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Stop -- or We'll Shout

In Hooper Bay, Alaska, police are the only ones who can't get their hands on a gun. Elders are intent on preserving village custom.

October 07, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

HOOPER BAY, Alaska — This Eskimo village sits on the edge of the continent, part shantytown, part suburb, part Wild West. One can't go farther west without stepping into the Bering Sea -- and just beyond, onto the frosty eastern tip of Siberia.

No roads lead to Hooper Bay, which is why the modern world has taken its time coming here, and then only in spots. Clusters of plywood shacks stand a short distance from subdivisions of lookalike modular homes. There's no running water, but lots of VCRs and satellite dishes, and computers hooked up to the Internet.

One of the more curious aspects of life here has to do with firearms. Every household has an assortment of rifles and shotguns. When people are hungry, they go out and shoot something, like a walrus in the surf.

Every adult has legal access to guns -- except the police.

The elders won't allow it.

The policy -- some would call it an edict -- isn't written anywhere in the town's municipal code. It has simply been spoken by the gray-haired men and women with faces like carved driftwood who believe that armed officers would only create more trouble.

Hooper Bay is the only known municipality in the United States that prohibits officers from carrying firearms. Police Chief James Hoelscher wants to change that. For the past two years, the chief, half-Eskimo, has tried to convince leaders that a growing town of 1,200 needs a modern police department.

"It's been like pedaling backwards going uphill," says Hoelscher, 28. He has a deep voice and friendly dark eyes that can turn intimidating in an instant. "They [town leaders] think we're still in the days of dog sleds and harpoons."

The debate ebbs and flows in town meetings and wherever else it happens to come up, like the lobby of the post office or the checkout line at the grocery store. It is a passionate, disjointed conflict that signals the larger phenomenon of a traditional people facing the pressures of the modern world, the old confronted by the new.

The two sides are divided according to how they view their community. Those in favor of arming the nine police officers tend to see Hooper Bay as an American town; those against view it as an Eskimo village.

"There are many ways to deal with dangerous situations," says City Administrator Raphael Murran. "If the police had guns, somebody might get shot. Somebody might get killed. Then there would be real trouble."

Hoelscher says the village has already become a more dangerous place.

"We're at a point, with the population, when bad things start to happen," Hoelscher says. "I don't really want to die to prove the point."


Hooper Bay has been able to hold on to many of its old ways because of its remoteness. The nearest large city, Anchorage, is more than 500 miles away. The town lies on a massive knob of land called the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where Alaska's two largest rivers run into the Bering Sea.

From the air, the surface of the delta, which is roughly the size of Utah, looks like a lime-green sponge: flat, endless, grass-covered tundra pockmarked by hundreds of thousands of ponds, lakes and streams.

It is the Alaskan bush at its most remote, and to outsiders, its most inhospitable. Temperatures range from minus 80 degrees in the winter to a humid, mosquito-infested 80 in the summer.

Hooper Bay is the largest of about 50 Eskimo villages in the delta. The only way to get here is by bush plane or boat, and during the winters, by snowmobile, when the delta becomes an ice field.

The town was incorporated in 1965, the same year it got electricity. A sewer system is scheduled to be finished by the end of the decade, if funding comes through.

Local people are drawn to Hooper Bay by jobs and families, and the population has grown by about 50 a year in recent times, Hoelscher says.

More than 40% of residents live below the poverty level, and hundreds receive public assistance. Most of those not employed in government or construction get by on fishing, hunting and gathering.

About 98% of residents are Yupik Eskimo, and many share family lineages. Hoelscher says he is related, by blood or marriage, to one-third of the village. He has had the displeasure of arresting several relatives, including first cousins.

Alcohol is the bane of his department. Hooper Bay, legally, has been dry since 1983. An underground economy has thrived ever since, with bootleggers making home brew and smuggling in a steady supply from the outside.

In a typical year, the department will handle about 40 gun-related incidents, and dozens more involving other weapons. The majority of those incidents involve suspects who are drunk or high.

Hoelscher recalls an incident that happened July 14. A local man beat his girlfriend, who went to the police. Before officers could respond, the man, inebriated, called the department on a VHF radio. He knew the officers, and they knew him. He was 21 and a convicted felon. He barricaded himself in his house and said he would shoot anyone who came near. He dared officers to come get him.

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