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Village success: Shared thoughts on getting by in rural Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 12:07 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

What is “success” for a Native villager in Alaska? Who defines it? Why does that person define it? These were the questions and discussions villagers were having in Arctic Village one cold winter day recently. Despite the hardship of daily life, a few villagers and teens were able to find a little time to discuss the topic with me.  

One fact is clear — Alaska Native males and young people are falling short of attaining meaningful and stable work, what the modern world defines as “success.”

Here are some of the statistics:

• According to the National Center for Education Statistics on average, fewer than than 50 percent of Native students graduate each year in the 12 states most populated with American Indian and Alaska Native students. 

• The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that 74 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native 12th graders read below grade level.  

• American Indian and Alaska Native teenagers encounter poverty, suicide, teen birth and substance abuse at rates higher than the national average, according to Eric Henson and Jonathan Taylor’s 2002 study, “Native America at the New Millennium.”

• The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey put Alaska’s unemployment rate at 8.6 percent, but the rate among Alaska Natives was 21.7 percent. According to an official at the Alaska Department of Labor, those numbers haven’t changed much in recent decades.  

• In his 2012 “State of the Judiciary” address to the Legislature, Chief Justice Walter L. Carpeneti said, “Among Alaska Natives, incarceration patterns are as disturbing as they are intransigent: Even though Alaska Natives comprise only about 18 percent of the state’s general population, they make up 36 percent of Alaska’s prison population.”

Beyond the numbers are the actual people in the villages and the laborious life they balance to survive.

Between raising and feeding their children or working for the money to do so, Native men often work 10-hour seasonal construction jobs in the village.

Two Native men in Arctic Village shared their differing views with me.

Natives shut out

Douglas Felix stays at his uncle’s house in Arctic Village.

“I’ve been working here three months, non-stop,” he said.

He placed a snowmachine ski on his lap and began repairing it. 

“They make you go to school, but they don’t teach you living skills, and when you graduate, they don’t give you jobs!” he exclaimed. “By the time we reach eighth grade, we’re pretty smart, so they should start teaching us life skills, things we can use.”

Felix told of a debate he had with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer last summer.

“I asked a Fish and Wildlife guy here, ‘Why don’t you hire the young people here?’ He pointed to the school and replied, ‘We got to educate the young people,’” Felix said. *“But 20 years ago, they told me the same thing when I was at the school, and they’ve been saying that ever since, but they still never put us to work and offer us jobs.” 

Felix examined the snowmachine ski. “When I was living in Fairbanks, all I did was fire fight once a year because there’s no opportunities,” he said.

I asked about the job center in Fairbanks.

“I’ve been there many times. They offer jobs that are not economically feasible. They (the jobs) don’t pay you enough to get an apartment or for anything,” he said, winding a screw into the ski. “If you apply for a job at Fred Meyer, you have to wait two weeks to see if you got the job. During those two weeks, you don’t have a place to stay. Meanwhile, people are taking those opportunities away from you.” 

I asked Felix about those who would say “he’s not trying hard enough” or “work at McDonald’s.”

“I got five kids, I can’t work there. Where are my family going to live for the two weeks I’m waiting to get my first paycheck? 40 below. Even when I get it, it’s not enough,” he said, moving outside to place the ski on his newly purchased used snowmachine. 

So Felix works as a seasonal construction worker in Arctic Village.

“This is why I’m up here. You see me up here? No opportunities in Fairbanks,” he said. He said he plans to use his snowmachine to haul wood as a side business to earn money.    

Opportunities exist 

Mark Hess is a Native man who works maintenance at the school, delivers lunches to elders and picks up cargo at the airport. Balancing a stack of lunches while crossing the school gym, he gave me his view.

“The opportunities are there if they want them. It’s hard work, and I just think people don’t want to do the hard work,” he said.

“We are not being pushed into the labor industry. It all has to do with validation,” he said as he backed up the truck.

Hess said people have to sacrifice cultural values to make it in the modern workforce and that people have to be shown their potential in order to explore it. 

I mentioned that some Natives claim racist social and economic conditions push them toward narcotics and crime.

He rebutted the idea. “Again its validation, if you hang out with drug dealers, you’re going to adopt their values,” he said.

“Racism doesn’t exist. If you can’t fight it, then it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I think it’s an excuse.”

“I mean, my Native mom got past that ‘You can’t’ attitude and got her degree and a job,” he said. “It’s like a mountain. The ones that go on the side, taking the easy way and getting bottlenecked into that life, and the strong ones go right over, straight up.” 

I told Hess that one Native man mentioned the lack positive role models in their lives.

“Sometimes parents are taking away opportunities from their kids, like Big Brothers-Big Sisters, because they get jealous of their kids looking up to other people,” he said.

Teens’ perspective

On a village road, I met Allison Panigeo and Nicole Christian, teenagers who attend Arctic Village High School. 

“Do you believe you two have the opportunities to succeed?” I asked.

Both answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“What makes it hard to be successful?” I continued. 

“People are in the way that don’t help us when they’re supposed to,” Nicole said.

“People are supposed to motivate you,” Allison added.

I asked how they could keep their culture while staying ahead in school? 

“Learn your language and let everyone know you’re Native,” Nicole said.

“Yeah, help each other out, too,” Allison added.

Striving for success

Hess, Felix and the teens give faces to the statistics. They show how Native villagers want to succeed and take the opportunities when they are there. They endure and move forward. 

Rural Alaska might offer little, but Episcopal Bishop Mark Lattime of Fairbanks, in an email, shared his perspective on how success might be achieved in such a setting.

“A person living in a rural village who is able to hunt and fish in balance with nature to provide enough food to live and provide for the needs of family and others; who is able secure a safe and comfortable home that offers protection from the elements and a space for people to live in community as family; who is able to provide resources in balance with nature to heat that home; who is able to give time and energy to the organization and support of his community; who is willing to share his knowledge and experience by teaching others; who is spiritually and emotionally healthy knowing that he is living the life his God has called him to live; that person is truly a success. And, I would add, blessed,” Lattime wrote.

The purely traditional and nomadic life ended a century ago, yet Natives such as Felix and Hess still struggle with the transition to the modern world. The cash-based economy ushered into the lives of every Alaska Native has not been easy, but it’s the reality they all have to face and endure. 

Everyone agrees the meaning of “success” for Natives needs further exploration and discussion by lawmakers. They would also agree that the meaning of the word in arduous rural Alaska life is varied and sometimes more fleeting than most would like to admit. 

In the meantime, Felix gets his new snowmachine ready for his wood hauling business. Hess continues to deliver meals for the elders of Arctic Village and picks up air cargo at the airport, blowing smokes of cold breath. Nicole and Allison resume their studies, hoping for “success” in the best sense of the word along their Native and western paths. 

Freelance writer Matt Gilbert was raised in Arctic Village and in 2010 earned a master’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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