Program Officer Jayson Smart was invited on a tour of villages on the “bottom” portion of the Yukon River. Amid the salmon-five-ways hospitality he learned that to live in the Alaska Interior you must master both traditional knowledge and complex bureaucratic systems.

Holy Cross’ first generation water storage system. It is no longer in service.

Holy Cross’ first generation water storage system. It is no longer in service.

I was invited to a five-day group tour of Alaska villages on the “bottom” portion of the Yukon River – the portion just before the Yukon takes a sharp right turn to heads due west toward the Bering Sea. The group of communities in this region is commonly referred to as the G-A-S-H villages, which stands for Grayling – Anvik – Shageluk – Holy Cross. Our tour of the GASH villages started in Kaltag, about 150 miles north.

This is an extraordinary part of the state, bearing the quintessential image and lore of the “real Alaska.” Many books written about this area attempt to capture the indigenous and pioneering spirit required to live in this great land. The forests and rivers are full of natural bounty: wild game, foul, fish, berries, and plant life. A true subsistence lifestyle is possible in a place like this, but in the context of today’s economic, political, and ecological conditions, maintaining this lifestyle comes with challenges.

Our group of about 12 participants representing agencies and organizations from across the state was hosted by the Interior Regional Housing Authority (IRHA). IRHA serves as the tribally-designated housing entity for the tribes of Alaska’s Doyon region, which includes both remote traditional villages and Fairbanks, 35 communities in total. IRHA assists communities in this region with securing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development resources, and provides a range of services in housing procurement, construction, and financing.

IRHA sees the value in introducing staff from different agencies and organizations to these communities, because what is learned and experienced in a trip like this can’t be replicated by reading a report or talking on a phone.

During our visits, we were extended the most generous hospitality. When our boats would arrive, community members would help us find our sleeping quarters, get our supplies and luggage into place, and then proceed with touring us around the entire village. Following the tour, each place hosted a community potlatch, sharing the season’s fresh caught salmon – usually prepared at least five different ways. Also included was moose stew, macaroni salad, and in the case of Holy Cross, braised beaver! The Akutaq (Eskimo ice cream) was always the highlight of the feast. In Holy Cross and Anvik, community youth shared dance performances.

During each visit we were able to see the core infrastructure of each community, both what’s working and what’s not working so well. These village communities require an incredible degree of cooperation among all residents to make daily life manageable. For example, the communities of Shageluk and Anvik remain without a water and sewer system so reliance on core systems like the town washeteria are crucial to daily living. If one of these systems is not well maintained, lacks appropriate funding, or fails, the entire community can be affected. The cooperation between the “city” government and Tribal government is another critical element. Each entity has access to unique funding and other resources that must work in concert to meet the range of local needs.

A map of the GASH region with our starting point, Kaltag, to the north.

A map of the GASH region with our starting point, Kaltag, to the north.

Affordable energy sources, suitable housing, and reliable water and sewer systems rank at the top of these communities’ greatest needs. Funding for these needs is generally challenging to obtain and requires navigation within a complex bureaucratic system. Beyond these core infrastructure issues, these communities also work hard to support local health, education and human service needs, especially for youth and elders. Resources to do this are extremely limited.

And as I mentioned earlier, today’s environmental, ecological and political climate constrain the ability to live a pure subsistence lifestyle. Access to salmon on the Yukon is particularly complex. Annual variations in escapement of different salmon species in the river can make or break an entire community’s plan for food in a given year. Sometimes the fish runs are so poor that commercial fishing on the river is just not possible. Many community members in these villages rely upon commercial fishing as one of the only job opportunities, outside of government supported positions, in the region. Without reliable work income, meeting basic needs becomes nearly impossible. For example, in the case of Kaltag, the community owns a fish plant for processing annual runs of Chum salmon and roe. The King salmon escapement this summer was too low during the peak of the early Chum runs to allow Kaltag to fish for Chum and operate their fish plant at full capacity. This essentially eliminated 35-40 jobs that would have been occupied by working-aged young men and women this summer. That translates into a significant loss of wages in the region.

Ultimately, life in the Interior requires a delicate balance between maintaining the subsistence use of all the environment has to offer with mastering complex bureaucratic systems to fund basic infrastructure. Those who live in these communities are deeply rooted – in many cases through generations of families who relied upon life on the river. Alaska Native culture and heritage remains vibrant and is one of the region’s greatest assets.

To some degree, as Alaskans, we all have a role to help keep our rural communities vibrant and thriving. As a state, we’re the better for it. Understanding the “context” in which these communities live is a great start. Thanks to IRHA for making that possible.