Visiting 12 Western Communities was one of the Year’s Greatest Blessings

by Senator Dan Sullivan 

This past year has brought many blessings. Working closely with so many Alaskans, we’ve had some great legislative successes in Washington, D.C. for rural Alaska—the soul of our state. To name a few of those successes, we’ve significantly increased funding for water and sewer programs in rural Alaska, and for those suffering from addictions. We’ve passed many bills to counter sexual assault and domestic violence. We’ve been able to get more lands transferred to villages, more resources for our Alaska Native veterans, and have had progress fixing the discriminatory policies that limit the ability of Alaska Native Corporations to compete for sole-source contracting.

These successes are possible because we met, we listened, we learned, and we acted together. There is absolutely no substitute for meeting with Alaskans and hearing from them firsthand. This was something I was able to do this summer on a trip of a lifetime through 12 rural Alaska communities in four days: Chefornak, Chevak, Emmonak, Mountain Village, Pitka’s Point, St. Mary’s, Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk, Holy Cross, McGrath, and Nikolai.

During that trip, I had the opportunity to speak directly with community members, see a number of local priorities, and hear about a number of unique challenges and opportunities—including fisheries, housing, transportation, public safety, infrastructure, water and sewer, community health, and so much more. The issues that I learned about will be ones that I will continue to relentlessly work on in the Senate. And the people I met there I now call friends—ones that I hope to have for life.

The trip began in Chefornak, which has incredible leadership of all ages that has taken concrete steps to shore-up their jetty to ensure they can get supplies to their community by river, and are also currently working to secure other critical community infrastructure that is threatened each year by flooding and erosion which is heightened during fall storms.

During my visit to Chevak, the whole community showed up to welcome us to the school gym, where we felt the warm Cup’ik embrace with a moving speech by tribal leader Jim Ayuluk followed by beautiful dancing, as well as testimony from invested leaders and passionate community members sharing innovative entrepreneurial ideas to kick start the local economy and an emotional appeal for housing due to overcrowding.

In Emmonak, we were greeted by members and leaders of the community to discuss a number of critically important issues and priorities, including fisheries, coastal erosion, roads, crime and domestic violence, housing and infrastructure. I am pleased to announce that since my visit, Emmonak was awarded a $23 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation—something I in D.C. advocated strongly for—to build a permanent dock and barge/landing craft ramp and to renovate approximately 3.5 miles of high-use service roads.

After a delicious breakfast with community leaders in Emmonak, we boated the 60 miles up the Yukon to Mountain Village, a place of such incredible history of service. Within their community hall, there is a wall dedicated to those from their village who have served in the armed forces. I was honored to see and speak with so many veterans at the community meeting, now serving their community in different roles.

We took a beautiful drive through the rolling hills along the Yukon to Pitka’s Point, where we met with community leaders and learned about their desire to preserve and grow their community through enhanced public safety and reusing now vacant buildings.

On a short drive down the road to St. Mary’s, we came across an incredible piece of energy infrastructure along the banks of the mighty Yukon River — a remarkable wind turbine; which through inter-ties will provide renewable, cost saving energy to a number of nearby villages. A great example of Alaska’s all-of-the-above energy potential. We ended our day in St. Mary’s when the fish opener was coming to a close, boats were lining up at the dock to offload their catch. The lush rolling hills of St. Mary’s welcomed me, along with the fishermen who were offloading their catch after a successful opener.

Further up the Yukon, we were closer to country I’m familiar with, the interior home to my in-laws. The “GASH” villages of Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk, and Holy Cross, each comprised of 200 residents or less, pack powerful capacity. In Grayling and Anvik, I spoke with teachers and staff, new and seasoned, hearing about challenges a school district with villages not connected by roads presents, including keeping a balanced budget given the high cost of energy and internet. After the community meeting in Grayling, we toured the village clinic; a facility proudly run by homegrown talent.

We received a warm welcome in Anvik with a drive through the woods to the tribal hall to hear from community leadership. The reoccurring issues of housing, public safety, and fisheries were echoed in Anvik.

Over on the Innoko River, Shageluk bursts with community pride, with leaders practical and passionate about their priorities. Throughout the four days, we met many people from Shageluk living in other villages due to the lack of housing, and water and sewer in the village. I look forward to working with the community to remedy that and finally bring running water and sewer to Shageluk.

Back to the Yukon, Holy Cross recently acquired a saw mill for the community so they can better and more locally address the lack of housing. Additionally, I was able to spend time with elder and World War II veteran, Luke Demientieff, and his family. At 93 years old, he’s building a boat with two younger men in the community; he’s passing along his knowledge and skill so that the younger generation will prosper from his almost century of lived knowledge and experience.

Our last day was spent on the Upper Kuskokwim, in the communities of McGrath and Nikolai. In both communities, I received a tour of town with a local leader followed by a community town hall where local voices told stories and priorities of their homes, and their communities. McGrath is a community that has seen great growth through federal investment over the years. The airport at McGrath is amazing and serves as an air hub for the region.

Nikolai was our very last stop. We toured the town, witnessing the erosion on the road out to the landfill, the fish wheel in action on the river, and peered into the past through the doorway of a beautiful 80 plus year-old church in the center of town. The community of Nikolai is enthusiastic, speaking their hearts and minds for the benefit of the community. It was a great way to cap off a trip of a lifetime.

The visits to the villages served as a reminder of what I fight for daily in Washington D.C. The people and stories from this particular trip continue to fuel my fire to mirror in Washington the indomitable spirit ever-present in Alaska, especially in rural Alaska where survival is still a part of daily life.

I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity displayed by everyone we met in all 12 villages. And I’ll also never forget the ingenuity and leadership displayed in every village we visited. From the bottom of my heart: Thank you. Quyana. Merry Christmas and may you have a blessed new year.

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