Wednesday, September 28, 2011


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." (

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.

1 comment:

  1. Liita

    As I sit here pondering the label that will continuously haunt this beautiful community of HIV, third world status, in-breeding, mental health issues, my heart fills with more love than you can imagine for this beautiful community called Nanwalek. We have survived what Russians did to our Ancestors as well as giving us their DNA to become Native people to walk forward and survive the demise that was imploded upon us, with our heads held high with humility to pass down to our children of what is left of our culture and language.
    Yet many communities face the same social ills as our community, this" third world country" has managed to survive. The slate is not meant to be cleaned, but to remind us of where we came from and to be stronger.
    As a child I saw the tail end of what my father's life was like, the remnants of sod homes (barabras), skin boats (kayaks covered with seal/sea lion skin), a life dependent on what the natural surrounding provided seasonally. In my house there was no electricity, we packed water, we had outhouses, we learned to use catalog pages as toilet paper, as children we knew what to gather from the land and the coast to eat. Westernized society called us "backward savages," traditional clothing was replaced by civilized clothing from a catalog to make us appear as civilized natives.
    The name change was not to clean the slate but to bring back our identity, for to be a Native at one time was filled with shame, many faced the name calling and even being spit upon as children.
    As I tell this my chest tightens as well with remorse for people who continue to view us as you wrote your blog on our beautiful people of Nanwalek with such harsh words. I wonder how many people in your community are dealing with same social ills painted upon our faces as you as the artist does not even want to know who we are rather. look at us with such disdain. I am a stronger person for the way I am painted by people who look down upon me and my community, we as a community have survived and continue to become stronger as one. So thank you for reminding me where I started from, I am filled with more humility as I reflect upon my Native heritage blogging this to you. We are blessed in this beautiful community, we still share our traditional foods, culture and language with one another as you sit a mere 15 miles from our "third world," community, we will continue to live our life as we are watched with scrutiny.
    May your life be blessed with love, hope, and a peace of mind...



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