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Alaska’s Cultural Connections: Moving To The Mat-Su

By | June 3, 2013

For over a decade, the Matunuska-Susitna Borough has outstripped the rest of Alaska in population growth. From 2000 to 2012, the borough increased by over 34,000 residents. That 58 percent rate is nearly four times Anchorage and the state as a whole. One group finding the Mat-Su particularly attractive are Alaska Natives.

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A little over five years ago, Billy Kay Lee moved directly from Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska to the Mat-Su Borough. The mother of three elementary aged girls never considered living in Anchorage, although her first job was in the city and demanded commuting for a year.

“Here in the Valley it just seems a little bit more put together for me. Everybody is right here. We go out somewhere and you see somebody you know whether from day care or work or where ever.  It’s kinda such a small community. We always see each other and communicate with each other. Kids play together,” she said.

The last U.S. Census shows the Alaska Native and American Indian population of the Mat-Su jumped by more than 60 percent from 10 years earlier.

“No matter where you go, you see somebody that looks like from home, or they are from home. I have some girls from Noorvik who live out here. There’s actually some girls from Noatak that live out here that I know. There’s just so many people out here, I couldn’t even count them all. At least a hundred that are just from home alone, meaning the NANA region,” Billy said.

It’s not altogether surprising if the Knik area resident encounters a lot of familiar faces. Inupiaqs now outnumber all other Native groups in the Mat-Su Borough.

But even with all those folks “from home”, Billy Kay says teaching her daughters traditional knowledge and skills can be challenging.

“It costs a lot of money to bring them home, at least a thousand dollars per child. And when you work full time and you have three kids and you play sports and do all kinds of other things, and you have a mortgage, truck payment, you just don’t get to go home every other month and do stuff we do to harvest food,” she said.

Her parents and relatives bring traditional foods from Shungnak and the upper Kobuk Overall Billy Kay thinks her children are developing their cultural identity.

“We kinda teach them a sense of who we are in different ways and kinda use the resources that we have out here to kinda bring it together in every way we can. But every day, we don’t I don’t talk Inupiaq with them because I’m not  close enough, I don’t hear it every day, so they obviously don’t hear it every day. They definitely know who we are and where we come from. They say they’re Valley Eskimos,” Billy said.

It was after her kids were grown and her parents had died that Lillian Lewis moved to the Valley.

“It was good. I got to raise my boys up there. They got to know my family,” Lillian said.

Lillian comes from Kotzebue. Her husband, Larry, is from Rhinelander, Wisconsin. They’re sitting in the back yard of their home on a hill not far from Knik Goose Bay Road. Beyond their gardens, berry bushes, apple and pear trees, is an unobstructed view of Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Range.

For 17 of their more than 40 years together, they lived in Kotzebue, where Larry relished his time spent hunting, trapping and commercial fishing.

In the late 1980s, Larry was hired for construction work at the developing Red Dog Mine   That was followed by a mine  job which meant a weeks on/weeks off schedule. They had some friends in the Valley and in 1992 purchased to their present home.

“For warmer weather . It was too cold up north. So I decided to come south.”

Larry, who is now retired, had lasted only six months living in Anchorage. The city noise got to him.

“I didn’t want to live in Anchorage after living in the Village, so we moved out here bought this house. My kids would come out from Anchorage and say, ‘Dad, what are you doing living out here?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s so quiet.’ That’s why I live out here,” Larry said.

Then, too, there was all that hunting and fishing the Valley offered. Like Billy Kay, Larry doesn’t regret moving to the Mat-Su, despite all the changes that come with the population increase.

“It’s a good place to live. The hunting and fishing was great, but I see it disappearing, but we love the Valley and I think this is where we’re gonna be until the lord comes back or we go to meet him,” Larry said.

With that observation, Larry sought shade from the hot May sun, while Lillian scurried toward the garden.

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