Every summer, Amira Abujbara boards a nine-seater plane at a tiny air taxi office. It is the same plane, with the same pilot, that she has flown in almost every year of her childhood.
The 50-minute flight will take her over a snowy mountain range, a volcano and an elaborate tundra of blueberries and mushrooms, tea leaves and caribou moss, wildflowers and spider webs.
She is heading to her mother’s childhood home and the place where she spends her summers – the remote Alaskan village of Iliamna. Without any roads connecting it to the outside world, this is her only way of going ‘home’.
Iliamna, which is an Athabascan word meaning “big ice” or “big lake” sits on the shore of the lake that shares its name. The largest in Alaska, it spans more than 2,500 square kilometres, is pure enough to drink from and is home to the biggest sockeye salmon run in the world.
Iliamna shares a post office, school, airport, medical clinic and two small stores with the neighbouring village, Newhalen. Together, they have fewer than 300 residents. It is a far cry from her father’s home country, Qatar, where Amira spends the rest of the year.
Her father is Qatari and her mother is Dena’ina – a subset of the Athabascan Alaska Natives.
Amira was born in Alaska and is registered as an Alaska Native. When her father married her mother he promised her parents that they would return regularly and so Amira and her sister spent their summers in Iliamna.
Their grandmother ran a bed and breakfast for fishermen, so she would help make the beds, clean and prepare the meals for her guests. She learned how to subsistence fish – catching, smoking, brining and canning salmon during the summer months to store for the rest of the year.
For the villagers, their home is a beautiful and fruitful land, but it is also a place of incredible hardships.
Tiny villages are dwarfed by the vast wilderness that surrounds them, and while the region is rich in natural resources, many Alaska Natives struggle to remain above the poverty line. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, over any five-year period between 1993 and 2013, an average of 11 percent of the state’s rural population moved into urban areas.
Those aged 18 to 24 are the most likely to leave. But life in the city can be overwhelming for those used to the safety net of a tight-knit rural community.
Then there are the alcohol and substance abuse rates: in Alaska, age-adjusted rates of alcohol-induced deaths are 71.4 in 100,000 for Alaska Natives and 12.1 for whites.
Suicide rates for Alaska Natives are almost four times the national average, and Alaska Natives are far more likely to succumb to each of the state’s leading causes of death – cancer, heart disease and unintentional injury – than their white counterparts.
In Alaska, Native children are nearly three times as likely as white children to die before their fifth birthday.
The situation Alaska Natives face can, perhaps, best be summarised by a note in the minutes of a meeting of Newhalen residents. In a list of wishes for the community’s future, one states simply: “To still be here.”
But why is this community so at risk and will a proposed gold and copper mine, located close to the villages, endanger it further still? Residents know it offers the promise of jobs, but there are fears it could ruin the salmon run, and with it, their way of life.
We Are Still Here tells the story of a community fighting to preserve its culture and its connection to the land.