The worldwide Augustana College experience

Stepping into someone else’s mining boats

July 11

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mocking Bird

I am fond of reminding our students that one of the benefits of a broad liberal arts education is that you can view the world through the eyes of others. Great literature helps us do this, as well as carefully studying important characters in history. Likewise, I urge students to get to know those classmates who come from different backgrounds and view the world through their eyes.
We’ve been doing exactly this during our trip. We had the chance in Dawson City to spend a morning at a family-owned gold placer mine. A placer mine uses high-powered water hoses to melt the permafrost and strip the ground away to get to the gravel layer that might hold gold. Once at the gravel layer, the miners use a series of machines to concentrate the pay dirt and then sluices and a special wheel to sift out the gold. The older way involved panning, and our hosts now compete in gold-panning competitions. During the visit, I donned miner’s boots, filled a gold pan with gravel and stood in the creek to wash the gravel and dirt away to find gold.
I had been opposed to placer mining because it makes a mess of the land. But interacting with the grandson of the founder of the mine, I started to reconsider. Placer mining, unlike other types of gold mining, simply washes the gold from the gravel, unless other types of hard-rock mining that use cyanide and mercury to separate the gold from rock. It is extremely hard work for little pay-off most years. Demand for gold was not created by these miners but created by us as we use gold for jewelry, investments and other uses. The spirit of the owners of the placer mine reminded me the spirit of family farmers closer to home.
I’ve questioned other assumptions in the Arctic also. For example, I could not understand the harvesting of seals and whales by indigenous peoples. The methods of harvest seemed so cruel and seemed unsustainable. After having dinner with an Inuit family, I now question my opposition to those practices. First, native peoples have adopted newer practices to make the kills quicker and more humane. Second, they work closely with governments to insure that they do not harvest too many animals to deplete the sustainable stocks. And third, and most important, harvesting these animals is a part of their history, culture, identity and spirituality.
We’ve had many experiences that have help us walk in the shoes of others. Sitting around the campfire with First Nation’s friends we made in Churchill, learning about the horrors of forced residential schools for First Nation’s people. Having lunch with G’wichen elder, who described the healing powers of native plants. Having breakfast with the truck drivers for oil exploration companies. Walking in the shoes of others doesn’t always persuade us to change our views, but it does make our own views more enlightened.
Oh, as to gold panning, I was successful! Three small specks of gold, barely visible to the human eye. At this rate, after 100 days of gold panning, I might have enough to trade for a Grande Latte at Starbucks! Jane also found specks of gold, but she had the added bonus of a fox coming to see what she was doing.
(See also Jane Bahls’ Arctic Adventures blog).< /br>

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