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"Down In the Dumps"

Down in the dumps, there was always nagvaaqtat ("found stuff") to be had.

Qallunaat (white people) threw out the oddest things: good china, medicine bottles, barely used clothing, barely damaged furniture.

My cousin and I had a blast until nursing station staff discovered we were using old needles as water pistols.

Other dumps were not as well supervised. At the beach, after the supply ship came in, "beach combing" became a regular summer chore for some poor Inuit families. Whatever got tossed from the ship's galley washed up on shore. Soggy onions, carrots and celery were recognizable as food; but who knew what the green, heart-shaped things were? There was no way I would eat such a thing, but I once opened one up with my trusty pocket knife, and found clumps of seeds concentrated in the middle. To me, they resembled maggots, and I wondered if that was why they had been discarded. I still don't like bell peppers.

Close to where we often camped was the grandmother of all dumps: the DEW Line dump site. Everywhere about the place lay the carcasses of old machines. Partially demolished industrial vehicles leaned into each other in the soft, sandy pit. Empty barrels lay rusting under the ever-present sun, next to leaky vehicle batteries, and drums of what looked like white mould. Sticky tar and oils covered the ground.

Something glassy shone evilly, beautifully, emitting a sickly sweet smell. It was not quite kerosene, not quite gasoline, but something else ? something bad for you.

Here and there, like crushed pale flowers, were dots of antifreeze. It all rested against the backdrop of innumerable barrels, like brownish-red hills across the horizon.

I remember standing silently, staring at that landscape, as though waiting for a garbage pick-up that never occurred. There was the cry of a gull in the distance, and the sound of the wind as it picked up sand to bury forgotten treasures.

Some of the best items were bits of plywood (wood being scarce) and polypropylene. My father even fashioned an agvik (flensing board) out of a sign, with the red letters "PROPERTY OF ..." still on it. Polystyrene made a fun toy. You could make boats out of it that would actually float.

One year, we were gifted with big yellow sheets of x-ray paper, which got turned into planes, hats, and patterns for sewing (although pilot biscuit boxes provided the best material). I made my own coloring book, and cut-outs of people and dogs. Such figures stood out in jarring red and, somehow, when a black crayon was applied to the yellow-orange paper, the dogs took on a sickly, grey appearance.

One time, a neighboring couple found a can of sardines - a real treat, since they had run out of store supplies, and had gotten bored with eating meat. I remember being a bit jealous, since their kids seemed to enjoy the sardines so much.

Now, I shudder at the thought of all the contaminants that we Inuit had inadvertently exposed ourselves to. One of my friends, who works in the field of contaminants, once informed me about the left-over PCB's still saturating the soil and sands at the DEW line dumps. Who knows what health risks we took when living, for any time, next to such hazardous materials?

I was reminded of those dumps again recently, when I caught part of a television show concerning poverty in Nicaragua. It was about whole families that live within, subsisting wholly upon, incredibly vast dump sites. There was a little girl who had found a chick hatched from among some discarded eggs. She had cleaned it off with an old handkerchief, keeping the castaway as her pet. The two sickly little things, girl and bird, looked so much alike that the image haunted me for days.

It has always been a popular political view to see the Arctic as a great wasteland, a "safe" dumping ground for the most virulent of pollutants, a "practical" place for nuclear tests. But we are already beginning to see that Arctic ecosystems ? and remember, human communities are certainly a part of the ecosystem - are affected even by airborne waste from as far away as Argentina. My mind hesitates even to contemplate overlong upon such horror.

We no longer have to go to the dump; the dump has come to us. Waste is inevitable, but are we destined to live with, or within, our dump sites?