Back to School: Alaska (Part Two)

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Author’s Note: “The Alaska Native Health Board (ANHB) is the statewide voice on Alaska Native health issues. Active for over 40 years as an advocacy organization for the health needs and concerns of all Alaska Native people, ANHB continues to emphasize the importance of self-determination in healthcare services and encourages wellness and healthy ways of life in Native communities through policy change.” ANHB Website

In August 1990, I began my Master of Public Health (MPH) graduate program at the School of Public Health, University of Hawai’i, USA. The following summer, I headed off to Alaska for my field research project, working with the ANHB to study and produce an analysis of issues, policies and programs affecting Alaska Native health.  The document served as the initial briefing paper for a joint Federal and State review of the geo-political, economic, environmental, cultural, psycho-social and other critical issues affecting Alaska Natives.

Field Research

Buckled in next to the pilot in a two-seater helicopter, we flew to a gravel strip alongside the scant row of houses on a wide bay across from the Kenai Peninsula. Port Graham, an Aleut village of 200 people, was hosting a first-ever youth ‘Spirit Camp’ organized by the Alaska Native Health Board, with 30 teenagers from seven communities participating.

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Flying into Native communities in Southeastern Alaska

It brought back wonderful memories of my YMCA youth work over the years in the USA and abroad. Led by Don, a gifted and charismatic Native youth leader, they addressed the various pressing social issues and youth concerns with creative, engaging activities and discussion, including a powerful drama performance on the problems of alcohol abuse.

Flying north to Kotzebue village above the Arctic Circle in ‘the land of the midnight sun’ we watched the sun drop to the horizon to the west over the Bering Sea and then rise again – never setting. Then, by car we followed the gravel road through a wide and lonely expanse of low-lying hills to Nome where I was hosted by a local family and their 16 sled dogs.

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The road to Nome, Alaska

Driving on to the village of Teller, we picked salmon berries, learned about ‘honey buckets’ from the community health workers, and then drove to the end of one of the few remaining roads in this part of Western Alaska, through spectacular rolling hills, past sparkling clear streams draining distant snow peaks and emptying out into the Bering Sea to the west.

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A local health worker tending to a young patient

Then following a hectic week back in Anchorage typing up field notes, we flew to the sizable community of Bethel, located on the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska to visit their hospital, aptly named the “Yellow Submarine” due to its tubular shape and color.

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Approaching the Yupic Eskimo village of Kipnuk

Continuing by light aircraft from Bethel, we flew over vast stretches of barren, misty tundra to Kipnuk village on the Lower Delta Region of the Kuskokwim River where we were searched for drugs upon arrival – except for one passenger who refused to be subjected to this thorough and somewhat invasive procedure, and left immediately on the return flight.

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Search House at Kipnuk village airport

One by one, the rest of us were taken into a small shed next to the airstrip where we were instructed to remove our outer garments and footwear while the official went through our bags – including my notebook page by page – looking for ‘micro-dot’ doses of illicit drugs.

Each of the 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska is essentially a separate ‘sovereign’ entity or ‘nation’ with the right to make their own laws and be governed by them. As such, local tribal ordinances in some communities have mandated thorough searches of passengers on all in-coming flights. These procedures are viewed as an essential part of the on-going battle to keep drugs out of their communities.

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A boardwalk over the tundra in Kipnuk village, Western Alaska

In Kipnuk, a tiny shamble of roughly built, weather-beaten wooden houses sporting TV satellite dishes punctuated an otherwise barren landscape. A solitary child rode his bike along the small patchwork of village boardwalks that straddled a sea of rubbish immediately below. The flat, mushy summer tundra stretched as far as the eye could see under the cold, misty grey sky.

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Flying on to Alakanuk city on the Lower Yukon Delta we enjoyed spectacular scenery by light aircraft – flying over thousands of mirror-like ponds and squiggly waterways flowing through the multiple shades of greenest tundra feeding the Yukon-Kuskoquim Rivers and flowing out to the Bering Sea and on to Siberia.

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Local health workers at Alakanuk City Health Center, ‘leased’ to the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare

An occasional white tent marked a riverside fishing camp. Moose and herds of Caribou moved across the vast expanses stretching to the horizon.

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Anchorage

By mid-August, the first snow had dusted the earth. In just one more week, I would be enjoying Hawai’i’s balmy breezes and inviting seas. But it was time to decompress. Travelling around Alaska and meeting everybody for interviews was exhausting and stressful, and the whirlwind trip had taken its toll on my health. I had come to the conclusion that short-term intensive consultancies were probably not for me.

Check-up at a local clinic

Just short, quick investigative visits in and out of a given community, and still expected to somehow absorb a sufficient understanding of the often complex situations. I also missed the sense of commitment to the place and the people as I had experienced on longer-term projects, like in Samoa and Thailand. But overall, it had been an extraordinary experience – very special. And I hoped that my input would result in a useful contribution towards addressing the formidable and on-going challenges affecting Alaska Native health.

Indeed, the people I met were exceedingly warm and gentle, and perhaps the most spiritual people I had ever known. When asked to describe themselves, it was always a ‘circle’ – balanced and in harmony with the universe.

Health staff at the Port Graham Health Clinic, Southeastern Alaska

But it was time to leave Alaska, and I enjoyed my last bike ride in Anchorage along the coastal trail between rain showers, breathing in the rich, moist cool and invigorating air, alive with green growth everywhere. I would miss it when the sun is out, but not the damp chilling rain, or the blustery north wind whipping across cold grassy marshes.

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Spectacular scenery flying over Alaska’s interior

All so very beautiful – wildlife roaming freely. But I was ready to get back to Hawai’i’s warm sea breezes and refreshing swims in the clear, sub-tropical waters. At last, handing over the finished document — with glowing evaluations from the Alaska Native Health Board and the Alaska Federation of Natives — I was content, and ready for a good rest.

The Crash

I felt it coming after returning from Alaska in August. And it all stopped abruptly after losing Nit in December – she had married a Thai. Then the parting of friends at graduation, coupled with having lost Jessie when she married the year before, which symbolized a severance from the perpetual high of the past decade or so. The high and wide wave I had been riding for the first 18 months back in the USA had finally crested and crashed.

Eventually, I began to come out of the long bout of depression, culture shock and life-phase re-evaluation. But the painful sting of lost relationships remained – the consequence of living a transient, temporary existence everywhere – and forever negotiating that fine line between stability and stagnation.

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View of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa campus from my study room at the East West Center, Honolulu, Hawai’i USA

So at last, it was back to the good life in Hawai’i – taking it all in. Three all-you-can-eat buffet meals each day, biking to the beach, swimming in the sea, stressed mainly from the busy social life, but most content to be in the library with my nose in the literature.

The view up into the mountains from my study room was spectacular. Misty, mid-morning showers brightening into rainbows, arching across the valley. Then suddenly, the semester was over, but more critically, the all-you-can-eat student meal plan was over as well! 

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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