Alaska Cultural Connections: Misperceptions

Traveling Outside, many of us encounter questions about Alaska stemming from curiosity and ignorance. Do we live in igloos? Is it always winter with six months darkness?  Is American money accepted?   But rural Alaska residents often feel their urban-dwelling fellow Alaskans have just as many misperceptions about their bush homes.  As part of our on-going series looking at how we define our culture and live our lives as Alaskans, Len Anderson presents these examples.

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For over 60 years, Inupiaq Chester Ballot has lived above the Arctic Circle in the coastal community of Kotzebue, located in Northwest Alaska. Ballot says people can comprehend 60 below, but they have a hard time grasping that some upriver communities can experience 90 degrees in summer.

“And the light, you know.  They ask, ‘Does it get dark up there six months a year?’  And I say, ‘No.  We can go up on the hill, up Cemetery Hill and we can look at the sun.  If it’s a clear day, we can look at the sun for an hour and 43 minutes on the shortest day of the year.  And in the summer time,  if we have all clear days, you can see the sun for 44 days, beginning in early June and ending in July,” Ballot said.

Another misconception:  just because notherners live in the Arctic, does not mean they like to be cold. Inside their wall tents out camping, or their homes in town, they’re toasty warm. That’s another one: those houses that may look like “shacks” to some outsiders.

Hadley Ferguson has lived most of her life in Kotzebue.  She’s says urban residents who see pictures, even those who visit, are surprised by them.

“I think a lot of get culture shock when they first come into a vill…town like Kotzebue or smaller villages.  They’re used to the nice fancy houses.  They come into, their first perception is that they’re shacks.   But they don’t understand that a lot of it is due to weather conditions.  And you go inside the home and they’re beautiful.  So, I’ve heard them talk and say that’s one of the biggest shocks that they had,” Ferguson said.

Carl Weisner grew up in the northwest Alaska village of Shungnak and now lives in Kotzebue; he says urban Alaskans have a theoretical grasp of higher bush prices, but the reality still produces a wallet shock.

“When folks from the urban area come to the Northwest Arctic, they expect the cost of living is equivalent to their experience.  And it’s just not.  We have to pay greater than $10 a gallon in some villages for gasoline,” Weisner said.

On the positive side, Weisner says many visitors are surprised at the closeness existing in rural communities, a bonding that extends beyond family.

“It’s necessary, because in order to overcome some of these challenges, like the extremely harsh winter and cold weather conditions, or other challenges in the country, we have to cooperate.  We have to communicate and work together in order to make something happen,” Weisner said.

For several years, Dean Westlake has worked on rural economics and development in various jobs and rural location.  He has returned to Northwest Alaska and has served on the borough assembly.  Westlake says one urban misperception that he often encounters grates on him more than others.  It’s the urban accusation that rural Alaska is an economic drain on state finances.   He adds his response is his own, not necessarily any official position

“We need to think through this and understand where the resources come from.   Who subsidizes who, here? should really be the question.  When we say, all rural Alaska is a drain, hey buddy, rural Alaska is the resources, and let’s get that straight right now,” Westlake said.

Sometimes the difference between urban and rural lies in how one views the same situation.   In Kotzebue, the thick ice on the sound will remain solid into June while in the town itself scattered snow piles resolutely resist the long daylight hours. Visitors can find the scene disturbing – snow and ice in June?  Not so for locals.

“In the summertime, spring time about June when the ice breaks up and you hear the crinkling of the ice floating by there and the sun not setting.   To me it’s indescribable to be here, to enjoy it, to see it.  To live here, it’s great.  It’s home,” Ballot said.

Chester Ballot and many other residents walk along the shore every evening, taking in that exhilarating, comforting panorama.

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