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‘Escaping Alaska’ finds ‘Frozen Lies & Forging a New Family’ on TLC

The Frozen Tundra as pictured in Escaping Alaska
The Frozen Tundra as pictured in Escaping Alaska
Wikimedia Commons

On last night’s episode of “Escaping Alaska,” a group of young people have made a secret pact to leave Alaska and go to the lower forty-eight, as the continental United States are referred to by Alaskans. It is not customary for the younger generations to leave their homes, in fact; it is considered treason.

Their English names are Tamara, Frank, Mary, Q and Nuala. Unlike the Amish who have an opportunity to see how English people live, then choose to return if they desire, the native Alaskans do not have such a choice. They are expected to take care of their elders, as generations before them. The communities in this show are led to believe that the young Alaskans are the subject of a documentary about the struggling economy and employment problems facing the younger generation.

Nualalauksmi is Nuala’s real name, she is a Yup’ik Eskimo. Nuala lives in Barrow, the northernmost city in Alaska. She pointed out the beach and the Arctic Ocean, both snow covered. She loves the culture of her community, where everyone is there for each other, but it is small and most certainly both a blessing and a curse. She is on her way to bring caribou meat to an elder. She loves caribou, but gets tired of eating it as nachos, burgers, stew and anything else they can dream up. When she brought the caribou, the woman gave her muktuk, which is whale blubber, which she loves, along with seal meat. She asked the viewers not to hate her for it, but they were delicious; the Eskimos do not kill animals for joy; they do for survival. She brought the muktuk in the house, and her Caucasian step-mother Bonnie was preparing caribou meat for soup. Her father is in the military and away right now. She tells Bonnie that she is bored, there are no malls, movie theaters or even street lights. Bonnie encourages Nuala to leave Barrow; she is not Alaskan, but is a huge inspiration to Nuala.

Sadzea is Mary’s real name; she is an Athabascan Indian. She and Nuala met outside of Anchorage. Mary is from Tanana, where the current temperature is -23 F., She comes from a culture that hunts, and if they kill an animal, they have to bless the animal and give thanks and show respect to the spiritual world. She pointed out the house she grew up in, and the outhouse in the back. They have no running water. She dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but in Tanana, there are no opportunities for that to become a reality. The group chose San Diego because it is the opposite of Alaska, and with no jobs where she is living, she hopes to bring her dreams to reality. Mary is very close to her grandmother; at 92, she is the oldest in the village. Mary left Tanana to work in Fairbanks, but came back because she missed her family too much. Mary would like to learn how to say everything in the Athabascan language, but her grandmother told her there are few who speak it, and they are in deep trouble. Mary has a boyfriend named Tory, who came to Alaska for work. He trusts Mary and cannot join her right now, but urges her to go and see how life is in San Diego.

Paaraq is Frank’s real name; he is an Inupiaq Eskimo. He calls Mary on his cell phone to let her know he is on his way, but will bring some wood for a fire. He wants to make sure nobody saw her. His home town is Kotzebue, on the Bering Sea, where the current temperature is -34 F. For 252 days out of the year, he lives in a polar vortex and is the only support his family has. Before he leaves, he is going to the grocery store. The prices are outrageous; Romaine lettuce is $13.99 a pound; a honeydew melon is $18.99, $9.95 for a gallon of milk. They mostly purchase items that will last. Frank is a cargo handler at the airport; he has wanted to leave, but most of his money goes towards groceries and stove oil to feed his family. All of his friends are still there, but have turned into drunks or fathers.

As Tamara, whose real name is Aluqtuq approaches Frank, she asks if he is here for the meeting? He makes sure she does not speak too loudly, lest someone hears their plan. She is also an Inupiaq Eskimo from Noorvik, with current temperature of -27 F. It takes two flights to get to the nearest city from Noorvik. They have two grocery stores and a gift shop; they purchase their clothing online. The house is crowded and they only have one bathroom. She dreams of becoming an actress, perhaps the Eskimo version of Jennifer Lawrence. As her friend, Hali comes to visit, she knows about the secret plan, and promises to keep quiet. She wishes she could come with her friend, who has saved money, which includes a dividend check from the oil companies who pay them for drilling on their land.

Q’s name is Qituvituaq, an Inupiaq Eskimo from Nome. He follows the mythological beliefs of his people. He would like to find some creatures and prove that Eskimos are not just full of fantasy and folklore. He has been in trouble as a teen, he was kicked out of his family and raised in a disciplinary center, without much human contact. Since then he has preferred to be a loner. He comes from a long line of shamans, but does not fit in, which is why he prefers to leave. Q is not a part of the original plan, but knows the person who lives in San Diego, who also left Alaska, and they trust him enough to let him in.

Each family will struggle when their youngsters leave. They are telling their elders that they are going to Anchorage or Fairbanks to work. Every family wants them to call home, and although Frank is the only one who tells he is going to the Lower 48. Before they leave, they declare that they are a family, and they will stick together. However, what the future brings, does not always turn out as one would expect.

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