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Sarah Palin accompanies food delivery to rural Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska Governor Sarah Palin accompanied Franklin Graham, son of American icon and evangelist Billy Graham to the Alaska Native communities of Russian Mission and Marshall Feb. 20 to deliver boxes of food to village residents. Graham heads up Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian evangelical mission-based relief organization.

Among the many people who came to meet Palin and who sought to speak with her was Nicholas Tucker, the man whose letter to a local newspaper describing dire conditions in his home village of Emmonak set off a flurry of concern for Alaska’s rural residents.

His January letter described families who had to choose between heating oil or food, and parents who passed up meals to feed their children. In response, donations have been coming into rural Alaska since, and the state has sent commissioners to confer with village residents on untapped state aid. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called on the BIA, which offered monetary assistance.

In a video by Alaska Newspapers Inc., Tucker can be seen speaking first to Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Though there have been copious news stories over the last few weeks spotlighting Tucker’s letter, Parnell evidently believed the elderly and softspoken Tucker was a blogger.

Tucker approached Palin with quiet humility as he sought her assistance, “First of all I want to thank you for the fact that you acknowledged the needs of our people, not only in Emmonak, but throughout; and as a common citizen, I have deep respect for government because they have power and I don’t.”

After a hug from the governor, Tucker continued his plea, “And one of the things is, don’t forget us. The thing is, this is temporary help, but we need sustainable jobs – fisheries.”

During the exchange Palin told the recently oft-repeated story of her husband finding work on Alaska’s North Slope where he could work for a few weeks, then return to live in his home community and continue a “subsistence lifestyle”. She told him, in part, “See, that’s what these resource development jobs allow, just like with my husband, he didn’t have to leave forever. ...”

However, Todd Palin graduated from Wasilla High School and the Palin family still resides there. Governor Palin has suggested employment in jobs such as those in the oil industry that require at least a temporary departure from villages as a primary response to the unemployment in rural Alaska. (Those jobs may become harder to find as one of Alaska’s largest oil producers has recently announced job layoffs.)

It was clear that Tucker’s hopes lie in strengthening local communities, “We want you to think about this. We have a long way to go. The healthier, more jobs in the villages, more opportunities, you wouldn’t have to come back to us.”

Tucker’s sentiments have been echoed by others who are helping to provide short-term relief while focusing on ideas for long-term solutions.

Ann Strongheart, of Nunam Iqua, has been organizing donations for her community and recently branched out to assist other villages nearby. When weather allows a plane to land in Nunam Iqua, Strongheart bundles up, heads out on her snowmobile, picks up the donations and distributes them to neighbors. Donations have also been going directly to families through a system of “adoptions” as concerned people from across the country send needed items directly to specific households. Strongheart has been actively distributing food to communities for the last two months.

On Pilot Point, food donations are being assisted by another local resident, Victoria Briggs. In all, thousands of pounds of donations have made their way into villages.

Though separated by hundreds of miles, Strongheart and Briggs are working together and networking with bloggers to spread the word and share stories about life in the villages. In a post dated March 10, Strongheart reported that the Nunam Iqua Food Drive received close to 900 pounds of food and supplies over the last week. Boxes of goods come from locations around Alaska, states all across the country, and even other countries.

Briggs and Strongheart are also participating in a national conversation on a blog dubbed Anonymous Bloggers aimed at supporting sustainable solutions for rural Alaska. Both were recently interviewed by the Alaska Public Radio Network to talk about the success of the current food drives and the need for solutions that will make future food drives unnecessary. Like Tucker, they are aiming for solutions that will strengthen, not diminish Alaska Native rural communities.

As a postscript to his conversation with Governor Palin, a second letter from Tucker was published by The Arctic Sounder after they spoke. Evidently confounded by the governor’s proposed solutions to rural unemployment, her comments about village leadership, and her failure to respond to a longstanding invitation to visit Emmonak, Tucker’s letter criticized the governor’s lack of understanding and what he perceives as her lack of respect. This time he asked for an apology.