Palast: We’re all Natives Now

The distant battles you see on TV are coming to a theater near you.

… Weeks after the [exxon valdez] spill, the president of Exxon stopped by New Chenega for a “we care” television photo-op. Village patriarch Paul Kompkoff, Nikolas’ brother, asked him, “Are my parents’ bones covered with oil?”

The official answer was that the bones were undisturbed. In fact, as I reported in my book, Vultures’ Picnic, both the oil and bones were being scooped up by Exxon bulldozers at that very moment.

The Chugach hired me to investigate the spill’s true cause and true culprits. Paul Kompkoff asked me to arrange a secret meeting with Exxon in hopes of getting a few dollars so the new village could survive. In particular, the Chenegans wanted Exxon to hire them to clean up the beaches and fishing grounds still contaminated with Exxon’s gunk.

With Chenega leader Gail Evanoff, Kompkoff and I flew from Alaska to San Diego to corner Exxon USA General Manager Otto Harrison. It was now three years after the spill and still no money had been forthcoming. The Exxon honcho, an enormous Texan, took us to a corporate meeting room, and from across the giant conference table looked down at the diminutive Evanoff and said, “Now, Gail, ah cayn’t be payin’ a bunch o’ Natives to go ’round picking up oil that ain’t there, can I?”

In 2010, I returned to Prince William Sound for British television. On the Chugach’s islands, I picked up gobs of the “oil that ain’t there” in my (carefully gloved) hand. It was more than two decades after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Then I flew down to the Gulf of Mexico where I collected giant hunks of Deepwater Horizon oil nearly a year after the spill – more oil that ain’t there,” at least according to our government and BP television ads.

In 2011, 22 years after the Alaska spill, Exxon paid for the damage – but only after the Supreme Court cut the payout by 90 percent. Part of Chenega’s money was meant for a new fishing boat for Paul Kompkoff. But he was long dead by then, as were a third of my Native clients..

I was in Chenega on the second anniversary of the Exxon spill. Paul Kompkoff and I snacked on dried salmon while we watched the first Gulf War on CNN. The U.S. Air Force was bombing the bejesus out of Baghdad.

The old man watched a long while in silence. Then said, in his slow, quiet voice, “I guess we’re all some kind of Native now.”

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