Alaska News

A PEOPLE IN PERIL: Alaska’s biggest village

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

Every so often, Margaret Glastetter hauls whale baleen into the back yard of her Anchorage home to scrub off the briny grit and oil the surface to an inky sheen.

Her father, a whaling captain, ships the prized whalebone from his coastal village of Barrow, and she sells it for $150 apiece.

The baleen's faint sea odor carries Glastetter back to the Inupiat Eskimo village of her youth. But Barrow is not where she wants to live. She prefers Anchorage: Alaska's biggest and most metropolitan city.

Glastetter, an interpreter of Eskimo languages at the Alaska Native Medical Center, is one of 11,800 Alaska Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts who call Anchorage home, about 5.1 percent of 229,000 people, according to City Demographer Mike Breedlove.

Glastetter is comfortable in a culture her grandparents never could have imagined. Her children are completely absorbed by it.

Her way of life, with a toe in the village but a solid commitment to urban values, seems typical of most Natives in this city.

For the majority of Natives, including those who are leaving Alaska villages battered by poverty, alcohol abuse, despair and suicide, Anchorage is a shining city by the shore, a haven of steady wages and bright lights, a place to buy bread and meat at a shadow of their cost in the Bush.

The common Native stereotypes here the ragged drunk shuffling along a Fourth Avenue sidewalk, or the 150 or so men and women who regularly sleep on the floor at the Brother Francis Shelter and eat at Bean's Cafe, the city's soup kitchen reflect the lives of relatively few.

In this part of Alaska, many Natives work in gleaming office towers or drive trucks. They cook in restaurants or counsel in alcohol treatment centers. They join the Rotary Club, bowling leagues and PTA. They vacation in Hawaii and eat at Simon and Seafort's. Plenty have been high school sports stars, and a few have been cheerleaders. A handful sit at the top, running Native regional corporations.

Some manage to stay close to the land through hunting, fishing and berrypicking trips. "My freezer is packed with salmon," and with moose and caribou shot by a couple of brothersinlaw, said Walter Kalarek, a 49yearold Inupiat Eskimo who moved here as a boy from the western Alaska village of Solomon.

But for a visible minority, especially the newcomers, the sprawling city on the edge of Cook Inlet is the last pounding wave in a steady erosion of their culture and selfesteem.

SOME LOSE THEIR WAY

Anchorage can push people to despair, said Roy Huhndorf, a Native who was reared in the Interior village of Nulato. Huhndorf is a role model for many Natives. He is the president and chief executive of Cook Inlet Region Inc., the most prosperous of the 13 Native regional corporations created out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Whites and their technology often challenge Native selfesteem, said Huhndorf. It has been going on for 200 years, he said, and in modern Alaska, it is still. "Think of a man in a totally black room. He can move through the room if he's got his hands on the wall. For Native people though, it's like being in the middle of the room with no reference. They need something to hold on to."

Mary Wolcoff, executive director of the Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans, meets some of those looking for a handhold. Her association is a statefunded agency that helps Natives in trouble here.

"People come into Anchorage thinking it will be better. But when they find out it's not better, they go home with a feeling of failure. . . . Then the hope is gone."

"We have a client right now who came here from Bethel not long ago looking for a job. Now, he's depressed, angry, feeling very alone. He feels like he doesn't fit anywhere," said Wolcoff, who declined to name the man "because he's very shy."

Such shyness is typical among rural Natives, she said, making it difficult for them to find work here. "It's against cultural rules to tell everybody how wonderful you are."

Wolcoff's 24yearold client is living with the stepsister of an aunt, and "not doing a whole lot." Wolcoff said she worries about him because, like some Natives in his situation, he is given to drowning his sorrow in liquor when hope fades.

Robert Golley still hopes. At 31, he has whipped an alcohol problem and squeaks by on wages from flipping hamburgers. He lives with his wife and two small sons at Willow Park, stateowned, lowincome housing in downtown Anchorage.

The Golleys want to move to his wife's home village, Chuathbaluk on the Kuskokwim River, where they hope to open a grocery store with loans from the federal government.

"Everything around here is mostly based on money," said Golley, an Aleut from Adak. "You got to know how to stretch it. In the village you can go hunting and fishing. Here, you got to go to the store for your meat."

But it's bleak in the villages now, too. Recently, state officials translated the bleakness into numbers. They said 18 western Alaska villages were in critical financial condition, unable even to heat public buildings or pay the salaries of police and maintenance workers. They said at least 20 more would be in similar condition within months, victims of the oil bust of 1986.

HARD TIMES IN THE CITY

On a purely economic level, it's obvious that Anchorage offers far more opportunity. But the streets are hardly paved with gold.

Anchorage is a town where, despite enormous oil wealth in the first half of the decade, the vast majority of Natives still live in lowerincome neighborhoods, and 600 Native families are on welfare. That's one in five of all the families on welfare.

Employment figures are harder to come by since the state doesn't keep them by ethnic group. But the 1980 federal census shows that one in five workingage Natives here was unemployed that year. State labor department analyst Neil Fried said he doubts the percentage of jobless Natives has changed for the better in the face of hard times brought by oil industry decline.

This is a community where some 400 Natives have been identified by the state's largest publicly funded alcohol treatment facility as trapped in chronic alcohol abuse.

And this is a city where Natives, as a percentage of the population, get hit by cars and raped far more often than nonNatives, and they are more likely to die through violence.

The violent death rate for Anchorage Natives is much higher than that for nonNatives. In a study of all deaths in Anchorage in 1985, thencity Health Director Rodman Wilson found that of the 133 Natives who died that year, 44, or 33 percent, died violently from causes ranging from suicide to motor vehicle accidents and homicide. By contrast, 23 percent, or 154 of 661 nonNatives, died violently.

State health figures show that nine Anchorage Natives aged 15 to 39 committed suicide in the two years of 1983 and 1984, for a rate of 90 per 100,000. The state had no figures of nonNative suicides in Anchorage for the period, but raw figures from the city health department showed a nonNative rate of less than 30 per 100,000.

THE ROLE OF ALCOHOL

Alcohol abuse plays a major role in the tragedies that befall Natives in Anchorage. Exactly how major is a matter of some conjecture since figures and statistics are incomplete at best.

Chronic abuse in the Native community "is worse than you think," in Anchorage and in Alaska, asserted Mary Stachelrodt, a Yupik Eskimo and director of the Amouak Alcoholism Treatment Program in Mountain View. The disease, and the calamity it brings, "is at its peak," she said. But in Anchorage, she said, there is still too much denial of the problem. The tiny Amouak program tailors its treatment regimen especially for Natives.

The Clitheroe Center, the Salvation Army's alcohol and drug treatment facility at Point Woronzof, is the biggest in the state and treats most of the Anchorage Natives who seek help, 570 different people between July 1, 1986, and March 30 of 1987.

Among the five statefunded alcohol and drug facilities in Anchorage, 680, or 27 percent, of the clients in a recent ninemonth period, were Natives, state records show.

Natives who want to cure their alcohol addictions probably have a better chance of succeeding in Anchorage because of the array of support and counseling services here, Stachelrodt said. But that's as far as it goes, she said. The decision to quit booze is a personal one and as difficult here as in the village.

Natives incapacitated by alcohol are particularly prey to one type of violent urban death as pedestrians, they get struck by vehicles on busy streets.

State Epidemiologist John Middaugh called the problem a "largely unrecognized epidemic that cries for attention and effective action."

In a fiveyearspan, 1980 through 1984, Middaugh said, about 40 percent of the pedestrians struck and killed on Anchorage streets were Natives 18 of 45 victims. The Native death rate was 16 times greater than for nonNatives, he said.

Eleven, or 61 percent of Native pedestrians killed in Anchorage during the period in question, had been drinking when they died, Middaugh said.

VICTIMS OF RAPE

Alcohol plays a large role in another danger for Natives in Anchorage rape.

The city's rape crisis center, Standing Together Against Rape, keeps the only rape statistics that show the ethnic backgrounds of victims, and the figures show that Natives, who comprise about 5 percent of the Anchorage population, suffered almost 17 percent of the rapes from 1980 through 1986. Of 2,608 rapes reported to STAR in those years, 419 of the victims were Native, according to figures supplied by STAR Director Suzanne Perry.

Assistant Police Chief Del Smith said that too often the victims have been drinking, reducing their ability to spot dangerous situations. Both he and Perry said another big factor is that Natives from rural Alaska are too trusting when they come to the big city.

Often, Native rape victims are spotted by their assailants while hitchhiking or drinking in bars, Perry said.

"What we find is the assailant wants to pick on somebody that looks vulnerable and behaves in a very vulnerable way," and Native newcomers, less exposed to human vultures, can be easy pickings, she said.

Extreme as STAR's Native rape statistics are, the incidence of Native rape in Anchorage is probably higher, said Perry. Many nonNative victims do not report attacks, but even more Natives probably do not, she said.

Martha Upicksoun, an Inupiat reared in Anchorage, said she knew one young Native woman who became a statistic only because Upicksoun bothered to report that the friend had been sexually assaulted.

The woman's experience is a good example of what happens to too many Native women, Upicksoun said.

The woman, from Bethel, came to Anchorage for a visit. "I met her at the airport," Upicksoun said, "and I brought her into Anchorage and she went to a party. She got in a fight with her boyfriend. She left the party and started hitchhiking. She was picked up by a white male. He asked her where she wanted to go. She was distraught, under the influence of alcohol. She said she didn't have anyplace to go. She didn't know where she wanted to go."

"I guess he interpreted that as an invitation to take her into some woods and have her perform some sexual acts on him. She finally was able to break free from him. He let her go. Some women aren't so lucky, they are robbed, raped, beaten, left on the road," said Upicksoun.

"This woman called me and asked me to pick her up. I did talk with people at the hospital and rape crisis center. But she never would have called anybody. She wouldn't even know who to call," said Upicksoun.

Native newcomers and visitors like Upicksoun's friend are more likely to be victimized in some manner in Anchorage than are seasoned residents. That's obvious, most observers agreed.

As obvious, they said, is that Anchorage's Native population is far larger than the city's official number of 11,800, and many are newcomers feeling hard times in the villages.

A GROWING POPULATION

The city counts only Natives who live in Anchorage for much of the year. But less official indications are that several thousand more live here for weeks and months, staying with uncles, offspring, cousins and friends.

City Demographer Breedlove said that, indeed, Native population growth has quickened in recent years. He said the official Native population grew by about 1,700 people, or about 17 percent, between July 1984 and July 1987, even as the overall population fell by about 15,000 or 6.1 percent.

But he was unwilling to attribute the trend to hard times brought by recent reductions in state oil revenue.

The increasing number of Natives in Anchorage "is certainly out of the ordinary," Breedlove said. But he added that the Native population here grew by almost 15 percent between 1980 and 1984, a time when village Alaska enjoyed unparalleled prosperity brought by state oil revenue.

Others, who deal with newcomers every day, disagreed.

"I know we're getting increased client loads. We're getting a lot of people having a lot of economic problems," said Esther Combs, executive director of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the social services arm of Cook Inlet Region Inc. At least a portion are newcomers, she said.

"They want a better life for themselves," added Stachelrodt.

In contrast to traditional village life, there is no larger community to which they can turn for help here. The Native community of Anchorage is fractured into tiny circles of relatives and friends who attend church together or play bingo together or hunt and fish together. It's a long way from village life, where the tradition is communal.

Moreover, a great many Natives here have slipped into white culture so thoroughly that they hardly consider themselves Native, said Louis Jacquot, the Native counselor at Wendler Junior High School.

Jacquot, a Tlingit from Haines, is a serious observer of Alaska Native cultures and the wrenching changes they have undergone.

Most of the 65 Native kids enrolled at Wendler are typical seventh and eighthgraders who do not dwell on their ethnic backgrounds, Jacquot said. "When I bring them in here, some of them wonder why they're in here, and I say: "Why, you're Native.' They ask what that's got to do with it. Sometimes I get an irate parent telling me: "I don't want my kid treated like an Indian,' " Jacquot said.

But assimilation carries a price. "One of the things that the Native people aren't doing anymore, they're not gathering together. They're not coalescing like they used to" to defeat new threats like alcoholism, hopelessness and suicide, he said.

"There is just too much inner division." He gave an example. He said he went to several Native corporations in an effort to get Christmas gifts for Native teens in the city's juvenile jail, the McLaughlin Youth Center.

"They wanted to know the names of these kids, and, of course, I told them I couldn't give them out. So they asked for (the names of) villages they were from. I told them I couldn't give that out either. Besides, I told them, "You should already know who is here from your villages,' " Jacquot said, his voice rising in anger.

Those Native corporations, though, are still looked upon by many as a springboard to economic power and a brighter destiny.

Anchorage School Board member Darryl Jordan, 32, a lifelong Anchorage Native, believes Native corporations are and will continue to be an important positive force.

"In the next 10 years we will see more of these organizations really going somewhere," said Jordan, an ARCO Alaska engineer and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"You look at the people working in some of these corporations now, and I see some real strength there," Jordan said. "It makes me feel good."

ONE MAN'S PRIDE

At 69, Albert Yakasoff remembers what it was like to be a Native back when many white Alaskans would have hooted at the thought that Natives would one day run big corporations.

Yakasoff was raised in Anchorage, and he watched it grow from a railroad construction camp to a sprawling city.

The son of an Aleut father and Athabascan mother, Yakasoff worked hard all his life as a tradesman. He endured prejudice against Alaska Natives when it was as blatant as the "No Natives or Filipinos Allowed" in the window of the Anchorage Grill.

He's not bitter, and he doesn't much care to dwell on the the big questions facing his people now the continuing clash of cultures, economic hardship, selfdestruction.

Yakasoff is proud that he has thrived despite the adversity. He figures that ultimately every person must size up the world for himself and make his own way.

“I just figure a man makes a man out of himself regardless of who the hell he is,” said Yakasoff.

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