Third Person Problems, First Person Solutions: An Apology to Gilliam Joe


 As Native Alaskan Gilliam Joe has land along the Copper River near Chistochina, he is entitled to keep a fishwheel along the bank to scoop up the salmon moving up the gritty river to spawn in nearby creeks. Due to several days of high water recently, his fishwheel was jammed with small logs and debris floating down the river. As I was on a site visit to the village, I had the opportunity to respond to Mr. Joe’s need for assistance with my host George Drinkwater, head of operations for the Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium. What we anticipated as a simple lift of the wheel turned into a muddy struggle to free logs in the cold, cold water under the paddles. Mr. Joe advised and snapped photos as we worked.

Fishwheel on the Copper River photo of Gilliam Joe

Phil and George unclogging Gilliam Joe’s fishwheel on the Copper River, AK
Back on shore, I felt a real sense of accomplishment and manliness. George explained that, as a request from an elder, it was important for us to respond quickly to Mr. Joe’s need. He noted that Mr. Joe was 59 years old and couldn’t have managed the job alone. My reaction, soon regretted, was to say to George, “Gosh, I’m older than  Gilliam Joe and out here helping him.” Thank goodness I did not say that to Mr. Joe. In fact, Gilliam Joe runs his fishwheel nearly daily, crossing small, wet boulders to reach the slippery platform, risking a fall into the river, where grit can quickly fill your pockets and pull you under. After all that, Gilliam Joe gives away a good portion of his catch to neighbors, fulfilling a tradition that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. Moreover, I found out later that Joe has a prosthetic leg.
Gilliam Joe is younger than I, but he’s the elder, not I. And he’s more of a man too.
I approach these site visits I am doing for the Administration on Aging as an applied ethnographer. There is a fair amount of preparation and a close reading of the projects being proposed in the funded communities. In teams of two or three, we also conduct individual and group interviews. We usually have a chance to engage in some “participant observation” as well and, not surprising to the anthropologist in me, learning about the “other” often teaches me mostly about myself. Such was certainly the case with Gilliam Joe.
Too often, we talk about what elders need, and typically  in the third person… “He should have taken better care of himself.”  “Why won’t they come to the senior center?” “Why does she insist on continuing to drive?”
In Gilliam Joe’s case, I came to realize that his so-called problem needed a first-person solution – an honest assessment of my own role in creating a definition of the situation. It is precisely this interpretive shift that is at the heart of good ethnography; the ethnographer’s stone, if you will, which I had not sharpened very well.
How does this apply to the manner in which we, as professionals and as activists, think about “what people need?” Firstly, and fundamentally, it speaks to the importance of taking people at their word, at face value. There is a subtle but important difference in listening to what people say and listening to what we think people are saying. We want to hear, but we start with listening, a distinction I attribute to writer Daniel Kemmis. I would say “back to the words themselves!”, in a variation on Husserl’s admonition. For Gilliam Joe, as George Drinkwater knew so well, “Can you help me with my wheel?” did not mean “Can I make an appointment with you to get your help?” It did not mean “Can I get a case manager to help me?” It simply meant “Can you help me with my wheel (now)?”
This issue, the interpretation of need, is far bigger than what this little vignette might suggest. Entire systems of service, of  health care, of housing, are designed through the third person lens. And we wonder why, often, we set things up and “nobody comes.” In the case of Mt. Sanford Tribal Coalition, perhaps it might be worthwhile to recapture some of the original language used to describe what it means to be an elder, to help another, to share with the group. I suspect that the phrase “case manager” might be difficult to translate into Athabaskan. I also suspect there is an Athabaskan word for “one who helps” and that it might be worthwhile to start there and work forward rather than start with English and work backward.  When I brought up the idea of getting elders together in one place, a kind of mini-senior center, I was, once again, brought to my senses. “Our elders don’t want a senior center,” staff member Elaine explained to me… “we just want to get together to pick berries.”  And as George explained to me when I brought up the idea of turning native sled-making skills into a cottage industry…”Elders don’t sell their crafts. They only give them away.”
Will I ever learn?
I’ll stop punishing myself here to offer a quick plug… check out for some neat upcoming events. August 18, 3 pm, will see a webinar on family caregiving and the workplace. And for a comprehensive and intensive look at how to create livable communities for older adults, check out the two day workshop being sponsored by the Indiana Association for Community Economic Development on Sept. 13 and 14, 2010 in Indianapolis. Registration is limited. Announcement will be posted soon at