Dark side of the Moon

Published: Wed, 10/06/2010 - 08:44 Updated: Wed, 10/06/2010 - 08:50

It's not all rosy in America. The shadowlines are stark
Amit Sengupta 

In the undulating Cascadias of the magnificent cascades, around the majestic Columbia River Gorge and the extinct volcano of Mount Hood, surrounded by tall mountains and thick conifer forests, where several dams are built, and beyond Oregon city, established in 1829 with a lumber mill near the confluence of the Clackamas river, the landscape is stalked by memories and oral narratives of the 'Red Indian' and indigenous tribes who lived here for centuries. This was their original homeland, now nothing but an imagined homeland of an imagined community.

In the exhibition hall next to the magnificent Multnomah Falls, just before the Horsetail Falls, the history of the various tribes who once nourished and protected this vast expanse of amazing nature is depicted with sensitivity. They once lived here, owned and belonged to this great ecological bio- diversity, with miraculous waterfalls, rivers, bird, wildlife, flora and fauna and endless forests; but like the millions of Salmon fish in the original Columbia River, eliminated and damned by big dams, they too have disappeared or become extinct, damned by the 'invading American modernity'. Some of them are 'protected' inside 'Native American Reservations' and there are stories of their abysmal living conditions, mental instabilities, drug and drink addiction, bad health and educational conditions, acute poverty, even media reports of sexual assaults. Most Americans, even concerned activists and intellectuals, don't seem to have ever interacted with them. Ironically, they have been given casino licenses, whereby rich tourists get to enjoy their gambling - the superfast highways often show big hoardings of tempting casinos - and native history, whatever tragic little remains of the day they may be.

Eric Mortenson, senior journal¬ist with The Oregonian at Portland, says he went to a school with Native American kids at Celilo village, on the HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_River" \o "Columbia River" Columbia River in northeastern HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasco_County,_Oregon" \o "Wasco County, Oregon" Wasco County in HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Or¬egon" \o "Oregon" Oregon. It is near HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Celilo" \o "Lake Celilo" Lake Celilo, the former site of HYPER¬LINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celilo_Falls" \o "Celilo Falls" Celilo Falls. In 2003, about 100 permanent residents lived in 14 dwellings. The site was once a major cultural and trading center, until HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celilo_Falls" \o "Celilo Falls" Celilo Falls was inundated by HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dalles_Dam" \o "The Dalles Dam" the Dalles Dam in 1957.

A census in 2000 found 44 persons of the original tribe still living, though they are denied their rights to fish in their original river. Mortenson said he once went to the 'rehab village' and found one of his school classmates. It's like a tragic time warp rewind, detached from the post-modernity of advanced capitalism, beyond even the welfare state of Oregon.At least 40 per cent children in Oregon are malnourished, while only 20 per cent schools have kitchens, informed former journalist Dalton Hobbs, now Assistant Director in the Oregon Department of Agriculture at Salem. "Bureaucrats prohibit real, meaningful innovation," he says, even while thousands have lost jobs. "No one wants to talk about it, but that's it." These children belong to single or jobless or 'between jobs' parents, and life is tough and bleak for them, even while a large number suffer the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. "Kids are getting high carbohydrate food with fat and sugar, and we are going to have a big problem treating all this. We are trying to encourage healthy food and reading habits, but it's a tall order," says Hobbs. 

At Sacramento and San Fracisco in California, citizen's groups are concerned with rampant obesity, drug and alcohol addiction, absence of primary and higher education, and a serious crunch in health facilities. "You can buy a fattening cheese burger cheap, but you can't get a healthy apple to eat," said Scott Clark, of the Local Government Commission at Sacramento. "Obesity is a big problem across the US, especially among the deprived."

"There is a sharp social difference in educational standards and accessibility for kids in California," said Patrick Murphy, Professor of Political Science at the University of San Francisco. "The best schools in affluent neighbourhoods attract the best teachers and students from rich families. The exact opposite is in poor neighbourhoods, where they can't even build a laboratory and playground." 
Despite unemployment and social welfare doles, life is dark in the dingy neighbourhoods of 'inner cities' inhabited by the low income group and poor population, mostly Latinos, Puerto Ricans, Afro-Americans and others. Schools, transport and health systems, follow the class trajectory of their social backdrops, and so do class divisions, poverty, alienation and marginalisation of communities. "Those who live and walk in upper class downtown business districts, avoid the 'inner city neighbourhoods'. There is a certain fear of the unknown out there," said an NGO employee.

A city official informed that gang wars and sex trafficking is becoming a big headache in Portland. Across the clean, clinical streets of Sacramento, and the vibrant squares of San Francisco, homeless men are pushing carts with their dirty beddings, young girls are standing with placards asking for help (one said, 'I don't want to prostitute, I don't have any work, So where does it leave me?'), even at Portland a middle-aged woman in a street crossing pleaded, "Please, listen, please, listen to me..."

Across major crossings on highways, or under bridges and flyovers, the homeless stand with placards, or erect make-shift homes. This reporter saw an old couple under a huge highway bridge, cuddled up in rags, staring at nothingness, as if they were watching a reality show on TV. So how real will this winter be for them?

It’s not all rosy in America. The shadowlines are stark
Amit Sengupta

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This story is from print issue of HardNews