By Jim Hjelmgren, USFWS
Federal Wildlife Officers do more than police the landscape; they also act as important ambassadors to diverse communities.
This past summer, officers in our Alaska Region visited rural Alaskan Native villages “unannounced” – meaning we had no official `law enforcement agenda.
To the outsider, this might sound intrusive, but for us these meetings turned out to be incredibly informative and emotionally impactful.
I was told by several people that we shouldn’t do this: “They will be angry. They will not be happy about the lack of notice.”
My response: “So what!”
Our visits began this past April. Federal Wildlife Officers Kevin Fox, Isaac Bedingfield, and I visited Yukon River Villages over a six-day period. During this time, we had incredible encounters and created important relationships.
From left to right: Refuge Information Technician (RIT) Joe Asuluk, FWO Kevin Fox, FWO Isaac Bedingfield, FWO Jim Hjelmgren (Photo: USFWS)
All told, we met and spoke with over 200 Alaska Native kids. They asked more questions than we could answer and they always wanted to know our names.
In one particular village, the mayor was leading a council meeting when we arrived. Although we offered to come back another time, he invited us to stay, sit down and begin a dialogue right then.
We were also able to attend an elders’ meeting in another village where the importance of subsistence to their culture was discussed. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours we talked about law enforcement and how they felt they were being treated by various agencies.
A 93-year-old elder, the oldest living resident in the village, was present and said something to me that will stick with me for a long time, “Law enforcement has never met with us like this before. This is the first time.”
Although he was speaking in Yupik, we were able to understand him with the help of our Refuge Information Technicians. Without the help of these essential people, communication with Alaska Natives and conservation of their lands would be nearly impossible.
The most important thing I learned – most people are just looking for honesty. There is nothing more important to a law enforcement officer when he or she is reaching out to a local community. Sometimes, if you throw out the rule book and take a chance with thinking outside of the box, you can achieve incredible successes.
Jim Hjelmgren is a Regional Chief in Refuge Law Enforcement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service