships were sure to follow. Warnings went out to coastal towns from Anchorage down to Malibu. But no message was sent to the shortwave at the Chugach Native village of Chenega in Prince William Sound near the quake’s epicenter.
Seal hunter Nicholas Kompkoff, Chenega’s chief, saw the ocean simply disappear in front of his stilt house. He knew right away the water had been sucked into a wave beyond the horizon and it would return with a vengeance.
Kompkoff shepherded his four daughters up the gravel slope toward the church on the high ground, pushing them to run as fast as possible on little legs. But not fast enough. Just as the wave hit, Nicholas reached out, grabbed the two girls closest to him and ran with one under each arm. His two other daughters were seized by the water and dragged out into the frozen Sound. One came back. Days later, Nicholas found her body stuck in the high branches of a pine tree.
Satellite telemetry indicates the Natives had way underestimated the mountain’s leap. The snow peaks of Montague Island rose thirty-three feet, then fell, sending a wave measuring eightynine feet seven inches over Chenega village.
Nicholas’s younger brother, Don, told me he was lifted by the wave but managed to grab the cross at the top of the church steeple, holding on to his life there, the only verifiable instance in which Jesus saved.
Two days after the quake, a postal plane flew over to drop the village’s mail out its window but could not find Chenega””because it wasn’t there. Of the dozens of stilt homes, every one of them was swept away””with a third of the residents still in them or fleeing. The pilot, Jimmy Firth, on a hunch and a second flyover, spotted a few wrecked pieces of the blue church roof.
Nicholas and those of his people who survived were boarded onto a res- cue boat, divided up, and dumped in Anchorage, on Tatitlek Island, and at the Eyak village in Cordova.
Over the next few years, Nicholas became both a drunk and an Orthodox priest. In 1968, Father Nicholas put a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered his jaw but missed his brain. The church’s embarrassed bishops defrocked him.
Still, each and every year on Good Friday, Nicholas and a few die-hard Chenegans would make the chilly pilgrimage by boat to the old village, to gather washed-up bones, leave one cross on the beach, and repeat an increasingly pathetic vow to return to the Sound and rebuild their homes.
Do miracles happen? I like to think so.
In March 1969, a helicopter descended from the heavens over Cordova, and a man from Humble Oil came looking for Father Nick with an offer to solve Chenega’s problems. The biggest problem of all was that Raven had given Chenegans the sun and moon but failed to give them a signed deed for the real estate. No one in the village had a piece of paper saying, “We own this.” Until they could get that piece of paper, Chenegans could not return.
The Humble man would fix that, using the powers of his company in Washington to get them the title to their island homeland. The company with the gentle name of Humble was the Alaskan subsidiary of something far less humble, Standard Oil Company, which would rename itself Exxon Corporation three years later.
“Mr. Humble” wanted only one thing in return from Nicholas: for him to sell Humble and its partners the old Chugach village of Valdez.
Valdez is a sacred place for the oil industry. The shaky geology of Alaska (“tsunamigenic subducting continental plates”) made Valdez the only spot on the whole of the state’s 44,000-mile-long coast that could handle a mammoth oil tanker port. Therefore, the Valdez property was worth, say, a couple of billion or so.
How much would the oil giants pay the Natives for Valdez? They offered Father Nicholas one dollar.
Maybe Nicholas Kompkoff was a “dumb, drunk Injun.” Maybe not. I write this at Nicholas’s grave on Evans Island, at the New Chenega village. Over here you can see the Arch Priest Nicholas Kompkoff Clinic and sobriety center and the little church with the blue cupola completed in time for Nicholas to lead his last prayers, and the two dozen little bungalows for the returned Natives, almost every one a millionaire.
Let us pause and pretend this is the happy ending. No sense jumping ahead to the tragic conclusion just yet.
Humble Oil and its less Humble parent, Exxon, came through, lobbying Congress to give Chenegans ownership of both the old village and the new one on Evans Island chosen by geologists as safe from tsunamis. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Great Earthquake, the families of New Chenega sailed to the old village to lay crosses among the ruins. Then, they sailed back to bless their new homes. It was Good Friday, 1989.
That night, at four minutes past midnight, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled more than eleven million gallons of oil. The black wave soon engulfed the old village, then the new one, and then its fishing grounds, blinding and burning every seal in their rookery, smothering all shellfish, killing a million birds, slathering contaminants across one thousand miles of waterfront, and leaving New Chenega isolated in a poisoned sea. The three thousand years of Chugachmiut life subsisting off the Sound’s waters had come to its end.
Mudqnò. That is all. There is no more.
Until March 24, 1989, the morning of the spill, no one cared if a Chugach Native dropped dead, which they did, often and young.
But, beginning four minutes past midnight, these Natives, for the lucky lawyers who caught one, became a summer house in the Hamptons, a Mercedes with all the trimmings, Rod Stewart singing you “Happy Birthday,” a younger mistress, and a new trophy wife…
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Greg Palast is the author of Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivores, released on November 14 by Penguin USA.
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