Young women abandon Alaska villages

In flight for life, more rural Alaskans seek new start in the city

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Stepheni Hawk smokes at the bus stop before dawn, standing along 36th Avenue where the Holiday gas station glows day and night. The bus rolls in. The doors sigh. She steps on for the quiet ride down to the University of Alaska Anchorage to start her shift at a register in the cafeteria.

Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News
Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

Hawk is 21, on her way to her first serious job, first real way to pay for her own place, to buy groceries and toys for her little girl. It's taken two years to get this far, two years since she moved to Anchorage to escape the villages where she was raised.

Quinhagak. Tuntutuliak. Tiny outposts on the tundra beyond Bethel where time was a slow-moving river and people whispered about her mistakes, where her mother faded in and out, where she was called Akiugalria, a Yup'ik name that means "someone who always comes back in a fight," as if it was understood from the day she was born that she would always have to struggle against something, that she would always have to watch out for herself.

Hawk sees women like her everywhere in the city, pushing strollers to the bus stop or in the elevator at Cook Inlet Tribal Council, riding up to see a social worker. They were at Clare House, the shelter where she lived last year when her plans fell through. Village girls in their late teens and 20s, some of them mothers, looking for jobs and apartments, for boyfriends better than ones they had before, looking to start school or start over.

Young women have been abandoning rural Alaska for more than decade, a trend that left some small villages without any females in their 20s during the last Census. There are slightly more Native women living in urban Alaska - Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau - than men, but Native men outnumber women in nearly every rural Census district, according to 2006 population counts. The trend is most pronounced in the Interior, especially among the young. In the massive Yukon-Koyukuk Census District, for example, there were roughly 80 percent more Native men in their 20s than women.

Women tell researchers they leave villages for jobs and for college - their graduation rates versus male counterparts in the University of Alaska system are 3 to 1. They also say they're driven out by dysfunction. They want distance from cycles of alcoholism, sexual abuse, domestic violence and suicide that plague some communities.

Hawk wanted to start over where no one knew her. She wanted opportunity for her daughter and to find her own mother who left the village years before for a life in the city.

"I was just hoping for something better," she says.

She expected the trials that come with just getting by - work, bills, the bus, child care, trying to save money, trying to make plans. She didn't expect the rush of the city to paralyze her like it did at first. She didn't expect childhood struggles would echo into her adult life, following her from the village.

Early one morning a few weeks ago, a Christmas tree filled Hawk's living room with golden light. The remains of the holiday lay scattered across the floor, stray wrapping paper, toys for a little girl pretending to be a mom: a tiny kitchen table, a pink plastic vanity, a miniature magenta stroller.

Hawk headed into the bedroom where her daughter, Narra (na-HA), nested in sheets on a mattress on the floor.

"Where's my baby?" she cooed, rubbing the 2-year-old's back. "Where's my girl?"

Hawk learned to be a mother a long time before her baby was born. Alcohol distracted her own mother as early as she can remember and that taught her to care for her siblings. A precocious child, Hawk did the grocery shopping and knew how to gas up the four-wheeler when she was in grade school.

After a sober stretch, Hawk's mom started drinking again when she was 12, she said. One day her mother said she was going to Bethel to shop. She didn't come back.

Night came. Then another day. Hawk and her younger sister, who was 6, were alone in the house. Hawk says they managed for nearly a week until a village public safety officer discovered them.

Then came a string of angry years.

"I always wanted to be in control, to be the authority because I never really had authority around," she said.

Hawk was sent to live with her stepfather, but they clashed. She wouldn't go to school. She kept running away. She got caught drinking underage. At 15, she was sent to Anchorage to a treatment program. She stayed in treatment for two years, but didn't finish that or high school.

Hawk's apartment sits in a dense grid of rentals marooned in the corporate mishmash of midtown: the '80s strip-malls and drive-in banks, towering office buildings and beige chain hotels, Wal-mart's sprawling ice-white parking lot. From her thin second-story balcony, she can watch the street light on C Street turn from red to green.

It was a good day, about a month ago, when Hawk got home from work to find her best friend and roommate, Earon Rolf, in the middle of a decorating project, painting the living room wall. Under her brush, huge white flowers and vines grew on a coral backdrop.

Earon works as an insulator. She's in her mid-30s and speaks with a warm Southern accent. Along with Rolf's brother they make a dog-eared kind of family in their two-bedroom apartment, everyone doting on Narra, a toddling mascot babbling in Yup'ik and English.

Hawk's mother has been around lately. Tonight she's at Don Dee's Laundromat washing everyone's clothes. They all pile in a truck to pick her up.

Hawk came to Anchorage in 2006, after using her Permanent Fund dividend to buy a plane ticket. When she got to her older sister's house, she found her mother sitting on the couch. Hawk hadn't seen her in eight years.

"There she was," Hawk remembered. Relief washed over her. Her mother's clothes were clean. She was sober.

In the months that followed, an understanding grew between them. When she wasn't drinking, her mom was allowed to stay in the house and be a grandmother to Narra. When she drank, she disappeared. She'd sleep with friends or camp out.

At the Laundromat, Narra runs the concrete aisles between the swirling machines, wearing her winter coat and a hat with a pom-pom. Rolf's doing a crossword puzzle. Hawk and her mother hold opposite sides of a comforter and fold it, smoothing out the wrinkles.

Nights like these Hawk feels like she's pulling ahead, making a life different from the one she's lived until now. She imagines her mother might stay with her for a while, make life a little easier.

Another part of her knows that's unlikely.

"She drinks hard," Hawk says. "She doesn't know when to tell herself to stop or when to put something in her stomach."

Hawk says she'll never be like her mother, never drink like that. Never vanish for days, weeks, months, sleep in a tent in the deep cold, lose track of her family. She sets rules about alcohol. Don't drink hard liquor. Make sure to eat. Never leave the baby alone.

"I think if you really wanted to, you can control it," she says.

But then, there's something dangerous in her DNA and part of her knows it. Something that mixes with alcohol and distances her from the people she loves, that leads to fights and bad decisions, that threatens to unravel everything she's made for herself.

Lunch hour at the university. Hawk in her green uniform shirt clicks away at the register, making change and shy conversation, remembering prices for slices of pizza and boxes of sushi. Behind her, students crowd circle tables. They laugh and talk, worried about tests and lectures and parties on the weekend. Some of them are her age, but to her they seem from a different world.

Sometimes she thinks about going to college. About becoming a lawyer or a social worker. Maybe once Narra goes to school. There was a time long ago when she was a good student, before survival became more important.

At 17, having burned her connection with her treatment program, Hawk was sent to a foster home in Akiak. Around then, she noticed the brother of a friend. He was just her age. She liked the way he looked after things.

"He was good at hunting, keeping the house warm, making sure there is water. He was always doing something. He wasn't lazy."

It didn't matter to her that he didn't have a paying job. That kind of work is hard to find.

"I was too young and dumb to worry about that."

At 18 she discovered she was pregnant. When Narra was born, she expected he'd change, would be less like a boy and more like a man.

"He just wouldn't get a job and support us," she said.

She tried to stay with him, tried living with family in Akiak and in Quinhagak. They kept thinking things would be better in the next village, but houses were crowded and they couldn't get along.

He came to town a few months ago. Called for help finding a place to stay. He was already drunk, she said. She watched her phone light up with his number but didn't pick up.

"If all this time we weren't together he'd keep on trying to help me, I'd keep on trying to help him," she said.

Sometimes she doesn't want to be a responsible grown-up. And sometimes she isn't. She wants to feel young, to go out with friends, to let go. She wants a beer. Then a shot of hard liquor. She tries to keep it in control, but more than once she's ended a night of drinking talking to police.

Months ago, someone called them to her apartment after things got loud. Officers warned she could lose her baby that way. That scared her and made her want to cut down. She thought about quitting.

"I know that's a good choice, but to be honest I don't think I want to," she said. " You have to want to. I just like to drink."

On a recent morning, right after Narra woke up, the little girl crawled in with her mother under a blanket on the couch to play a favorite mother-daughter game, where Hawk pretends to take the little girl apart bit by bit, stealing invisible parts.

"I took your nose," Hawk teased, pretending to hold it in her fist. Narra howled.

"OK here it is. See it?" She rubbed the little girl's nose. "It's right here. I put it back."

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