UNALAKLEET — I had just gotten back from picking cranberries. The air was cold and crisp. My favorite time. No mosquitoes and still warm enough to enjoy an afternoon picking berries in the hills with a lunch of dried fish, Pilot Bread and coffee.
Back from a weekend of hunting with my friends Greta and Andrea, I felt renewed being home. Greta, from Kiana, is our Arctic river lover. Andrea, from Quinhagak, speaks Yup’ik, and is full of Yup’ik humor.
During our camping trip, the three of us and some friends spent an afternoon eating nikipiaq outside on the beach. After filling up on maktak, smoked salmon, akutuq and Pilot Bread, we all appreciated Greta’s Kobuk River family camp called Naluq.
We also appreciated the places we come from. The small, rural Alaska communities that have given us so much. Identity. Community. Values. A sense of belonging. And all the great, great food.
That day, on the beach, we felt like rich women. That day we remembered what’s important in life. Not stuff and the product-driven society we live in. Not having a big house full of things. Or even having the biggest, baddest snowmachine. That afternoon we gave thanks to a land that provides for us. To friends who shared their food with us. To friends who shared their stories of traveling upriver, who shared warm smiles and jokes.
We gave thanks to our parents and their parents for the work they did on this earth — building cabins in beautiful places that provide year after year. We gave thanks to the caribou, themselves, for providing nourishment. We felt like rich women.
Appreciating simple blessings, we talked about how some outsiders describe our communities as impoverished. We all expressed frustration, irritation and anger with how flippantly descriptors like “poor” and “economically destitute” are used.
“Look at this,” Andrea said about our meal that came from land and water throughout the state in which we live. “We aren’t impoverished.” Andrea and her family spend days on the Qanirtuuq River in Southwest Alaska, harvesting and processing flavorful and prized king salmon. Had a journalist spent a few days putting fish away with Andrea’s Gram, rich with activity and food, the word impoverished or poor would not be typed in a story. Because they aren’t.
And so it went. I was now home in Unalakleet, returning from an all-afternoon berry-picking session when I scrolled through my Twitter feed to see what was going on in the state. That late-September day, I read about four different stories from rural Alaska. One story was about a man who drowned in a river. One story talked about sexual assault in rural Alaska. One was about a drug bust. And another about adoption of Native kids.
I put my phone down and it felt like someone pushed me down, took a shovel and piled four shovels of garbage on top of me. On my face. On my legs. I felt it fall inside my shirt and on my skin. I felt dirty. I felt like someone wanted to put me down and keep me there. I felt like less of a person than I was just a few minutes before I opened my feed. And, of course, I wasn’t OK with it.
Yes, our communities have challenges. Issues. Families do struggle. Our communities have need, as do any. And it’s true, our communities aren’t economically as vibrant as some whose very roads are built from oil wealth from rural Alaska. But we are not impoverished. We are not poor.
We are not the negative stories I seem to read day after day after day.
This is why I write. This is why I bare my soul. Most of Alaska doesn’t get it — doesn’t get our life in rural Alaska, doesn’t understand why we choose to live where we do, and why we love it.
We get it. We understand it. And soon, there will be enough Alaska Native journalists so our lives are properly reflected in Alaska media.
I stopped writing my angry words. I cleaned my cranberries and put them in the freezer, rich with caribou meat, smoked fish, blueberries and moose fat. Tavra.
Enough. The shovels fall. The dirt shakes off. I know we are rich.
This story was previously published in We Alaskans, the Sunday insert in Alaska Dispatch News. As a radio news director, I was privileged to train a good number of reporters on how our small news department would reflect rural Alaska communities. I am very proud of their continued work in the media and the perspective they now bring to news organizations throughout our state and country. The media begins conversations for people, whether internal or external. For far too long the conversations spurred by Alaska media regarding rural Alaska communities has been negative and media institutions have long missed their deadline for change. We simply need more reporters who call rural Alaska home.