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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM ALASKA

Left Out in the Cold in the Boondocks

Relocation: Spurred on by hard times, more families are making the move to cities like Anchorage every day.

July 16, 2001|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANCHORAGE — 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."

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