New data indicates rural exodus of Alaska Natives not big after all

Declines in school enrollment in line with losses of past decade

Posted: Monday, December 15, 2008

ANCHORAGE - New data indicates that the exodus of rural Alaskans to metropolitan areas may be overblown.

It was believed that Alaska Natives were leaving their villages in droves, forced out by the high costs of energy. But statewide school enrollments show little movement of children this year.

While the trickle of families continues to go on, as it has for generations, school officials say an exodus has not taken place.

The data shows that a few districts in small villages have lost students, but those declines are in line with losses of the past decade. In some economically depressed rural districts facing high energy costs, such as those on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, school numbers have actually increased.

"I don't see anything that would constitute a trend or even a blip," said Lower Kuskokwim School District superintendent Gary Baldwin in Bethel. "Yup'ik culture family ties are very strong here, so people are much less likely to leave their home."

Stephanie Martin, a researcher studying migration for the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said she's not convinced anything is out of the ordinary.

The data does not support a scenario described by Native leaders, elected officials and media reports around the time of freeze-up. It was one of families abandoning once-vibrant villages and swamping schools and social service agencies in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

That potential forced exodus was the unstated theme of this year's Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October. Politicians from Sen. Ted Stevens to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich called for action. Begich and Anchorage school superintendent Carol Comeau wrote to Gov. Sarah Palin, who formed a special subcabinet to look at the problem.

Life has grown harder in the Bush this winter. Electricity and stove oil cost more than twice as much as in the state's urban areas. Recent declines in oil prices haven't helped in rural Alaska, where fuel storage tanks were filled up by barges in summer when prices were at their peak.

People are moving away from the rural villages in search of better jobs, education, or to join their families. But that is nothing new, and indeed is part of a global migration pattern, researchers say. Declining birth rates in rural Alaska have helped unmask this trend in recent years.

"Migration is not a one-time event," said Marie Lowe, an ISER anthropologist. Some of what the state is seeing, she said, is ebb and flow between city and regional hub and village. Furthermore, some of the students newly enrolled in Anchorage are moving alone to town to stay with relatives and take advantage of bigger schools, she said.

"From our perspective, we can't really say it's real yet," Lowe said of the expected population shift pushed by high oil prices.

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