Nanwalek

I read this on someone's blog today (they are referring to a nearby - across the bay - Aluttiq village)...
"Nanwalek feels more like a 3rd world country than anything I’ve encountered in the U.S. People own ATVs instead of cars, live in dilapidated houses, and struggle with deafness and diabetes related to in-breeding, not to mention mental health issues such as depression and alcohol addiction."

Nanwalek has a reputation for having the highest HIV rate in the nation. I had heard this before and don't know anyone who goes to Nanwalek to "visit," but I had wondered how much truth there was to it. After a little digging online, I found this...
"But secrets are badly kept in Nanwalek. Evans' job was to staunch the spread of the HIV virus that had infected one in seven adults. It came with the oil, when Exxon's clean-up crews shared their needles and sexual appetites with village residents. Nanwalek's unhappy secret was the women's discovery that children had been molested by drunk, possibly infected, relatives." (GregPalast.com)

Nanwalek, meaning "place by lagoon", is not more than 15 miles (as the crow flies) from Homer, yet it is truly a world away. This village of 200 people is accessible only by boat or plane, landing on the beach at low tide. Only 5% of the population has any college education. Their water is taken from a surface stream, treated, and piped to all homes in the village. Sewer is piped from village homes to a community septic tank. The village even has electricity. However, to travel to Nanwalek, one must have the prior approval of the village Chief.

Although Alutiiq people have lived in this region for thousands of years, the community of Nanwalek began as a Russian trading post, built by fur traders in 1785. It was first named "Alexandrovsk" after the Russian tsar, Alexander I. Alutiiq families settled Alexandrovsk as it was a center of commerce, a place where they could trade furs for Western goods. After the Russian's left Alaska in 1867, the village name was change to English Bay. In 1991, villagers changed the community's name again, selecting Nanwalek. I'm not sure why. I would guess it would have something to do with the natives wanting their village to have a native name. But, a name doesn't change a place's history. A name doesn't wipe the slate clean.

Knowing that 9% of Alaskan teenagers attempt suicide and 70% of those are natives, it makes me pause. As I roll these words and numbers around in my mind, I feel my chest tighten. I sit here, in Homer, a mere 15 miles from the third world. Disconnected. Thankful. Thoughtful.

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