Alaska Native culture

The State of Culture Shock of an Alaska Native

I attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
I attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

The first time I went out of state to the Lower 48 was a high school trip to Close-Up in Washington, DC. My cousin, Michelle, experienced government in action. I had no idea what to expect in a huge city. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with how fast-paced everything was.

We flew from Bettles to Fairbanks (the biggest city I’ve ever been to before going out of state). I got jet lag from the trip across the country. I still felt like I was moving two days later. The hotel felt like it was moving. We visited the capitol, landmarks and learned about legislative processes.

I took a subway for the first time. I remember doing a lot of walking. I remember being shocked at a street with six lanes. Bettles has gravel roads. I remember running across the lanes like my life depended on it. The wind and rain didn’t help. As I ran across, my umbrella turned inside out and I ended up getting soaked.

The Close-Up program broadened my horizons on many levels. My only knowledge of subways and architectural buildings was from movies and books. The sheer number of people in the airport, buildings, cities was amazing.

Teacher Susie Luck taught us proper table manners at a restaurant in Fairbanks. L-R: Michelle, Miss Luck, Tanya and Gloria. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Teacher Susie Luck taught us proper table manners at a restaurant in Fairbanks. L-R: Michelle, Miss Luck, Tanya and Gloria. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

We had two teachers at the Bettles Field School. George Nicholson was a principal and teacher and taught the younger grades. Suzi Luck taught the upper grades. There were an average of 10 students in the whole school, kindergarten through 12 grade. On a trip to Fairbanks one year, Miss Luck brought a group of us to a restaurant. She taught us table manners and how to order food. We didn’t really have to opportunity to eat in a restaurant too often.

I respect teachers, like Mr. Nicholson and Miss Luck, who go above and beyond to help their students succeed. Teachers, counselors, mentors and coaches in rural Alaska are often instrumental in preparing students for higher education and beyond.

I later attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. RAHI is a six-week college preparatory program and takes place in the summer. I earned college credits and gained the confidence I needed to succeed in college.

After high school, I attended the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Despite my experience of going through the programs, attending college was still a culture shock. I went from a small community of about 50 people to a college with over 4,000 students at that time. I was exposed to city life and to the Native American culture in Oklahoma. Like many other college students, I made lifelong friends and I still keep in touch with them today.

In my senior year, I traveled to Europe with an international business class. That is one thing I never imagined I would ever be able to do. I visited international businesses, see the sights and watched a play in a theater. I traveled by planes, trains, automobiles and ship during the whirlwind trip. We visited London, Birmingham, Brussels and Amsterdam.

I am grateful for the experiences of college and learning about life outside of Alaska. While I learned a lot about other people and communities, it made me appreciate where I am from and how I was raised. I’m forever grateful to parents and family who believed in me and supported me as I have pursued my dreams. Despite all my travels, experiences and living in the city, I am still a village girl at heart. 

10 thoughts on “The State of Culture Shock of an Alaska Native”

  1. I think of this culture shock often as kiddos move into our district from the rural Alaskan districts. People are so quick to label kiddos as special ed due to lack of exposure and sheer shock of a school with 500 when they just left a school of 12. I can’t imagine the shock you went through, but it’s a great story I will keep in mind as I live and work 🙂 thanks!

  2. Angela, I understand the culture shock thing. I hadn’t been farther away from home than Anchorage (60 miles from home) without someone to back me up before I went to college in Fairbanks. Through out college, I would drive into Anchorage but have my sister meet me at the Northway Mall to let me follow her to her trailer across the street in the street in the trailer park. I felt so brave…

    1. Thanks Colleen. I remember my older sister and I used to call my mom (long distance) when we went anywhere upon departure and arrival. 🙂 My parents must have been so worried for their kids when they left home.

  3. Excellent article. Right now, I am writing about my experiences at Mt. Edgecumbe High School back in the early 1960s, in my UAF and I-AC writing class. And Yes, it was a real culture shock for us, too. For all of us, even nowadays, it can be tough to move from a tiny Alaskan village to that great big world out there.

    1. Thank you Vina. I will be great to learn about your experiences at MEHS. Please let me know if you would like to share it (or a portion of it) on this blog. There are many people with similar experiences.

  4. I was entranced by your writing; it made me reflect upon just what huge cultural and societal variations there are across our country and, indeed, the world. The latter is less unexpected because one naturally expects differences in cultures when they are oceans apart but while reading your post I marveled that I’d never really considered just how big a difference a mid-sized city in the lower 48 would be compared to someplace like Bettles. I am kinda going in the opposite direction from you; I was born and raised in the urban lower 48 and spent the first 60 years of my life largely in the Midwest but also traveling for business all across the lower 48 and into Canada as well. Once I was able to retire and take care of my parents during their final days I was free to follow my dream and said dream was to retire to rural south central Alaska. I’d spent a decade visiting ‘The Great Land’ on camping, hiking and backpacking trips so I was a bit familiar with the area. This also helped me choose the Talkeetna area for my home; I actually live about seven miles south of the town and just a bit east of the Spur. I’d never lived rural previously so learning the ropes has been and continues to be both a challenge and fun. In addition while I’ve lived in places like Wisconsin and Michigan none of them compares to the fierce freedom and incredible majesty of Alaska. I’ve been here since August of 2013 and while this winter has been underwhelming – I love cold and snow – I am hoping next winter will present me with -30 F air temps and 36″ plus of snow. I’m finding I love this lifestyle and the more I become immersed in it the less interest and time I have for things like TV. I’d much rather sit on my front porch and soak in the ‘immense silence’ as well as just watch the wildlife. I have two dogs (Anana is a 124 pound female Alaskan Malamute and Qanuk is an 85 pound German Shepherd Dog) and they love living up here as well. All told I’m loving learning to be more resourceful and how to live on less; already I cannot imagine ever returning to the lower 48 and I would never again live anything but rural. I admire your experience as a youth and salute you for moving forward with exploring a much different lifestyle but I can completely understand why you remain a ‘country girl’ at heart…

  5. Fantastic article! You make me feel your life story. Thank you for sharing it! I visited Alaska once. We were on cruise. It is amazing state. I think if I lived there I would love it with all my heart. Greets!

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