The human story in every place

This scene shows the rapid change happening in the indigenous villages of northern Thailand as observed by Hibbing native and international journalist Jeff Warner. (PHOTO: Jeff Warner)

This scene shows the rapid change happening in the indigenous villages of northern Thailand as observed by Hibbing native and international journalist Jeff Warner. (PHOTO: Jeff Warner)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Most every Iron Ranger knows an old timer’s story about living off the land, harvesting timber to build the home where the children would be raised, the names of traditional foods and songs. Sure, some of us are Italian, some Slovenian, others Norwegian, Finn, Swede or Ojibwa, but the cold fact is that these stories are getting older. Keeping this knowledge is hard work that few seek.

Today, we binge watch shows about other places, drink things we see on TV, and sing the songs that come up next on Spotify. Even if we remembered how to fell trees, mill lumber, build joists, we would still owe currency on the truck, the snow machine, or the boat resting dry in our heated garage. We are driven to forget what we have in pursuit of things that most of us can’t reach.

It’s a story far more common than most of us realize, so well worn that a Hibbing man left America on a personal journey only to find the same tale playing out in the remote reaches of northern Thailand.

Jeff Warner was raised, same as me, in the cultural forge of the Mesabi Iron Range. People here still take pride in the many cultures, mostly European, that joined together seeking better life in America for poor people on the run. A century ago, Northern Minnesota’s percentage of foreign-born population rivaled New York’s. Now that time seems foreign to the people here, as does any notion of people living in Africa, Asia or even the European continent that produced our immigrant ancestors. Even Ojibwa people are sometimes treated like foreigners, when they were plainly here first. Frankly, our melting pot spilled over and set hard.

Warner left his job as a newspaper reporter here in Hibbing in part to escape what he saw as unfulfilling patterns of American life. With a camera and no distinct plan he traveled to Thailand, a populous Southeast Asian nation that few of us here know much about. That’s where the story of his “Indigenous Voices” project begins.

Outside of the teeming, fast-growing cities of Thailand Warner found villages of native people still living traditional lives in the jungles of the north. With limited knowledge of the local languages, Warner gradually adapted himself to life in these villages, living among the people and trying to learn their ways. In a short time he saw that the development of the modern world was quickly entering the lives of these people, sweeping away their traditional culture before his eyes.

Paging through his book about his experiences, Warner showed me an old medicine man teaching his last class about preparing traditional plants and herbs to a group of young people, all too eager to leave him and his lessons behind. In another photo, young children gather around a television in a thatched house, watching a cartoon while their grandparents fan themselves outside.

“What about the voices of our grandparents?” asked Warner. “What social value do they provide? What happens when a community loses its root system of understanding itself?

“This is affecting everyone, both the people living in the city and especially those in more marginalized rural villages,” writes Warner. “They, and perhaps all of us modernizing humans, are losing their root connections with nature [but] It is not too late. We can still learn from these communities. Our natural roots can be preserved.”

“Indigenous Voices” is available as a beautiful, yet haunting limited run photo book through Warner’s website, www.jeffsjournalism.com. He is currently adapting the book into a documentary that he hopes people will be able to see locally. Next up, Warner has been accepted to the prestigious East-West Center at the University of Hawaii where he will work alongside scholars from all over the world. There, Warner plans to continue his work connecting his experiences in Thailand with a broader human story.

The Canadian singer Stan Rogers wrote a song about seeking the Northwest Passage, how the hunt for progress led doomed explorers “to find there but the road back home again.” In Warner’s field work, we see that these seemingly foreign people are experiencing some of the same things as us.

Concludes Warner, “If their traditional wisdom becomes lost, what hope is there for any of our survival?”

Warner’s work shows a compelling story of humanity in increasingly homogenous times. As long as people are willing to do such work, and read such work, the human story will continue.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

UPDATE: Jeff sent me this video synopsis of his documentary. He’ll be working to develop these themes in future:

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