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Alaska Natives "escape" from the state in new TLC reality show

Kyle Hopkins

Halfway through the trailer for “Escaping Alaska,” an upcoming reality show on TLC, a photogenic young woman appears wearing a fur-lined parka. Her name is Nuala and for millions of cable viewers, she will soon be the face of Barrow, Alaska.

“Most Alaska Natives don’t ever leave the village that they are from. When people do, it’s considered treason,” she tells the camera.

A series of images flash on the screen: Two young women are spotted through tree branches, carrying luggage. “I don’t want to get caught,” someone says. A split-second of darkness follows. Footsteps crunch in the snow.

“What was that?!” a cast member says.

At this point in many Alaska reality shows, the audience might see shaky footage of a bear lumbering through the woods. But it’s not the wildlife the Alaska Native cast of “Escaping Alaska” is running from.

Filmed earlier this year, the show is one of the first reality series to focus on Inupiaq and Yupik people from towns and villages off the road system. It premieres July 27 and many Alaska Natives are not happy with what they’ve seen so far.

“I am truly disappointed in this short preview -- people walking in the dark with their belongings and moving out is being called treason. How embarrassing,” Mary Sage of Barrow wrote on the popular Facebook page “I am Alaska Native.”

“The sad part is that these young Natives will forever be associated with whatever outcomes of the show are,” she wrote.

In the nine years since "Deadliest Catch" premiered, Alaskans have become accustomed to seeing their state reflected through a reality TV camera lens. The number of non-fiction TV shows filming here -- "Alaska Moose Men," "Alaska Bush People," "Slednecks," among many others -- has jumped from three in 2009 to more than 20 a year now, according the state agency that subsidizes the productions.

Many of the shows center on dangerous jobs and quirky, well-armed beardos. By casting Alaska Natives eager to explore the Outside, “Escaping Alaska” represents a variation on the successful fish-out-of-water reality formula.

“Young Eskimos plot their escape to the Lower 48,” TLC and Discovery Networks International announced in a recent news release to entertainment media.

The cast members, all in their late teens to mid-20s, are from Nome, Barrow, Noorvik, Tanana and Kotzebue, according to the producers. Moderators for “I am Alaska Native” asked their 5,000 Facebook fans to react to the "Escaping Alaska" trailer on Sunday night. The backlash was swift.

More than 100 irritated and angry posts appeared within 12 hours.

“Disgusting! …  Just another show to make fools of our people on TV,” wrote a woman from Wales.

AnneMarie Nicolaides, one of three administrators for the page, said she’s excited to see other Yup’ik and Alaska Natives on national television. But many young people leave rural Alaska with the full support of their families, she said.

Nicolaides is 29 and now lives in San Diego, where the cast “escapes” to, she said. “I’m also worried that our culture will be misrepresented. We are already viewed in very stereotypical, outdated and one-dimensional ways.”

Executive producer Jon Sechrist said he hopes Alaskans will watch the series before judging it.

“'Escaping Alaska' is about five young native Alaskans and their point of view during this stage in their lives, and not meant to portray the experience of every Alaskan,” he wrote in an email.

Producers transplanted the Alaskans to a California youth hostel for a month, he said. There they find a world of new dating options, cheap groceries and surfers.

Some were nervous. Some didn’t necessarily want to come back, said Sechrist, whose credits include “Cake Boss,” “Sister Wives” and the TLC documentary “650 lb. Virgin.”

“TLC has always been a home for the remarkable meets the relatable. And we like to delve into subcultures, whether it’s about little people or gypsies or the Amish or plural marriage,” Sechrist said in a phone interview. 

“Escaping Alaska” creators Hot Snakes Media also made "Breaking Amish," a show about seemingly sheltered young adults who travel to the big city and must decide whether to leave their community behind. That breakout show spawned two seasons and a spin-off. Critics said it sometimes misled viewers. Two cast members portrayed as strangers who meet over the course of the first season were later found to already have a child together, for example.

Sechrist said “it’s great to be in the company of 'Breaking Amish,'” but added that he can’t speak to any inaccuracies on that show because he didn’t work on the series.

"Escaping Alaska" creators rejected applicants who had clearly left the state long ago to launch Hollywood careers, he said.

”You look at some shows and say, ‘Wow, they are basically reading a script.' That is not the case for us," Sechrist said.

Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka said it’s too early to say whether the new TLC series is thoughtfully exploring the balancing act of modern and traditional cultures that faces rural Alaskans or exploiting Alaska young people.

“Our hope would be that it would be accurate and authentic. And that it’s not just, you know, movie star stuff,” she said.

For now, the only thing Alaskans have to judge is the trailer. Viewers of the 75-second clip might assume some of the young Alaskans are sneaking away from their home towns or villages in the dark of night.

“Eskimo communities are very insular and leaving is considered the worst betrayal in that culture, forcing these young people to not only leave their families, but mislead them with their intentions.” TLC says in a plot summary for the series. “Instead of revealing to their families that they want to leave for California to explore their independence and find work, they each create a unique cover story to deceive their families and leave home.”

Sechrist said the cast members told their families “white lies” about why they were participating in a reality show.

“The kids felt that their parents would not be happy knowing if they left,” the producer said. “Each kid tells a different story of where they are going. They basically tell their families they are traveling somewhere, but in Alaska. They don’t tell them they are going off to San Diego.”

Asked if the cast members really came up with the idea that they would each tell a "white lie" to explain the camera crews to their families, or if that was a direction given to them by the production team, Sechrist said it was a "group discussion."

“The kids were planning on leaving and they wanted to get out of Alaska. And there were ways that we talked with them, as far as like, 'How would we do this and how would it work?'” Sechrist answered.

Spoiler alert, in other words. “Escaping Alaska” is no documentary.

Still, Sechrist insists the show will explore a common truth for young people growing up in small towns all over the country.

“These young people shared a story that young people all over the world basically share. Wanting to journey out and start off their lives,” he said.

Sechrist declined to identify the cast members, beyond the first names and hometowns listed on the show. Two cast members did not respond to attempts to contact them for interviews.

TLC describes “Escaping Alaska” as a limited, six-episode series that will premiere in the U.S. before broadcast in more than 200 countries. The producers have not ruled out returning for a second season.

“I do think there’s potential for more,’ Sechrist said.