Columns 2014

The good news from Bush Alaska

For those of us lucky enough to have spent time in Bush Alaska, it’s no secret that life there can swing fairly widely in short spans of time from extreme joy to extreme sorrow and back again. Maybe these swings also happen in the more urban areas of the state but are simply not as intense because sheer size and numbers dilute the effect.

The news that four Alaskans are recipients of Gates scholarships that will pay for their entire education through a Ph. D. is amazing in and of itself. All four students are obviously outstanding. But that two of those students come from Chevak, a small Cup’ik village of about 1000, is simply mind blowing. It should be an indication to Alaskans that despite the terrible headlines that all too often emanate from the bush, good stuff is also happening. We need to celebrate these good things. We need to headline them the same way we headline shootings and suicides, rapes and domestic violence.

Class valedictorian Kyla Fermoyle and salutatorian Mary Pingayak would probably be the first to tell you that they are not special. That’s may be true. But what they did is very special. They come from a small village with limited classes and few of the advantages students in more urban areas enjoy. They come from a community in which, but a few decades ago, holding a high school diploma was considered an amazing accomplishment. They come from a subset of Alaskans teens rarely noticed in the media unless the news is about high suicide rates, teen pregnancies and STDs.

People in urban areas of Alaska often have little concept of life in Bush Alaska. When I hear complaints about the cost of supporting village life or debates over the viability of traditional villages in today’s world, I find myself wondering just how you decide the value of a culture that existed for thousands of years before Western civilization noticed and came here to “save” the Native population from itself.

Despite the almost constant pain in far too many villages, Alaska’s Native peoples are survivors. They are very astute readers of their environment. It may have taken them a few generations to learn how to read the new environment that Western civilization created in their homeland, but learn they have.

I do some writing for a small Tribal College in Barrow, Ilisagvik College. It exists because the North Slope Borough, an Inupiat dominated municipal government, realized that to ensure the future for their children and grandchildren, they needed an educated population that was comfortable with a foot in both worlds; a population that could work computers, create spreadsheets, punch a time clock and read the ice, know the migration of the caribou and whale successfully out of a small boat under demanding and dangerous circumstances. So the borough created a junior college and tasked it with preparing the population not only for jobs locally available, but also for higher education in four-year colleges. For many students, the two years they spend at home in Barrow going to college is critical to their ability to succeed in a four year academic environment.

Alaska’s Native people are very aware of the importance of education. Despite the familial dysfunction found far too often in village homes, despite the almost constant stream of tragedies from suicides to accidents to shootings and alcohol abuse, a generation is being raised that wants something better, wants something more. A generation is being raised that can produce two Gates scholarship winners in a small village because it is a generation willing to put in the time, effort and sweat to come out on top.

Young people like Kyla and Mary truly are but the tip of the iceberg. Although not many will be able to follow the path they blazed to such heights, I predict we will find more and more Native students successfully pursuing post secondary education and returning to their home villages ready, willing and able to face any challenge. I’m willing to bet that fifty years from now, the statistics coming out of Bush Alaska will be very, very different from what we see today because of these young people.

Alaska’s Native people truly do believe their children are their future. And their children are making them very, very optimistic about that future.