NAPAIMUTE, ALASKA - The Yup'ik Eskimo Village of Napaimute, Alaska in the Kilbuck-Kuskokwim Mountains on the north bank of the Kuskokwim River has seen up times and down.
Founded in 1906 as a trading post, it became "an important supply and trade center". By 1930 it had a population of 111 residents.
That would be its peak. As the fur and reindeer trade dwindled, the Village historian writes, "residents migrated down the river to either Aniak or Bethel where government agencies were beginning to create more stable job opportunities." The village's last permanent resident left in 1969.
That could have been the end of the story.
Except that it wasn't. Two years later the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed and a handful of the "several hundred or more people" who could "trace their roots" to Napaimute formed a village corporation. Over the years they "slowly" brought "back to life", removing "refuse, demolishing dilapidate buildings, leveling the ground." A few families even built permanent homes, "planted gardens, set up smoke houses and steam baths" working "toward the day when they could" again "live there year-round."
That prospect became more real in 1994 when the Federal government designated the Village of Napaimute, as one of the nation's more than 560 Federally-recognized Tribes, conferring sovereignty and making it eligible for Federal aid. At recognition 39 people enrolled as members of the Village.
In Yup'ik, the name Napaimute means "people of the forest." A forest, white spruce surrounds the Village and extends, eastward to the Canadian border and beyond. It is the game-changer.
Travel west into the Kuskokwim Delta and you'll see why. Pretty quickly you'll come upon the flat and treeless tundra, stretching as far the eye can see, all the way to the Bering Sea. On the tundra wood may be as precious a natural resource as the oil or gold for which Alaska been famous.
Why? You need wood to build or repair houses. Wood so scarce on the tundra it's usually barged or flown in from Anchorage 350 miles due west. Shipping adds up to 60 percent to the cost. The consequence? One of the poorest regions in the state pays premium prices for building supplies. No wonder the housing stock's in such disrepair and, notes the Association of Village Council Presidents "need to be replaced as soon as possible."
Some 15,000 families live in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. It's a market waiting, even eager to be served. The Village has the resources - the forest - to do so. Thanks to a $600,000 HUD Indian Community Development Block Grant awarded in 2017, now it also has the tools - an unused lumber mill it bought and, piece by piece, trucked down the frozen Kuskokwim from some 40 miles upriver. For the first time in its history, the region has a steady supply of locally-sourced, finished lumber.
Great news for Delta residents who, says the Village, live in "some of the lowest-quality housing stock in Alaska." But there's still more good news. "I have so many people calling, asking, 'Do you got any openings? Do you got any openings?,'" the Village's director of development and operations director Mark Leary told KYUK Radio. "So many guys looking for work." Whether 10 or 12 or 14 jobs when the mill's up and running, he added, "all will come from the community in which it's located. And that's huge for a community to have that many people working."
Those jobs will create others in Bethel, the region's hub, where the lumber will be transformed into trusses designed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and used in AVCP-built houses that are energy efficient, faster to frame and more stable on permafrost.
Supply meets demand. That's the way markets work whether in New York City, New York or Napaimute, Alaska. And the foremost demand to meet is that of the "people of the forest" who wish to return to their ancestral home. From no permanent household in 1969 to 16 into "more than 25" in 2015. More are on the way.
Once left for dead, thanks to a lot of hard work and a little bit of help, an Alaskan village has come back to life.