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A Day at Camp in Solomon

The week-long, 2019 Solomon Youth and Elder Camp, held earlier this month at the Solomon Bed and Breakfast, served as a backdrop for an Alaska Native community’s continued quest of reclaiming their status as a city. Infrastructure issues and environmental concerns remain obstacles, but Solomon’s leaders believe answers can be found by turning towards their youngest generation.

KNOM’s JoJo Phillips joined campers and staff on August 8, the second-to-last-day of the camp. Here’s what he learned.

Half a century ago, the dining hall of the Solomon Bed and Breakfast was a one-room schoolhouse. This week, it has returned to form.

There are globes and magic markers and heavily graffitied, giant sticky-notes on the walls; a few fishing poles rest in a corner; a standing bicycle faces an oversized, toy firetruck. Around the long, oak dining table sit fifteen-or-so campers, ranging between five and fourteen years old. Camp staffer Jennifer Curran is circling the table, kid-by-kid, with a tray of halved English muffins, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni slices. It’s pizza day. The campers, however, are focused on what’s in front of them. They are perched on the edges of their chairs, writing intensely; some of their feet swing inches above the hardwood floor.

The campers are writing nominations for a Youth Tribal Council. Later in the day, they will cast official ballots.

“We just started doing this this year, and people are running for president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer so that we can, like, have a youth voice in Solomon.”

Bella is in seventh grade. She has been attending the Annual Solomon Youth and Elder Camp, established in 2007, for nearly a decade. She is part of a growing contingent of Solomon descendants, in whom tribal leadership is entrusting the future of the village. Deilah Johnson believes the youth and elder camp is an opportunity to begin that process.

“When we do come out to youth camp once a year and are able to unite and focus on our subsistence lifestyle and traditional food, we want them to feel like they have ownership over their tribe.”

Johnson is Solomon’s Grant Coordinator, Environmental Coordinator, a Tribal Member, and a Former Council Member. She’s also running the Youth and Elder Camp this year. We’ve retreated into the kitchen to talk — so as not to interrupt the political deliberations in the main hall — and our conversation is punctuated by the sound of dough slapping the wooden counter. She is making fry bread for the kids.

“They kind of look like flat donuts, and you just fry them in oil.”

“And we like to make ‘Indian Tacos.’ That’s a really big hit.”

“This is Helen Bohne. She sits on the Native Corporation Board and she ran the camp for years.” 

Johnson and Bohne stress how important the youth presence at the annual camps is for the future of Solomon.

Bohne: “We all decided that it would be a great revival of having our children know and understand the stories better that they hear about Solomon, so that’s one of the reasons why we have youth camp. So, like we have kids from Oregon, Washington, Kenai, and Chugiak that are here, but they have ancestors and their grandparents lived here and they hear stories about it. So now they can understand, ‘oh I understand what they were saying when they were saying they were out picking berries or out fishing—’”

Johnson: “Last year, we had kids from Colorado, who had never been to Solomon ever. It’s a way to unite our tribe and to keep our traditions and our culture alive.”

Deilah Johnson wears many hats for the village of Solomon.
Photo: JoJo Phillips, KNOM.

After the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) moved its school out of Solomon in 1956, residents slowly began to trickle away to other, larger cities. Johnson says there has not been a permanent resident in the village since the early 2000’s, but she maintains many would like to move back.

“Well, If you talk to most of the adults here, everyone would like to move back, because this is their home.”

Reclaiming city status is an involved, multi-year process. Currently, the Solomon Native Corporation (SNC) is developing a Comprehensive Community Action Plan. Meanwhile, Johnson is working with the Tribal Council on 2020’s updated Local Economic Development Plan.

She explains that the complicated nature of the area’s land rights means the council and corporation must work together if they are to be successful in the long run.

“The tribe is considered a non-profit, so they can apply for grants; the corporation is a ‘for-profit,’ but they own all the land. They’re intertwined because most of the shareholders on the corporation side are tribal members. And if they’re not a tribal member, then their family are tribal members.”

While the differences between council and corporation may seem like merely logistical headaches, Johnson assures there are financial consequences to not working together. She points to the pressing issue of erosion on Solomon’s land.

“Everything has been eroding, our permafrost here, underneath this community building, underneath our bunkhouse, underneath our generator house — everything has been sinking.”

Deilah Johnson says her mom, Solomon Native Corporation President Liz Johnson, noticed the bunkhouse erosion just as the youth and elders’ camp started and some of the campers had to be moved into the main community building. Since the land directly around the Bed & Breakfast is owned by the Council, they can apply for grant funding. However, this is not the case for other sites around the village, including the lone thoroughfare and Solomon’s cemetery.

We took a ride out to the gravesite so that I could see for myself:

Johnson: “We’re on our one road in Solomon right by the cemetery and Frances Wright’s cabin… if you can see where the gravesites are and the crosses, it’s kind of on the edge of this hill and what we’ve noticed is, I don’t know if it’s all the rain or permafrost that’s melting, probably a combination, but on the edge of this hill it has been slowly eroding and falling off. It wasn’t always this close. So, it has slowly been inching closer and closer to the burial sites.”

KNOM: “What’s the worst-case scenario here?”

Johnson: “Uh — losing coffins down the hill.”

Deilah Johnson goes on to describe further problems with the cemetery site, including an eyebrow-raising incident from last year’s camp.

“Last year when we came out, we were reading all the names (of the graves) that did have names. Someone put their hand on one for a photo and it fell apart.”

Erosion eats away at the western bank of Solomon’s cemetery. Photo: JoJo Phillips, KNOM.

The cemetery is corporation owned, but if the Solomon Native Corporation can work with the Tribal Council, then they could find a cost-sensitive solution for erosion control and general restoration.

On the ride back to the Bed & Breakfast, Liz Johnson expands on her goals as Corporation President, concentrating on the importance of communication between the two governing bodies.

“I am hoping to get a planning meeting between the two entities next month, so we can tackle some of the priorities that we established 5 years ago, which is land use and educational type of stuff, which would include trespassing… The [corporation] may be the landowners, but I see the Tribe as a very powerful entity.”

With respect to the larger ambition — reclaiming city status — both the corporation and the council will have to coordinate with Municipal Land Trust, overseen by the Alaskan Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

There are even further obstacles in the path of Solomon becoming a city again. For one, the State of Alaska will need to maintain a longer stretch of the Council Road than it currently does. The US Post Service will similarly have to begin servicing the area again. Deilah Johnson is optimistic on both these fronts.

“Once we can provide proof that we live here, [the state of Alaska doesn’t] have a choice but to maintain the road and to make sure we have resources available.”

She is more focused on issues of infrastructure and land management, believing that the introduction of a permanent electric grid to the area should be the tribe’s immediate priority. The Solomon Bed and Breakfast currently runs off a 10kW diesel generator. In the past year, Johnson supervised a project to erect a 34-meter meteorological tower behind the B&B. The tower is there to collect wind data, with the eventual goal of paving the way for wind and solar options.

Old and new technologies on display in Solomon’s Community Building.
Photo by JoJo Phillips.

This focus on renewable energy falls very much in line with Solomon’s eye to the future. Remember the standing bicycle from earlier? The gears are hooked up to a portable generator, and the kids use it to charge their phones. Sure, a pedal-operated battery charger won’t ever power Solomon, but Johnson believes it is important for the tribe’s youth to see innovative solutions in action. She says the council agrees with her.

“I always ask for feedback, like, ‘what do you guys want,’ and then I try to bring that to the council, and then either they modify my proposal or they share their feedback, and then we all make compromises or agree. We all want the same thing. We want to become a community again. We want to live here; we want our youth to know exactly where we’re from instead of just one word: ‘Solomon.’”

It is this shared sense of community that brings youth, elders, and those in-between back to Solomon every year, and there are constant reminders that the gap between generations isn’t quite as wide as it first appears.

By the the time we get back to the Bed and Breakfast, day has shifted to late afternoon, and the campers move outside to climb over a tired playscape (another item on the council’s agenda) while the adults and elders settle around the main dining hall with cups of hot coffee. Seated by herself under one of the giant sticky notes is Deilah’s grandmother, Helen Larsen. Larsen actually attended this very school before the BIA shut it down in ’56.

Helen Larsen surrounded by her extended family. Photo by JoJo Phillips.

She is copying down what the guest speaker had written the day before: an Inupiaq rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“My parents, they really didn’t want to teach me my native tongue because they were trying to do away with speaking our own language. We had to speak in English. They used to get slapped on their hand if they talked in their language, but that was the only language they knew then.”

In the very same schoolhouse, sixty-years gone by, Larsen is able to learn her native language alongside Solomon’s younger generation.

Image at top: Campers and staff gather for a group photo at the 2019 Solomon Youth and Elder Camp. Photo: JoJo Phillips, KNOM.

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