Left Out in the Cold in the Boondocks


In the village where Zita Chikigak gave birth to six children, there is no such thing as a "stranger."

Only 652 people live in Alakanuk, on the Bering Sea, which makes it a rather large town by the standards of rural Alaska. Here, neighboring communities can be separated by hundreds of roadless miles of pine forest, tundra and ice-strewn river.

Children raised in these isolated and small places are unusually trusting and friendly--they grow up with a large extended family of neighbors and relatives. During long summer nights, every corner of the village becomes part of the same big playground.

So when Chikigak found herself forced to move to the "big city" that is Anchorage (pop. 260,283), driven to penury by the collapse of the family fishing business, she was most worried about her children. She took time to explain to them the dangers of something called traffic.

"In my village, there's no road signs," explained Chikigak. "There's few vehicles. Here you have to stay off the street. It sounds funny, but I told my children, 'Never cross the street before the white man [on the traffic signal] tells you.' "

The decline of rural communities has been a feature of American society for at least the last 100 years. But the exodus is an especially acute and poignant one in Alaska's bush country, home to some of the last people who remember the ways of the hunter-gatherers who dominated the continent before the arrival of Europeans.

Census figures released earlier this year show a 30% increase in the native population in Anchorage and its suburbs, a rise fed by the hard times in the dozens of small villages scattered across the state. Every day, another family makes the trek--usually by air--from places like Alakanuk to the state's largest city.

In 1960, just 1 in 20 Native Alaskans lived in Anchorage. Now 1 in 5 lives here, marking a gradual but fundamental shift in the state's social fabric.

The migration is not an easy one. Anchorage may not be Manhattan, but to those accustomed to village life, it can be a forbidding and unfriendly place. Those who come here feel they lose a part of themselves, an inner essence tied to the old ways of life and their connectedness with nature.

"It's a major cultural shock," said Gloria O'Neill, executive director of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which provides services to Native Alaskans in Anchorage. "In the villages you take care of each other. The city is another experience."

Chikigak, 38, left Alakanuk in December, writing another chapter in a difficult life that saw her become an alcoholic at 15, a mother at 17 and a substance abuse counselor after she turned clean and sober at 21.

She arrived in Anchorage at once hopeful and anxious. Her husband signed up for classes at a local Bible college. Her children would attend a better, more demanding school. But in the first few days--during which she stayed with relatives--she wondered if she'd ever get used to the place.

"There were times when I felt like crying," said Chikigak. With her round, flat face and Tartar eyes, she could easily be mistaken for a resident of China, on that continent just across the Bering Strait.

Alakanuk is home to fishermen and hunters. People there can still remember when they lived by "subsistence," pulling salmon from the rivers and summer berries from the surrounding marshlands. Anchorage is, by contrast, a grid of low-slung apartment buildings, the landscape dominated by automobiles and their anonymous drivers.

People claiming only Native Alaskan ancestry still make up just 7% of the population in Anchorage, a city that remains overwhelmingly white.

Native people who come here say they encounter obvious, though usually subtle, prejudice against them. Maybe a skeptical smirk when they show up to apply for a job. Or someone cutting in front of them in line at the grocery store.

Earlier this year, a home video captured a more blatant form of prejudice. Three young white men allegedly went on a "hunting" expedition through downtown, looking for "muktuks" and "drunk Eskimos" to shoot with a paint ball gun. Their words and deeds were captured on a 24-minute videotape.

"Racism exists, it's alive and it lives in the Arctic," said Desa Jacobsson, a prominent Native Alaskan activist here, in the wake of the incident. "Where does this hate come from?"

Most village residents would probably never come to Anchorage or Fairbanks and face the hardships and the alienation of urban life if they could make ends meet back home. Unemployment in much of rural Alaska runs at double or triple the rate in the cities.

"Typically, in a village of 100 people, maybe there's three or four cash-paying jobs," said Kris Anderson, director of Alaska's People, an Anchorage employment agency. "There's a schoolteacher, a postmaster, a tribal secretary, a village policeman. And that's it."

Georgianna Lincoln, the only Native Alaskan woman in the state Senate, saw her district lose 4,000 residents in the last decade. She blames the decline on the unwillingness of fiscally conservative legislators to fund investments in rural infrastructure.

Lincoln points to a 1998 law that shifted funding to urban schools. One effect of the law has been the closure of schools in her district, Lincoln said, including the one in her hometown, Rampart, a village of just 45 people on the Yukon River.

"One of the saddest days of my life was sitting outside my house there and not hearing one child's laughter or one baby's giggle," Lincoln said.

Bea Peterson moved to Anchorage from Dillingham in Southwest Alaska in 1999. Her husband had grown tired of the increasingly competitive fishing industry. She hoped her two young boys would find more challenges at an urban school.

"One day we just kind of said, 'Anchorage. Let's give it a try,' " Peterson recalled.

Peterson and her family have done well in Anchorage. She landed a good job at a social service agency. Her two boys--now 11 and 15--are flourishing.

But Peterson still has mixed feelings about Anchorage.

"I've seen myself change. I wasn't as aggressive as I am now. People would butt in line in front of me and I wouldn't say anything. I've learned to take a stand." She paused for a moment, as if to contemplate her metamorphosis. "I don't know if I like that. The patience, the calmness I had is gone."

But it only takes a few years in the relative comfort of Anchorage to begin to wonder if you can ever move back to the bush again.

Over at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, an Anchorage museum dedicated to Alaska's indigenous cultures, several of the guides are rural transplants too.

Frank Mighell, 45, guides visitors around the museum's re-creation of a traditional Inupiaq home, an earthen roof held up by pine beams. He came to Anchorage with his wife from Kotzebue three years ago because the weather is nicer and there are better medical services. In Kotzebue, just above the Arctic Circle, the average low in the coldest month, February, is 12 below zero. In Anchorage, it's a relatively mild 11 above zero.

"This is kind of the banana belt, the L.A. of Alaska," Mighell said on a warm summer day.

Like almost all the other guides, Mighell describes to tourists the Inupiaq "village" in the past tense, and in the third person: "This is where they cooked. . . . This was a sleeping area." People in Kotzebue and other Inupiaq communities don't live in earthen huts anymore.

The objects on display at the museum--re-creations of Tlingit lodges, elaborately carved birch canoes--are artifacts from a rural way of life that each day is pushed further into the past.

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