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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Vulture’s Picnic by Greg Palast – A Mudflats Exclusive Excerpt

By Zach Roberts

Hey Mudflatters – In addition to my duties as New York Bureau Chief of The Mudflats, I’ve taken on working with Greg Palast. You might have heard him on the Shannyn Moore Show talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was a forensic economist for the Chugach Natives – kind of a Sam Spade, except with numbers (not as sexy… and no whips). He uncovered the fact that it wasn’t the drunk Captain, but Exxon being cheap that caused that man-made disaster. The story made him give up his day job and start working as a journalist. Back in 2010 he was up in the 49th state again, this time investigating for the BBC. What he found may make you angry. It will all be out soon in his new book Vultures’ Picnic – In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivores (Pre-order it HERE) Until then, here’s an exclusive excerpt, and the first available – just for The Mudflats.

Zach Roberts


My Home Is Now a Strange Place
Alaska, Before the Beginning

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.

In 1867, Abraham Lincoln’s nasty little Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from the Imperial Tsar for 2-1/2 cents an acre. Of course, the Tsar 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 . . . .

Chenega Village, Prince William Sound

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 33 feet, then fell, sending a wave measuring 89 feet 7 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 onto 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 rescue 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 the 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.


[The video below contains strong language that is not safe for work.]



9 Responses to “Vulture’s Picnic by Greg Palast – A Mudflats Exclusive Excerpt”
  1. North of the Range says:

    I’m not too familiar with Greg Palast’s work. From what I know he’s tackled important questions, which I appreciate. This excerpt bothers me though… there are careless statements in the background, and overwhelming overgeneralizations that have completely turned me off and made me unwilling to trust the rest of the book. Perhaps I shouldn’t judge a book by the Chapter 7 teaser, but…

    I could point out several examples, such as “Old Chugach village of Valdez”. Although today’s Valdez is in the Chugach traditional area, the town was founded as an off-loading site for miners headed to the Klondike, almost 70 years before anyone from Humble Oil showed up. (See Valdez Museum website.)

    But the most distressing part of this excerpt is what he does with the story of Chenega village and the earthquake. See Charles Wohlforth’s article in the ADN, *That’s* an example of how to tell a tragic story poignantly, instead of using it for unrelated purposes as Palast does here. That horrible loss of life has nothing to do with Exxon or how our state got so dependent on oil. Honestly, I feel this tragedy is being exploited here.

    Sorry, I’m disgusted.

  2. carol says:

    Minor correction, please pass it on. Alaska, especially Prince William Sound, does not have native PINE trees. It would have been a spruce or hemlock.

    • carol says:

      Also, Tatitlek is not an Island, it’s on the mainland.Unless I am remembering incorrectly, the Chenegans that survived did so by taking shelter in the school house which was the only building that survived, being on the hill far enough above where the wave reached.

    • TreeHugger says:

      FWIW, pinus contorta is a native of SE. PWS point stands.

  3. Gillian says:

    Many years ago I was driving home from my night shift (Tech support) and I accidentally came upon National Public Radio’s broadcasts. They’d play the 1-hour serious talks (I can’t remember what they were called) and one that stuck was Greg Palast, who was talking from his book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”. And so I hunted that book down and bought it and read it and fumed and gritted my teeth and wondered what I could do to change things.

    I think I’ll have to put “Vultures Picnic” on my Christmas list.

    And now that I’ve moved, find where those talks are now broadcast.

  4. OtterQueen says:

    Okay, I must take issue with this Axuna guy’s name.

  5. Zyxomma says:

    Greg Palast is one of the best of the investigative journalists. I read his emails, and sometimes I buy his books. This will be a heartbreaker and a mindblower. What a strange and twisted relationship Alaska has with oil!

    By the way, I’ve always gotten along famously with Raven, and his cousin Crow.

  6. Andrea says:

    So incredibly glad to have seen this. Greg Palast is an amazing investigative journalist who opened many eyes to the shenanigans of Bush and co, for example.

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