AKIACHAK, Alaska: Remote and Struggling, but Still a Bit of America
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Mon Oct 6 14:26:40 UTC 2008
October 6, 2008
Remote and Struggling, but Still a Bit of America
By DAN BARRY
The bush plane glides over the tundra in autumn, descending slowly
into the green and orange with avian grace. Soon its wheels kiss a
spit of an airstrip in a western Alaska place where senators and
governors rarely visit, a Yup'ik Eskimo village called Akiachak. Its
tribal police chief, John Snyder, waits in a white pickup at the end
of the gravel runway, wrapped in a maturity beyond his 23 years. He
introduces himself with a gentle joke, then begins down the rutted
road to his community of 700. A veteran of the Iraq war lives here. An
Obama campaign worker arrived not long ago to shake hands, a rare
moment of political recognition. A local elder is part of a federal
lawsuit demanding that election ballots and referendum questions also
be provided in the language of Yup'ik. Through an interpreter she
says: I want to know what I am voting on.
And here, tribal customs and the Internet vie for the attention of the
young. People live on the salmon they've caught, the moose they've
killed and the box of Cheerios that costs them double what you pay.
The rising prices of gasoline and heating fuel have forced some
families to double up or move away, and about a third of them have no
running water. "Welcome to Akiachak," the police chief says, in
surplus-rich Alaska. With a cold rain falling, the truck bangs along a
gray road past weather-beaten houses raised on stilts. A few years
ago, two-thirds of the village was finally connected to water and
sewer lines; this is the one-third still waiting. Many residents,
including Mr. Snyder, bathe with water retrieved from the Kuskokwim
River and use honey buckets as latrines. Some of these malodorous
buckets sit like garbage cans along the roadside.
Past the paint-peeled Moravian Christian church, in need of new
windows and containing small black books from 1945 that say "Liturgy
and Hymns in the Eskimo Language of the Kuskokwim District, Alaska."
Past one of the two general stores, where the crazy-high cost of
living is stamped on the cans and boxes arranged under the dull light.
A 12-ounce bag of Lay's potato chips: $7.39. A 19-ounce can of
Progresso beef barley soup: $4.29. A 20-ounce box of Cheerios: $8.29.
Mr. Snyder pulls up to an office building where three tribal leaders
offer greetings. Between private consultations in Yup'ik, they explain
how Akiachak replaced its city form of government two decades ago with
a tribal council. They say they work hard to maintain native customs:
the language, the care and respect for elders, the refusal to waste
food like salmon.
"If you do," the tribal administrator, George Peter, says, "the
abundance of salmon will go down." The keen national interest in
Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice
president, is not shared in this outpost of the state. At the mention
of her name, the elders say nothing but look at one another with
half-smiles. Instead, they cite another Alaska Republican, Senator
Lisa Murkowski, who recently held a hearing in the small city of
Bethel — a 15-minute flight from here — to discuss how some people can
no longer afford to live in the villages of their ancestors and are
leaving for Anchorage. The elders say she is on to something.
Although the population in Akiachak has risen slightly in recent
years, they say, young people seem more interested in iPods than in
Yup'ik. And while every eligible Alaskan will receive more than $3,200
in oil rebates and dividends this year, they say, gas here costs $6.59
a gallon, and heating oil $7.06 a gallon. "Yesterday our village
police officer told us two families just moved to Anchorage," Daniel
George, the tribal council chairman, says. "Even my nephew and niece
have moved to Anchorage." Anchorage, the Oz of Alaska. Natalie
Landreth, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund, recalls that
when the local elder, Anna Nick, 70, was summoned to Anchorage last
year to be deposed in her voting rights lawsuit — which so far has
prompted a preliminary injunction requiring that Yup'ik translations
be made available at the polls — the tiny woman arrived with a wish
list of things needed by people in her village.
Ms. Landreth drove her to a Wal-Mart at 8 in the morning and asked her
when she wanted to be picked up. "When do they close?" Ms. Nick asked.
The rain has stopped but the cold has not. With work to do, the tribal
elders return to their trucks and desktop computers. Police Chief
Snyder drives on.
Past a fish camp at the river bank, where caught salmon are cleaned
and smoked, with carcasses saved for mush dogs. Past the boat he uses
to travel hundreds of miles in search of moose and bear and caribou.
Past small ducks that he says make for good soup.
People on all-terrain vehicles wave to Mr. Snyder as they drive past.
He is well-known here, the son of a former police chief, a
law-enforcement officer who carries no gun and rarely uses handcuffs.
For one thing, if his boat were to tip in the Kuskokwim while taking
suspects to jail in Bethel, anyone in shackles could drown. "You
cooperate with me, I'll cooperate with you," he says. The village is
safe. But six months ago it experienced its first murder in anyone's
memory when, the police say, a man ended a bootleg whiskey night by
shooting his female companion. Mr. Snyder answered that call and does
not want to discuss it; too close.
His truck wends past the village's sprawling school, built a few years
ago to resemble a traditional community house for elders. It has a
room lined with Mac computers, a library with expansive windows and a
cafeteria that serves as the village's only luncheonette. In one
kindergarten class, children are learning the Yup'ik word for star.
"Agyaq," they say together. "Agyaq."
Mr. Snyder continues on to accommodate a request to visit the village
cemetery — clearly not something he wants to do. He walks along a
boardwalk above the mud-topped permafrost to where white wooden
crosses rise like too many candles on a birthday cake. Some crosses
are fresh, their bone-whiteness stark against the brown-green weeds.
Others are collapsing into gray rot, returning to the earth.
"My buddy's down here somewhere," Mr. Snyder says, tramping through
the weeds and crosses. A buddy who committed suicide at 18.
There are more: here lie three relatives, dead before 40 from alcohol;
another school friend lost to suicide; another relative. Although
alcohol is banned in many rural villages, including Akiachak, it
remains the scourge of native life. Mr. Snyder walks downhill, head
Driving toward the airstrip, passing high school athletes on a
late-afternoon run, he says he could never live in a place as crowded
as Anchorage. He says he prefers rainwater to any other drink, enjoys
the taste of bear, whether barbecued or in a pot roast, and plans to
teach his two young sons to speak Yup'ik.
The dot of a bush plane skims the horizon. It lands, and eight
passengers board. The pilot asks each one how much they weigh.
Three small children and a lame dog watch from a safe distance. Then,
as the whining plane pulls away, these Yup'ik children, these American
children, wave goodbye.
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