“I used to know everyone’s phone number, until I got an iPhone,” says Lindsay Bismark as she scrolls through her contact list. By “everyone” she doesn’t just mean her friends and family; she means every single person in the village of Tyonek.
With about 175 residents, “everybody here is family,” Bismark adds. Located about 40 air miles from Anchorage on a bluff overlooking the northwest shore of Cook Inlet, the village of Tyonek is a short flight from the city. But the distance seems much greater when it comes to accessing things like jobs or groceries.
“Most people do whatever they can, whenever they can,” describes Gwendolynn Chickalusion, who is a Tribal Council board member. She works at Tebughna (pronounced “Tabona”) School as a cook and also operates a small store out of her house, selling soda, candy and chips. “Most of our jobs here aren’t long-term. But most people do good with their CIRI checks—it depends on how well they budget.”
At one time, the village was one of the largest ports in Alaska. In the 1960s, oil companies leased Tyonek lands for nearly $13 million; the funds enabled the village to build housing, a school and a new Tribal Center, improve roads, expand the airstrip and establish a children’s trust for education. The village also used a substantial portion of the funds to help finance the first-ever meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which at the time was focused on resolving Alaska Native land claims.
““I’m pretty much a jack of all trades; you have to be, around here. I piece together work. I come here a lot, to the community center. This is where I get most of my jobs. Pretty much everybody knows to come here when they need someone to work for them.”
– Tom Goozmer
“Tyonek is a name, a place, and carries an identity all its own,” explains the Tyonek Native Corporation website. The people of Tyonek are known as Tebughna, “the Beach People,” and many still look to the water for subsistence. Last year, when a Beluga whale became stranded at Bird Creek, south of Anchorage, Tyonek Native Corporation and the Tebughna Foundation organized a harvest; volunteers from the village bagged meat and blubber, then distributed it to Tyonek households.
Like Chickalusion, Tom Goozmer found work for a time in Anchorage; he did landscaping for CIRI and Cook Inlet Tribal Council and worked as a carpenter. But the transition from village life to city life can be tough. “We don’t get along too good in Anchorage, some of us,” Goozmer says. After ten years, he returned to Tyonek. “Now I piece together work. I’m a jack of all trades.”
Over the summer, Goozmer found work helping a visiting group of archeologists clear land near housing pit sites, where the Athabascan ancestors of Tyonek once lived. “It’s amazing,” Goozmer says. “I thought there was only a few pits, but there was a whole village, bigger than this one. The archeologists go in, look for graves. As long as they don’t tear up the land, and give me a job, it’s okay. Hopefully they’ll share what they learn.”
Throughout an afternoon, conversations with the folks who drop by the Tribal Center begin to follow a theme: village improvement. But Tyonek residents don’t just talk about how they can continue to improve life in their village. They act.
To help offset the cost of bringing food across Cook Inlet by airplane or boat, the village partnered with Tyonek Tribal Conservation District to start a community garden program (see Local Perspective). In fall of 2014, the village opened a new health clinic in partnership with Southcentral Foundation. The Tebughna Foundation offers scholarships and assists with community and cultural events, like Chief Chickalusion Day, an annual celebration of former Tribal Chief Simeon Chickalusion’s birthday that includes a carnival and snow machine race.
The strength of the Tebughna people’s ability to work together was displayed last year when a wildfire threatened the village and displaced more than 100 residents for several days. Locals fought alongside firefighters and supported them with food and supplies. “When the fire broke out, all three of my kids were down here helping to prepare meals, clean,” recalls Bismark. “They weren’t even asked; they just jumped up to start helping.”
On clear summer days, the residents of Tyonek can see the windows of the houses across the Inlet, high in the Chugach Mountains, reflecting sunlight. The city beckons, but it’s hard to leave such a close-knit community.
“I asked my older child if she wants to move back to Anchorage,” says Gwendolynn Chickalusion. “She told me, ‘No. Here, I can go hunting and fishing. We have a big yard. Over there, it’s boring.’”
Tyonek’s community garden
Before the plane even lands, a small group has gathered. As soon as the small aircraft rolls over to the parked trucks, families from Tyonek begin unloading boxes and bags of frozen food, canned goods and other necessities.
“We go to Costco, Carrs, Fred Meyer, Walmart,” says one Tyonek resident. “We’ll fly in and do it ourselves, or we’ll give a list to someone and pay them to get it, and we’ll pay freight. If you buy a lot of food in one month, it’ll easily cost $500 to get it back.”
Getting food from Anchorage is a problem nearly everyone in Tyonek faces—which is part of the reason why, in 2008, the village made it a priority to start growing fresh local vegetables.
“Elders in the community had been gardening for a long time, and some community members still have their own personal gardens,” explains Christy Cincotta, executive director of Tyonek Tribal Conservation District (TTCD), which was formed through a partnership between the Native Village of Tyonek, Tyonek Native Corporation (TNC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enable the community to meet its natural resource and conservation goals. “But a lot of knowledge had been lost. The community wanted to bring back gardening.”
Early on, progress was slow. Village residents cleared a piece of ground and purchased fencing, but without funding, the project stalled until TTCD became involved in 2012.
An early priority of the community garden was to involve youth. Students, as well as community members, determined what would be planted, and seeds were started in the Tebughna School’s classrooms. That first year, the garden was simple: some tilled soil, a few raised beds. “We had no irrigation system,” Cincotta recalls. “We were just hauling water with buckets. We had lines of kids watering the plants. An irrigation system became a priority very early on!”
Today, a solar-powered irrigation system keeps the community garden thriving. Funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service enabled Tyonek to build two high-tunnels—similar to rudimentary greenhouses—that allow for growth of some vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise survive in Alaska. A ventilation system for the high tunnels also works on solar power, resulting in a project that relies entirely on renewable energy.
The village hopes the project will also become self-sustaining. In 2014, TNC and the USDA provided funding for four youth workers who spent ten weeks planting, pollinating, harvesting, running farmers markets and delivering food to local Elders.
“Freight is 56 cents a pound now. So usually my freight is so much—as much as a round trip. If you buy a lot of food in one month, it’ll easily cost $300 – 500 to get it back…Now that we’ve got the garden, it’s better.”
– Tyonek resident
“Food to support the Elders was the main priority of this project,” Cincotta says. “Seeing the youth workers bring the first produce directly to the Elders’ homes, seeing that connection between youth and Elders—that was really rewarding.”
Once the Elders receive their produce, the remainder is sold locally; surplus vegetables, like potatoes, are sent to Anchorage to be sold, and proceeds are used to keep the garden going.
Back at the airstrip, a Tyonek resident explains that the cost of freight is about 56 cents per pound. “I was thinking of switching to frozen vegetables because cans are so heavy. But now that we’ve got the garden, it’s better. In summer, you don’t have to get canned stuff shipped in. You can buy good, fresh vegetables right here in Tyonek.”