I made a friend in a village recently. For the sake of him and his family, I’ve changed his name and won’t disclose locations. These pictures are from different areas across Alaska, but paint a picture for the sake of visual aid. This is a tough tale to tell. Hold steady.
“Como” was my team’s bear guard on a climate change project (similar to work I’d previously performed in Wales). His boss was our client and Como came along to watch for danger as we trounced around the tundra. His seaside village is a long way from anywhere and loses substantial sections of coastline by the year; they hope to move inland soon.
The Alaska Division of Geologic & Geophysical Surveys website shows some villages’ shore shifts through the past half dozen decades. They’ve done a great job illustrating the erosion’s extent with colored lines marking the passage of time. Daunting, huh? Como’s village is similarly impacted by coastal erosion and melting permafrost due to climate change.
With a rifle slung over his shoulder and a perpetual smile in his ever-observant dark eyes, Como kept me company as I toiled in the soil. Como has a stocky frame, short buzzed black hair, tanned skin, and calloused hands from years spent hunting, carving, fishing, and laboring. But that day, he merely had to make sure a few city boys didn’t get picked off by wolves or bears.
I was having a ball. Freed from the office, I was captivated by the scene, breathing deeply and feeling peaceful. It honestly didn’t seem like work at all. I savored every moment: taking pictures, hiking around, and learning new things as I listened to observations from another colleague, a geotechnical engineer.
We were assessing the state of the earth well uphill of the village, a potential site for critical infrastructure relocations. Como’s village was heading for the hills…storms from heavy seas have flooded his village continually for years. It’s created catastrophic situations, including sewage contamination and severe structural damage.
My geotechnical cohort never stopped moving nor working, he’s a machine when we’re in the field. Mercifully, I had a little downtime here and there. Como and I shared lunch on the first day. We initially spoke about life in a village versus Anchorage. Our discussions quickly revealed stark contrasts between our worlds. Yet, there were similarities too: common threads that we shared as Alaskans and Americans.
Later that night as I wound down from the day, I was struck by how lucky ‘first worlders’ are. Most of my countrymen and women will never know true scarcity. Moments with Como helped me reflect on how much I had taken for granted in my life: clean water, shelter, sewer systems, reliable food sources, easy health care access, quality education, and abundant living necessities. It felt disappointing to fathom how much we have and yet don’t appreciate.
At any given time, Como has to make sure his family has enough clean water on-hand for a month. The village’s water source is a lake more than a mile away. As such, it is connected by pipes that sometimes get blocked or freeze up and it can take time to fix or repair, especially if pricey replacement parts are needed from the distant contiguous United States.
Food, though still stockpiled, isn’t as critical. The tundra supplies much and indigenous methods of subsistence living are substantially aided by high-powered rifles, four wheelers, and snow machines (“snowmobiles” to the rest of the English-speaking world).
While there is a village health clinic, the building is literally falling apart and hasn’t been staffed by a nurse or doctor for a decade or more. Two medical technicians take turns on shifts, but their means are few and advanced medical attention is a two-hour plane ride away. Including response time, it’s at least five hours until injured or sick can get to a hospital. Precious time when a life is on the line.
For better or worse, there is a major resource-extraction operation close to Como’s village – it employs local men and women alike. Men typically operate heavy machinery or repair the fleet of vehicles, while women tend to work in the camps’ kitchens or clean.
In this regard, Como and his fellow villagers are fortunate. Having a major employer close by keeps people busy, funded, and ameliorates the boredom that can exist in a tiny community. Boredom can quickly lead to bedlam or drugs. Or even worse: suicide. Easily one of the most crucial issues for these communities, as Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the country – and its villages are beset by some of the worst suicide rates in the entire world.
On my second day working with Como, our differences didn’t seem so many. We talked basketball, music, food, and shared a mutual love for Alaska’s wild vastness. Our conversations waxed and waned from sentimental to pure tom-foolery. At one point I showed Como a little jig to aid in a description of an Arabic wedding I had once attended. Como laughed and showed me a segment of a similar celebratory dance, sharing moves his people have performed for thousands of years.
The rest of the days flew on by. Our work found a natural cadence and we completed everything ahead of schedule. Como helped a lot, offering keen observations and even going so far as to lend a hand hauling heavy equipment to testing areas.
One of our last conversations took a sad turn, though it granted glimpses into the social issues that plague rural Alaskan communities. Most of our exchanges up till then had been lively discussions with short sentences traded back and forth. But when Como and I turned toward talking about relationships, he started saying more and more as his story unwound.
When Como graduated high school (sometimes uncommon in rural Alaska), he took a job in one of the bigger rural hubs. It was still off the road system, but big enough to have an actual airport terminal instead of just a gravel strip with a windsock – though in some places, even a frozen body of water will do.
Como’s village has a long-standing ban on alcohol, no sales nor possession are allowed by law. But his new hub home had multiple establishments that sold booze. While he didn’t imbibe, being around the influence impacted him greatly.
Social gatherings after work would go into the wee hours, leaving him drained and exhausted the following day. Como’s new social circle, filled with devious characters, ripped him off a few times: money and ammo went missing from his home and car after giving drunk ‘friends’ rides or a place to crash.
Yet, despite these bumps in the road, Como’s time in the rural hub had happy hours as well. He met a woman, a beauty from a neighboring village about the size of Como’s. All went well for a few years, the relationship progressed as they do and they eventually married.
Things started to get weird a year into the marriage. Como’s wife was hanging with rougher crowds and coming home later and later. Como knew that his wife’s friends did drugs; hard drugs, the kind that can hasten one’s way to the grave or kill outright. But his bride reassured him time and time again: she never touched that stuff.
Como wasn’t sure when she started using – but by the time he found her smoking crack in their home, he estimates his wife was burning through at least four hundred dollars a week on drugs and alcohol. He didn’t even mean to catch her out. Como unexpectedly came back from work one morning because he’d forgotten his lunch.
Devastated, Como separated with his wife and eventually decided to move back to his village. The pain of seeing mutual friends and his wife’s constant attempts to get back with him were all too much. “It wasn’t the drugs,” he said sadly as the wind whipped his voice around us. “It was the lying. She swore so many times that she only drank, how could I trust her after that?”
It was a tough decision to return. His job in the hub paid far more than any work he could find at home. And though Como never came right out and said it, he alluded to ever-present painful memories from his childhood in the village.
At the end of our chat that day, Como confided that he thinks it’s for the best that he’s back in his village: “there’s a lot of work to do, and I like being around to raise my nieces and nephews.”
I asked Como what he thought the future would hold. I kept the question ambiguous, not wanting him to feel that he had to answer for himself or his village. He took a long pause before responding. His words resounded deeply: “right now, I live for my village. Our lives are all tied together and we’ve got problems. It’s time for me to help and serve.”
Extraordinary. I feel compelled to cross-apply his words to the nation and human race at-large: our lives are truly tied together.
Let’s all help and serve.
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2017
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Alaska: Village to Village