Is Alaskan Village Life Sustainable?

Ruby, Alaska

To travel between Kotzebue and the Alaska Range, I’m using snowmachine trails, which are hands-down the most practical way to get around terrain that is either swampy and buggy or covered in snow and ice. The snowmachine trails “connect the dots” of bush villages in rural Alaska. These villages are not connected to a road system and have populations of 100 to 1,000 (mostly of indigenous origin). Basic services include a school, health clinic, post office, small store, and airstrip. While the passing through villages such as Buckland, Kaltag, and Ruby a few times a week has hindered the “wilderness” aspect of this trip so far, it’s provided a different kind of redeeming experience and learning.

These villages are in a period of tremendous transition. The eldest of elders grew up very differently than today’s village youth. They used dog teams instead of snowmachines, poled up the Yukon instead of using motorized boats, rotated among seasonal camps—each optimized for the hunting and gathering of the particular season—instead of residing year-round in one place. They heated their homes with wood instead of oil and hauled their water from the local river instead of having a village-wide water/sewer system. Village life today may be simple, but it’s shockingly modern. Homes have flat-screen TVs and X-Boxs. Cheerios and Fruit Loops can be found at the village store ($7 a box) and powerful snowmachines and 4-wheelers are parked at every house (fueled by $5 a gallon gas). Teenagers wear Under Armour clothing. Children get picked up at state-of-the-art schools by parents on snowmachines. (I guess that even Alaska has seen the disappearance of schools that are ten snow-covered miles away, uphill, both ways.)

What is worrisome about today’s village life is that it does not seem sustainable. I have to wonder about what will become of these villages in 25 to 100 years. The economic base in these villages is virtually non-existent. Outside of small-scale seasonal commercial fishing, I don’t see much happening. There is money to be made if one is willing to leave the village. Options included wokring in oil and gas on the North Slope, mining at Red Dog Mine, fire-fighting in the summer. But just bringing money *back* to the villages is not a long-term solution. Creating it *in* the villages is. And, yes, overall the cost of living here is pretty low. Real estate is cheap (if you are actually allowed to buy it) and the hunting/fishing potential is tremendous. What’s more, you don’t need to earn much if you don’t spend much.

Yet money is spent in these villages in a way that suggests a very different economic story—there seems to be a significant gap between the economic value actually produced by these economies and the value that would be expected of an ecomony that affords the goods and services found here. Currently this gap is closed by myriad government programs—the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend, the native coporation dividend, Housing and Urban Development, health subsidies, heating assistance, welfare, etc.

Given Alaska’s dependence on finite oil and the federal goverment’s escalating financial problems—which probably will result in some combination of tax increases and spending cuts—there is reason to think these villages may be in their prime: living a modern existence without their own economic base to support it. If this system were to ever fail, village youth may find themselves relearning their lost skills, working dog teams and harvesting berries—or heading to Anchorage or Fairbanks and leaving the villages to fade in the wind.

Posted in on April 1, 2010


  1. JP on May 25, 2012 at 1:16 am

    I wonder if I am being selfish thinking that its a shame that the changes you mention have taken place.

    Whenever I hear of places like this I immediately think of “Village stay” enterprises, but in this case it sounds like the things that might make that viable have been lost, ie, some kind of romantic difference from an average westernized small town.

    In what you’ve seen, do you think there would be a willingness to embrace this or any other kind of transformation (reversion?) to capitalize on points of difference to encourage small scale tourism and money flow into the villages?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2012 at 11:59 pm

      With few exceptions, there appeared to be little interest in developing tourism-related businesses in the villages. While there are some structural challenges in doing this (e.g. it’s always going to be expensive for tourists to get to these small towns) the bigger issue just seemed to be a lack of will. This same lack of will also explains why all the teachers are imported from elsewhere in Alaska and the US, among other situations that seem odd from the perspective of a capitalist.

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