Alaska Cultural Connections: Staying In The Bush

Moving from urban anywhere to rural Alaska can be a tough transition – some newcomers don’t last long, worn down by the long winters or a feeling of isolation.  Others stay, sometimes for years.  Len Anderson talked to some Northwest Alaska residents to find out what makes the difference.

For 30 years Irma Mitchell has been the secretary at the Shungnak village school.  She’s seen a lot of teachers come and go. Some quit after one year, maybe two.

As for longer term principals….

“What makes a good principal is, they just do learn our culture and learn our kids, the village.  And they come back and they’re four, five years, some principals.

Last spring, Hans Boenish and his wife, Bonnie, finished a long career of bush teaching.

“It’s really, really important—I can’t emphasize this enough—that you get out and see what’s going on out in the community.  Go down and fish, take a boat ride.  Get to know people outside of the school system,” Boenish said.

They began in Noorvik in 1978, then Shungnak, taught in Grayling and moved back to Shungnak for their final three years. Hans’s advice comes from his own early years.

“We lived in village housing, in a cabin down by the river, and so much goes on down by the river and so many decisions get made down there.  Decisions get made on the riverbank.  They don’t get made necessarily in offices,” Boenish said.

Boenish adds by getting out with the people, being a decent person, the newcomer reaps an additional reward.

“Particularly in the bush, you might make mistakes, but if your intentions are good and people know you’re really giving it your all, doing your best and you really doing what’s best for kids, they’ll allow you a lot of mistake. It’s a forgiving culture,” Boenish said.

Doug Neal has lived 25 years in the Northwest Alaska hub community of Kotzebue. For 19 years he’s worked for OTZ Telephone Cooperative and is now executive director.

“I know one of the challenges that non-Natives have coming have when they come to Kotzebue is that most of them are too. It seems like too many of them are just coming up to make money and then get…leave as soon as they can.  And of course, if you live anywhere and all you’re doing is going back and forth between where you work and where you live—I don’t care if it’s Kotzebue or some urban part of the country—you’re going to get burnt out on that location pretty fast,” Nealsaid.

Neal says he’s always eager to help people break the isolation of work and home.

“I had a teacher friend bring a new teacher out to my little cabin, which is about 15 miles out of Kotzebue, and they just spent the day over there and had dinner over there.  It’s in the trees.  It’s a lovely little spot.  And the teacher who had been here for years said, ‘You know, if we could get the new teachers out here one time and see how much fun it is to be out in a place like this so close to Kotzebue, teacher retention would go way up,’” Neal said.

Neal says a recent school district survey supports that observation.

After 25 years north of the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Neal still likes his work.  He thoroughly enjoys the people.  But most of all, there’s the land.

“For me it’s the wild country.  And there are just not too many places you can live where you’re just surrounded by millions of acres, millions of acres of just wild country that…I mean the rivers don’t have any dams on them.  It’s roadless.   It’s just beautiful, untouched wilderness.  And you just can’t find that anyplace else.  Or it’s hard to find at anyplace else…. I mean it’s fun to live in a place where 400,000 caribou migrate within the region each year.  And where at different times of the year the fish are so plentiful and the birds so plentiful and the big game is so plentiful.  So that’s just something really, really special.   You just can’t get that anyplace else.” Neal said.

Neal gazes out his office window,  past the buildings lining the shore to the frozen sound and the low mountains beyond.  “I love this little community,” he says.  I fell in love with it when I first came here and 25 years later, I still do.”

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