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From Trade Post to Thriving Community: The History of Bethel

Published On: Sep 20 2013 11:45:00 AM AKDT

Reporter Samantha Anaiak, Photojournalist Kenneth Knutson (ktuu-tv)


When you first arrive in Bethel (or "Mamterilleq" in Yup'ik, meaning "the smokehouse people"), you can find welcoming signs just about everywhere.

Most of them reflect the town’s "Home of the Kuskokwim 300" sled dog race that takes place each year in January.

Some of the signs are out of date, saying the population is just over 3,000, when, according to the 2010 census report, Bethel actually has more than 6,000 residents. Longtime resident Walter Larson, who is a member of the Alaska Provincial Board says the population can swell to 7,500 people in the summertime.

The southwestern community that sits along the banks of the Kuskokwim River is located about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

Long before the town had even 1,000 people, the site was a trading post before missionaries of the Moravian Church established the city in the 1880s.

Larson says Sheldon Jackson and a group of Presbyterians were traveling to other places around the state at the time and eventually found out Bethel didn't have any churches.

"He went to his own church, the Presbyterians, ut they were too busy...they were up north already," Larson said. "They couldn't spare people to come here already, so he approached other denominations like the covenants."

Members of the Moravian Church eventually agreed to send people to the Kuskokwim area in 1882, and they were able to convince others there was a need for pastors and churches. Bishop Jacob Nelson Sr. says missionaries that arrived soon learned there was a language barrier and something needed to be done to fix that if there was going to be any chance they could teach the locals the ways of the church.

"Most of our missionaries learned to talk in Yup'ik, so they learned and then worked with the people," Nelson said.

Elders say before the churches were developed, the people made their home close to the Kuskokwim River for its closeness to the fish.

"The Kuskokwim is where we get our food from, our staple," Larson said.

The location offers much more than proximity to fish, though. The community rests on vast, squishy, sponge-like tundra that is filled with berries that provide main ingredients for many traditional native foods.

Eva Malvich, the Dir. Curator for the Yupiit Piciyarait Cultural Center, says following traditions like picking berries is what makes Bethel a unique balance of incorporating the modern ways of living with tradition.

"I just picked my 21st gallon of berries this year and I'm waiting for the frost so I can continue to pick my berries," Malvich said.

Whether it's the traditions that keep people thriving in the town or adapting to the more modern way of life, it's a community with a strong sense of connection to one another.