Ridding Alaska of honey buckets is a good but all too familiar goal

So Alaska, with the possible help of the feds, is going to once again attempt to banish honey buckets to a museum. Right. And as soon as that's done, we'll open ANWR.

My first encounter with a honey bucket occurred soon after arriving in Barrow in 1972. As a nurse, I lived in hospital housing and had a flush toilet. But the town wasn't that lucky. I was invited to a party in the village. Halfway through the evening, two gentlemen crossed the living room carrying a bucket full of liquid. I wondered what it could be. Then the pungent smell hit and I knew. I couldn't figure out why anyone would use a bucket instead of a flush toilet like God intended. I got the answer when nature called a little later and I found out what that bucket actually was.

Growing up in the Lower 48, I assumed flush toilets and running water were a birthright. I thought those amenities just came with America. My first year nursing in Barrow, I quickly learned just how precious those commodities were and how devastating their absence could be. When there is no sure clean water source, sending a mom home to soak a child's infected sore can be a risky proposition. Measles or chicken pox often meant a hospitalization for the child because it was the only way to keep the child safe and clean. It's not that the moms didn't want to. It was simply that they did not have the means to do it.

Eventually I married and moved into village housing. With a husband who was often gone on construction jobs to other villages, I often found myself facing the fun task of emptying the bucket for myself. I would haul it outside, nose wrinkled, eye watering at the very thought of what I was doing, and wondering how my life had reached that point. I quickly learned to control certain habits until I got to work where a primitive but functioning flush system was in place.

In my 28 years living in the Bush I saw a wide variety of alternative toilets come and go. Aside from the honey bucket, there were gas-fired ones. I had a friend who installed one in her home. It was not quite the success we had all hoped. Aside from friends freaked when jets of fire burst out under them if they didn't rise quickly enough, there was the fact that it was not meant for parties in which a large quantity of liquids of any sort would be imbibed. And let's not even get into the lovely odor sensed by neighbors on either side when the burning occurred.

The other popular model was the compost toilet. You fed it vegetables and in turn it gave you dirt. At least, that was the theory. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn't. For starters, vegetables are very expensive in Bush Alaska. Given what you pay for them, it's hard to get enthused about feeding those veggies to your toilet. It just seemed that they should have to go through you before getting there. Then there was the fact that you could put absolutely nothing else down it or it stopped working, which meant the first guest who disposed of paper indiscriminately could ruin a year's worth of compost.

I've lived in Alaska for over 40 years, and during that entire time I've heard of one scheme after another to rid the Bush of honey buckets and the sanitary problems that follow in their wake. The only entity that seems to have actually achieved some level of success in doing that is the North Slope Borough. And they succeeded only because property taxes from Prudhoe Bay gave the borough the money for extremely expensive, if actually well functioning, systems.


Here's the thing, though. Given the expense of most honey bucket replacement systems, the question has to be asked if the state or the feds are willing to actually spend that much money on (mostly) Native peoples in small villages. The borough did it because it is composed of the people who had to empty those buckets before a better way was available. In times of declining budgets, I'm not holding my breath that after 40 years of conversation about honey buckets they will ever actually be relegated to a museum. I guess the best we can do is keep on hoping.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Elise Patkotak

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book "Coming Into the City" is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.