On Alaskan island in middle of Bering Sea, survival a daily struggle

Denny Akeya, a native of the St. Lawrence island village of Savoonga. August 30, 2012. Photo: Loren Holmes. GAMBELL, Alaska — Off the far western edge of the North American continent, nearly 1,500 people struggle in a daily battle for survival on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

There isn’t much of an economy in this village of 677 near the northwest tip of the island. The people here are closer to Russia, 36 miles to the west, than the United States, more than 150 miles to the northeast.

To earn enough money to survive, residents carve walrus ivory, guide a handful of bird watchers who make the 200-mile flight from Nome, or dig into old graves for prehistoric artifacts.

Land claims

Illegal in much of Alaska, the practice remains legal on the island because the residents of Gambell and Savoonga, the only other village, chose to opt out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971.

To settle aboriginal land claims, ANCSA created 12 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village corporations that gained title to 44 million acres of land and nearly $1 billion.  

Gambell residents Travis Kaningok, his 3-year-old son Travis Jr., and fiancee Roxanne Campbell digging for old bones, ivory and artifacts on St. Lawrence island. August 29, 2012. Photo: Loren Holmes. Alaska Dispatch.

Instead of joining that settlement, Gambell and Savoonga settled for title to the 1.14 million acres of land in the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve – nearly the entire island.

Now jointly owned by Savoonga and Gambell, the island is private property, which entitles the people there to take advantage of what their ancestors left behind over the course of an estimated 2,000 years or more of occupation on a 90-mile-long island. In the 1800s, there were an estimated 4,000 people living in 35 villages on the island. They lived on whales, walruses, seals, birds, eggs, fish and what plants they could wrest from land or sea. They suffered mightily as the whales began to disappear to American whalers supplying a country hungry for whale oil.

A halibut processing plant in Savoonga. While much of the hunting and fishing that occurs on and around St. Lawrence island is for subsistence use, there has been a good halibut fishery this year. August 30, 2012. Photo: Loren Holmes. Alaska Dispatch. Reindeer introduced

Between 1878 and 1880, famine decimated island residents. Missionaries — Gambell is named for two of them — tried to help. Reindeer were introduced to the island in 1900 to provide food and transport for people who no longer had the food to feed their dogs. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt established a reindeer reservation. By 1916, a reindeer herd started with 42 animals had grown to an estimated 10,000 reindeer. But that wouldn’t last either.

The business of reindeer herding was eventually abandoned on the island, with the animals allowed to go feral. Those that remain today are wild and hunted for food, primarily by Savoonga residents.

Savoonga, near the milddle of the island, is a bit better off than Gambell. A commercial fishery for halibut has emerged, and more than a dozen residents of the community of 704 hold permits. There is a small processing plant in the community, and with halibut going for $6 to $7 at the dock, some hope of a commercial fishing business has emerged.

Looking forward

Many on the island, however, worry about the future. Gambell has grown 30 percent since 1990. More than 40 percent of the population is now under age 20. There is concern about what will become of the children. A boy plays with a toy gun in Savoonga, Alaska. August 30, 2012. Photo: Loren Holmes. Alaska Dispatch.

The story is much the same in Savoonga. Many are reaching working age in communities without jobs. The state of Alaska says the unemployment rate in Savoonga is 38 percent, and the average household income a meager $30,313. It is worse in Gambell, where the state reported the unemployment rate is 28.5 percent but the “percentage of workers not in the labor force was 41.6 percent,” an indication that a lot of people don’t show up on the unemployment rolls because they’ve given up looking for work.

Meanwhile, the median household income in Gambell is $23,958, among the lowest in the state.

“We need help,” said resident Edmond Apassingok, the tribal mayor of Gambell. What form that help may take is unclear. The village gets housing support and Bureau of Indian Affairs aid from the federal government. Some villagers get state aid, too. But life-support programs do not take the place of jobs, and nobody can quite figure out how to create jobs on a remote island in the Bering Sea.

Still, the children of St. Lawrence seem happy, and life goes on. A normal day finds the kids laughing and smiling as they chase each other around Gambell on four-wheelers. The community has a nice educational facility — the twin-winged John Apangalook Memorial High School and Hugo T. Apatiki Elementary School built on Gravel Boulevard with a view toward Siberia. Other generations have found success there.

Kids playing with dogs in the St. Lawrence island village of Gambell. August 29, 2012. Photo: Loren Holmes. Alaska Dispatch.

In 1984, the school had no computers, few books and only 41 students. Nevertheless, a dedicated teacher set about training 10 of them to compete in a national academic competition, the Future Problem Solvers of America. To most of the students, English was a second language, and the competition would be in English. Still, they took up the challenge and, amazingly, won. Their feat was later touted in the book “The Kids from Nowhere.”

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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