As internet gets faster, Stebbins elders worry about subsistence

From policy makers to Pokeman Go players, high-speed internet is the hot topic in Western Alaska this summer.

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Salmon drying in Stebbins. (Photo by Emily Russell, KNOM - Nome)
Salmon drying in Stebbins. (Photo by Emily Russell, KNOM – Nome)

The Arctic Broadband Summit just wrapped up in Barrow this week. Crews are busy off the coast of Nome this month laying fiber optic cable, and GCI recently announced plans to bring high-speed internet to ten more communities in the region this year.

The village of Stebbins is on that list, and while many are excited for faster service, some fear their subsistence lifestyle could suffer.

It’s a spectacular summer day in Stebbins. Fish racks are filling up, berries are blooming, and Bernard Abouchuk is sitting on the beach with a rifle under his arm.

“Elders wanted seal meat and a seal just happened to pop up on [the] beach and now we’re just waiting for it to come back,” Abouchuk explains.

Those elders are farther up on the beach, with their eyes glued to the horizon. Many of them were around before villages like Stebbins had stores that sold pre-packaged meals. They had to watch the horizon for seals, scan the tundra for berries, and travel long distances by dogsled for caribou.

“We lived with the seasons,” explains Charlie Fitka. “We had spring camp, summer camp, fall camp, and we lived off the land.”

Fitka grew up in Marshall, a village on the Yukon River about 100 miles south of Stebbins.

“Nowadays nobody goes out into the country anymore. Very few people do that,” Fitka explains.

Bernard Abouchuk sits on the beach in Stebbins waiting for a seal. (Photo by Emily Russell, KNOM - Nome)
Bernard Abouchuk sits on the beach in Stebbins waiting for a seal. (Photo by Emily Russell, KNOM – Nome)

Fitka said more and more people across the region aren’t learning subsistence skills like net mending and fish processing. Instead, he said, they’re turning to modern conveniences to put food on the table.

Our younger generation, all they know how to do is go to the store and get something quick that they can put into the microwave to eat.”

Morris Nashoanak said a lot of that has to do with modern distractions.

“We’ve got more kids into iPads and iPods,” Nashoanak explains.

Nashoanak is the mayor of Stebbins. Like many other village elders, he worries technology is tempting kids away from their traditional roots.

He said kids from his village would rather be home playing video games than out gathering greens.

“They’re spending nine to twelve hours per day with [them],” Nashoanak said. “We’d like to encourage the younger generation to be more active in subsistence gathering and hunting.”

That may get even harder, though, in the months to come. GCI is promising to bring high-speed internet to Stebbins by the end of this year.

Doreen Tom thinks that’s a good thing.

“Right now we have GCI over here at the [city] office and it’s really slow,” Tom said.

Tom is the City Clerk for Stebbins. Internet in the city office will cut out for hours sometimes, which Tom said is a real problem when she’s under a tight deadline.

Tom isn’t just excited for faster internet at work. While she admits kids aren’t as involved in subsistence as she was growing up in Stebbins, Tom said she doesn’t mind the distraction in her own house.

“They get to stay home more if they have internet on the phone,” Tom explains. “I like it when the kids are home because I know where they’re at.”

That’s understandable in a village where bootlegging leads to binge-drinking and often violence.

On a day like today, though, it seems like nothing could keep kids inside.

Back on the beach, Bernard Abouchuk’s nephew, who can’t be more than seven or eight years old, comes up next to him with a toy gun in his hand.

His nephew and a few friends were pretending to be hunting seals on the beach when a real seal popped its head above the water. Abouchuk laughs as the boy pretends to load and unload the toy gun.

“It was just so funny, because they were playing ‘hunting seals’ and then a live seal came up in front of them and they just got an adrenaline rush and happy,” Abouchuk said.

It’s that happiness and rush of adrenaline that Abouchuk said can’t be conveyed over the internet, no matter how high-speed it is.

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Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage
Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.