The US Census starts in Western Alaska, as Toksook Bay is the first community to be counted in the nation. The census’ tribal partnership specialist and local leaders discuss the importance of being counted. They hope the count will shine a light on the pervasive lack of housing in the Western Alaska, where nearly 2 in 10 homes are classified as severely overcrowded.
The Alaska National Guard refortifies in Nome. While visiting the community on a recruitment trip, local airman Technical Sergeant Blassi Shoogukwruk shares his childhood story of being rescued by a guard helicopter and later enlisting. Major General Torrence Saxe says the guard’s historical presence and operational armory and aviation facilities makes returning to Nome a sensible regional choice.
Kugzruk Kommons, a former church building converted to a common house, officially opens. Given the dire housing situation in Nome, all eleven rooms were occupied by the end of January, weeks before owner Janice Wilson had intended to open to tenants. She wants to welcome anyone who needs a home.
Also, a commemorative Serum Run makes its way across Alaska, remembering the original 1925 race to get diphtheria medication to Nome. Mushers go live on KNOM as they arrive in Nome, capping off an award-winning broadcast series.
The 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the last major U.S. sporting event still taking place as states begin the first rounds of shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mushers report arriving at check points and hearing vague stories of a new disease. Toward the end of the race some villages close their borders or move check points outside the village, due to concerns about outsiders bringing the virus to isolated communities.
In Western Alaska the coronavirus pandemic highlights long-standing infrastructure challenges and a unique solidarity for the vulnerable. In unserviced communities where hauling your own waste is common and hospital care difficult to access, the disease is taken very seriously. Villages are quick to establish strict travel and quarantine regulations.
Radio keeps people connected while staying home. A special broadcast of a message from Pope Francis and ‘Homilies for the Homebound’ carry hope to villages without a priest.
Local entities and individuals come together to meet the needs of their communities as the virus forces people into a new way of life. The regional non-profit Kawerak pays for two months of local foster families’ internet access and Bering Strait School District staff and students use school technology to print 1,000 face shields for regional medical providers, at a rate unprecedented elsewhere in the state.
Nome mourns the loss of Mayor Richard Beneville. A former Broadway performer, among Beneville’s many talents was a gift for seeing and cultivating talent in others.
Also, volunteer fellow JoJo Phillips travels to Gambell to interview Lydia Apatiki, a Siberian Yupik elder who has created a traditional sewing curriculum. Local and regional graduations both in Nome and the villages are held on KNOM this year, with a call-in show featuring messages to
students from teachers and family members.
The village of Shaktoolik receives grant funding for a new sea berm to help the community stay safe from erosion and storm surges. The community has also seen construction begin on a new bulk fuel tank farm. While touring the beach with KNOM’s reporter, grant writer Sophia Katchatag says ultimately, the village will need to relocate. The village already moved once, in the 1960s, and is listed as one of four Alaska Native villages in immediate need of relocation.
Ultrarunners Carol Seppilu and Dr. Tim Lemaire complete a hometown long-distance run of 71.52 miles, from Teller to Nome. Seppilu says she runs to pray and raise awareness about suicide, as a sign of hope and victory. Seppilu and Sherri Anderson, a mental health care coordinator for the hospital, take to the airwaves. Seppilu shares her story of running and returning to Alaska Native ways of life to recover from severe depression.
A community rallies to search when Florence Okpealuk, a 33-year-old mother from Nome, goes missing from West Beach. In addition to local and state law enforcement and search and rescue groups, a group of Alaska Native women coordinate their efforts: some offer to cook or babysit, while others join the search. Okpealuk has not been found.
The number of people sick with the coronavirus begins to increase in the region. In Gambell, Charlotte Apatiki describes keeping her children busy when a lockdown is implemented to limit spread of the virus. Toward the end of the month, children in nearby Savoonga can return to school as the
COVID-19 infection rate drops to zero.
Also, a new series, Restorative Remarks, debuts. It features written works by Western Alaskans, for Western Alaskans. The first episode is an address about overcoming childhood trauma by Mary Miller, voiced by Sherri Anderson.
Nome’s Iñupiaq immersion school celebrates their inaugural semester. In Hooper Bay a new charter school opens with a curriculum centered on Alaska Native concepts and local scientific topics. Principal, Jamie Wollman, says she hopes students will recognize the connection between education and their traditional Yup’ik culture.