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Rural Alaska deserves better

  • Author: Lisa Alexia
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 17
  • Published February 17

The village of Noorvik on December 2, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

In March 2006, I worked in a remote clinic with frozen sewer pipes, in a community with failing generators. At six months pregnant, I needed to pee every hour of every workday. Between March and June (when the pipes finally thawed and got repaired), I drove home on the four-wheeler several times each morning and afternoon to use the toilet. It occurred to me on one of those trips to wonder if the legislators in Juneau had any idea what they were doing when they slashed state funding to the villages, which they did for several years during that period. Our community lost state funding that paid for an administrator to organize things like regular maintenance, to ensure that the city building fuel tank never ran out, that the generators were properly maintained. Volunteers did the best they could, but those frozen clinic sewer pipes were one of many examples of the damage that takes place to infrastructure when the money required to maintain a system dries up.

I thought, perhaps, that legislators simply lacked an understanding of what it means to live in rural Alaska, in the villages and out camping, fishing, hunting. In my more cynical moments, I feared that perhaps legislators knew exactly what they were doing: trying to undermine the foundation of civil supports to rural Alaska with the full hope of watching educated people leave the rural areas and the state. As “brain drain” occurs, fewer effective voices remain to resist the onslaught of resource extraction. And that, I feared, was and is the ultimate goal. Although rural funding was restored around 2007, it didn’t come back before significant damage to remote communities and their infrastructure had already taken place. And rural Alaska is ever vulnerable to a state government that lacks a deep respect for its history.

Fast forward: I have no doubt that the current budget proposal will disproportionately impact rural Alaska.

It feels like the current administration is proving my most cynical fears to be true. Alaska’s governor and a number of our legislators appear to be getting aggressive about cutting out the foundation of Alaska’s government structure, and along with that, trying to rapidly increase resource extraction. A sudden, drastic cut in state and other professional jobs will likely result in the departure from the state of thousands of educated people, leaving behind fewer voices to protest in the language of law that is sometimes the only effective means to object to resource extraction that can devastate the subsistence way of life. At the same time, the current budget proposal threatens to disintegrate our educational system at all levels. These institutions are vital to our all our children’s future, to be able to understand economic changes and appropriately manage them.

Meanwhile, the exodus from the villages to the cities has already been going on for some time. In the coming months and years, let’s remember that forced relocation, through laws that require student education but fail to provide that education in place, is a strategy of genocide. Cutting funding to health and education now, after years of under-funding, utterly fails to acknowledge the colonial, genocidal relationship between the U.S. and its first peoples. As families transition to urban areas, rural schools have already been closing around the state. The rate of suicide among young Alaska Natives is around five times the state’s overall suicide rate: This is a direct effect of cultural disruption. The challenges faced in Anchorage and the state with regard to mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide are, in large part, a direct result of such cultural disruption and displacement. The budgetary threats to health care institutions will only make these problems worse for everyone, and will worsen the opioid epidemic.

At the same time as these draconian budget measures are being proposed, the state and federal governments appear to be actively fast-tracking every major mining and drilling permit possible despite tremendous tribal, statewide, and nationwide opposition. Pebble, Donlin, ANWR and other projects are being pushed all at once. Let’s be clear: mining for minerals and oil in rural Alaska isn’t the same as in the Lower 48. There are fewer warm bodies in rural Alaska to object to projects than in the Lower 48, and the land has far more intact habitat. And the few people that are living in rural Alaska depend intimately on the integrity of the land and water to support the wildlife. This isn’t just about aesthetics; a visual buffer does not fool the salmon or caribou. Although surface and subsurface land ownership is complicated, all holes drilled into the earth and other industry land development have impacts that extend far beyond any simple land title, through extensive water passageways and animal migration patterns. Once habitat has been destroyed, it’s expensive if not impossible to restore it. Ask the indigenous people of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California about what happened to salmon in their homelands.

Literature from around the world tells of tragedy when indigenous people are displaced from rural homelands to the city. Alaska is home to some of the last populations of indigenous people in the country, and perhaps the world, who are still living on their homelands and maintaining deep cultural ties to those lands through both language and active subsistence culture. We are at a critical juncture. History will scrutinize the decisions made by this Legislature.

Let’s rewrite that legacy. I will continue to hope that there are enough brave Alaskans, indigenous, and more recent immigrants, who will stand together to hold our legislators accountable to making decisions with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in mind, rather than the next election or their wallet.

Lisa Alexia is a physician assistant with specialty certification in psychiatry, who practices in rural Alaska. She was previously a community health practitioner in a remote village.

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