Moving to the City, but Clinging to Native Ways
By KIM SEVERSON
Karen Cooke Phillip keeps the basement freezer of her new Anchorage house stocked with food to ward off homesickness.
There is a whole king eider sea duck, including feathers and head. And she has three plastic bottles filled with seal oil: liquid gold to a Yupik Eskimo like Mrs. Cooke Phillip.
But the real prize is the spotted seal meat.
“We call it the prime rib of the sea,” she said.
Last year, Mrs. Cooke Phillip, 40, and her family left Kongiganak (population 439), their hometown near the Bering Sea, for a three-bedroom home in Alaska’s largest city. They are among thousands of rural Alaskans who have moved to urban areas in the last decade, having decided their old life was too hard and too expensive.
“I was just sick of village survival,” she said.
At first, they considered Bethel, the only city near the west coast of the state, in a flat, roadless region where Mrs. Cooke Phillip grew up and taught school after college. Bethel is the hub for some 34 villages in the census area (40,633 square miles of land populated by only 17,013 people), and commuting requires snow machines, all-terrain vehicles, planes or boats. Stores are limited. So is opportunity.
They ultimately decided to forgo some family ties and join the exodus to Anchorage, a city that has grown by 12 percent, to 291,825, in the last decade. They have relatives, including her father, in town to help. And they appreciate being able to easily buy whatever one might need for a household.
Still, getting used to city traffic will take time.
“Anchorage is great,” said Mrs. Cooke Phillip, “as long as you don’t have to drive.”
Anchorage wasn’t the fastest-growing city in the state. That distinction belongs to Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown, which grew by 43 percent, to 7,831, helping make the Matanuska-Susitna Borough where it sits Alaska’s fastest-growing region.
The Mat-Su, as residents call it, is a bedroom community for Anchorage. Residents can get more house and land for their dollar, still shop at big-box stores and commute to work but live closer to the wilderness and all the hunting, fishing and hiking they like.
But Mat-Su remains overwhelmingly white. For families like the Phillips, Anchorage offers more cultural support: about 8 percent of the population is Alaska Native or American Indian. But because they are first and foremost native, that means escaping back to the tundra and the Bering sea that have supported their people for thousands of years. There, Eric Phillip, 44, can hunt walrus and seal. They are small pieces of home, for his wife to tuck into her Anchorage freezer.
“For Mother’s Day,” she said, “I got a seal.”