In Nunapitchuk, infrastructure is increasingly unsafe
The law enforcement building in Nunapitchuk sits on the shore of the dynamic Johnson River, which runs through the village. And the building is right on the shore. The riverbank has eroded to a foot away from one of the building's stilts.
“I do hope they get a new boardwalk for this,” said Nunapitchuk Village Police Officer Alex Tobeluk. “It'll make it easier.”
The law enforcement building is small and gray, with jail cells in the back and printed signs tacked up banning cigarettes for prisoners and social visitors for staff. It houses the local police department, fire department, and ]search and rescue team: a team of four.
The groups boarded up the entrance they used to use to access their boats because of the erosion. Now they use a side door that leads to a haphazardly constructed dock. It’s janky, narrow, and missing planks. It's pieced together with loose nails and spare boards.
“Especially when we have an intoxicated person, bringing him here, like, because that boardwalk is narrow, I always get worried they might fall into the river. Because it’s so small,” said Tobeluk.
Tobeluk said that it can get particularly dangerous in the spring when the river is cold and water is high. The water overtakes the dock and gets the village police officers wet on their way to emergencies.
“And if they trip, like, you know, especially having handcuffs, you can’t use your hands to prevent you from getting hurt,” Tobeluk said. “So I do hope they fix it so that anybody won't get hurt.”
Tobeluk said that the police are nervous about the eroding shoreline, which is destabilizing the building’s foundation.
A bed of sandbags makes a fortress between the water and the grassy mud beneath the building. A stack of planks waiting to become boardwalks is serving a second purpose: propping up the building’s horizontal structural beams.
“And they pick them up, and they use, like, jacks to lift the building up and add more to the side. Since we would get problems with the building because it's shifting really bad,” Tobeluk said. “Like right there. They added more blocks.”
Nunapitchuk law enforcement wants a new building, but they’re not the only ones. The tribal office and post office are also sinking. Light poles lean precariously, and a fall of even one could cause a village-wide power outage. In 2018, the Moravian Church fell off its stilts with a crash during the summertime salmonberry festival. It was the fourth time the church had to be rebuilt.
“It was kind of like the main eye opener, main indicators that the very ground that we are making a living on was changing,” said resident Morris Alexie, who’s trying to relocate the village.
"Nobody is excluded," Alexie said. "All over. It's moving everything. Nobody, even in the center of the community, they are no exception."
Where construction or buildings have been, there are now plots of dark, mushy mud. That land is unusable. It can’t be stepped on, let alone built on again.
One of the issues with building on the tundra is it’s already a loose material. Also the rivers are powerful, pushing shorelines and forming new, twisting sloughs. Up into the 1960s, local people moved with the seasons and used natural materials to build with. Those materials didn’t test the soil like modern infrastructure or leave harmful chemical byproducts.
“In the springtime, they would migrate to where they knew they would get some food that they could gather,” Alexie said. “And then in the fall, they would move to some different area to gather again for the winter.”
The community settled in Nunapitchuk mostly because of the school, but also because of the church. The federal government also made the decision to parcel up local land and transfer ownership to regional and local village corporations with Alaska Native shareholders.
In 1976, the state mandated that Alaska Natives attend local public schools with the Molly Hooch Act. That law was passed because of a case for better local education brought by a student from Emmonak and a student from Nunapitchuk, Anna Tobeluk, Village Police Officer Alex Tobeluk's grandmother. Residents say the state chose this spot for Nunapitchuk’s new school because it was the best place to build a port.
“It was very strictly required by the U.S. government. They were strict. They were strict enforcing, forceful that we get our education,” Alexie said.
But less than 50 years on, the school isn’t holding up well either. Anna Tobeluk Memorial K-12 School is third on the list of the state of Alaska’s capital improvement project priorities. So far, the state has allocated over $45 million for major renovations, ground reinforcement, and chemical hazardous materials abatement.
This school year, students in Nunapitchuk started back at school remotely because the back ramp of the school building fell off, revealing flaky, rotted wood. The school is overcrowded too, currently at almost twice its capacity, and with 96 unhoused students. Residents say that many of those students live with extended family.
“Out of our 750 regular people that live here, two-thirds are 18 and under, right?” Alexie said. “Look how much more houses they're going to need.”
On top of overcrowding in problem-ridden buildings, outdoor spaces where people used to spend much of their time are increasingly unsafe too. The shrubs, moss, and small bushes that defined the rugged ground have given way to spongy mud and grass, threatening the historic subsistence lifestyle.
In the third part of this four-part series, KYUK will look at the effect of the changing tundra on life outdoors in Nunapitchuk.