Hard times bring about Alaska migration influx

BETHEL, Alaska – A hearing of the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs in Bethel to investigate the high energy costs in rural Alaska Native villages was convened Aug. 28 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Her aim was to begin a constructive dialogue that would allow Alaska Native people to explore sustainable energy sources and conservation practices to cut the exceedingly high energy costs in villages around the state. Energy costs are usually named as the biggest factor forcing villagers out of their homes and into the cities.

Murkowski encouraged Alaska Natives to stay in their communities, where they can preserve their cultures and societies. Witnesses at the hearing talked about fuel costs that top $6 a gallon, and buying a gallon of milk for $10. Other witnesses provided figures showing up to 80 percent of rural household incomes going to meet energy costs.

A month later, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau wrote a letter to Gov. Sarah Palin, asking her to establish an emergency task force in response to the large influx of students from the “bush” into Anchorage and other cities around the state.

The additional 500 Native students that came into Anchorage schools indicate that a large out-migration is already taking place. The Anchorage School District reported nearly that exact number over its expected enrollment for this school year. As a result, the district has hired an additional 18 teachers and 15 more teacher aides to meet the increased need for staffing in the district.

As students and their families leave the bush to move into towns and cities, the decreased enrollment in rural schools leads to school closures in smaller communities and makes it even harder for rural Alaska Natives to stay in their homes. Schooling in rural communities has already been under serious strain. Difficulty in retaining teachers and pressures of the No Child Left Behind Act have taken their toll. And life for rural students is often distinctly different than anywhere else in the country: A recent Anchorage Daily News story reported that in South Nanek, where a school closed a few years ago, students are flown to another school in a neighboring village every day.

In a recent interview, Larry Merculieff, of the Alaska Native Science Commission, stated that rural residents in Alaska are being hit harder by energy costs than any other group in the United States. He views sustainable energy sources and village control of those resources as one solution.

Merculieff, whose home is in the Aleutian Islands, also sees the out-migration as a symptom of global warming. He said that subsistence foods are being affected: “In the Bering Sea, 23 major wildlife subsistence foods are disappearing.”

Merculieff said the people staying behind are the people who don’t want to give up their way of life to adapt to urban living, or they simply can’t afford the plane ride out of their village into another town or city. In Alaska, plane tickets are the only way out of most rural areas.

The letter from Begich and Comeau states: “A prosperous, culturally diverse Alaska depends on both flourishing villages and thriving cities, so we cannot stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska.” The letter went on to list the lack of jobs, health care and safety concerns in addition to energy costs as causes for the out-migration. They urged the governor to create an emergency task force that would include local, state and federal officials and asked that immediate steps be taken to “stem this trend taking place in our state.”

Referring to the Senate Indian Affairs hearing, they requested that the committee’s recommendations of bond financing, expanding the state’s refining capacity, and increasing the funding for a program that seeks to level out fuel costs between rural and urban Alaska be considered as a starting point. They also requested consideration of energy assistance to cover rural schools, clinics and businesses that are struggling under energy costs. The mayor and the superintendent both offered to provide financial and staff support to help find solutions.

As of press time, there has been no public acknowledgment from the governor’s office of the letter. The staff in Palin’s Anchorage office said that a statement was being prepared and would be made available.