ST. MICHAEL — It would be hours before the sun rose over the treeless hills Tuesday in St. Michael, a Yup'ik village of just over 400 people on the edge of the Bering Sea. Most of the community was fast asleep.
More than 400 miles to the southeast, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, a group of volunteers and national guardsmen were busy loading ice cream, presents and Santa into an Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 Combat King II airplane. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Claus would be on their way to the village as part of Operation Santa Claus, a humanitarian mission started by the National Guard in 1956.
Sixty-one years later, Operation Santa Claus is now a collaboration between the National Guard, Salvation Army, Tastee Freeze, Costco and the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Each year the group visits two rural Alaska villages, delivering school supplies, presents and, perhaps most importantly, it brings the community together, spreading much-needed holiday cheer.
Daily life in St. Michael revolves around subsistence activities, and with the changing seasons come different foods. December is a time to hunt reindeer and fish for tomcod, according to village elders Alice Fitka and Virginia Washington. In the fall, hunters harvest seal and beluga whale, and women pick berries. Spring is when they pick sweet onions that grow in the lakes, and summer is a time for fishing and gathering clams and sea urchins.
There aren't many wage-earning jobs in the community. The median household income in St. Michael is $27,222 for a family of four, according to the Alaska State Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. That kind of money doesn't go very far in a place where the cost of heating oil can reach $300 a month, water and sewer is $250, and a gallon of gas is over $6. A bag of potato chips at the village store runs $10.
"It's hard to get by," said St. Michael city clerk Richard Elachik Sr. "Even those of us that work have a hard time. We live off subsistence more than store-bought food." Housing is also tight in the community. In 2010 Elachik lived with 20 people in a four-bedroom home. Today he and his wife live with six children in a two-bedroom rental.
The struggle of making ends meet in a remote town with few jobs has taken a heavy toll, with many residents turning to alcohol and marijuana to cope. "Right now we are battling with the silent problem of homebrew and marijuana," said Virginia Washington, a village elder originally from Emmonak who married into the community in 1978. "I've been battling with homebrew from my adult children, and I'm not going to be ashamed to speak about it."
"Homebrew is a problem in St. Michael," said Elachik, "and it's been getting worse. We saw our parents do it, and now we are their age."
Anthony A. Andrews School Principal Jon Wehde sees the effect that alcohol abuse is having on the children. "We will occasionally have a child reference homebrew," he said. "The tribal government is diligent with persistent intervention activities. This tells me that there is a need. It's an acute need."
With alcohol abuse comes other familiar problems. Domestic violence is enough of a concern that the community has developed a network of safe houses, distributed throughout the village so that one is always within walking distance. "The safe houses play a very critical role," said principal Wehde, who noted that there is no ambulance service and limited law enforcement presence.
The school provides breakfast and lunch for all their students, and the tribal agency offers regular evening meals. But even so, sometimes there's not enough food to go around. "I'm speaking from the Third World poverty level, which I'm living right now," said Washington. "It's kind of scary to see your own grandchildren hungry. So many times me and my husband don't eat so that our grandchildren can eat."
St. Michael's problems with poverty and substance abuse have put strains on the community. "People nowadays aren't working together like they used to," said Elachik. "We used to gather for Christmas, Thanksgiving. Today families are fighting each other. This community needs to gather together more."
Operation Santa Claus last visited St. Michael in 2003, and then, like now, nearly the entire community came together to take photos with Santa and open presents. "There's nothing more electric than singing 'Jingle Bells' and waiting for the big elf to come through the door," said principal Wehde, who has spent 30 years working in rural Alaska schools. "For the kids in a rural community in Alaska, to have an event like that lets them know that they are connected to a state that cares. They have an immediate sense of belonging."
"Everyone was waiting for it to come," said Elachik. "It was good to see the little kids and elders together."
Togetherness is what Virginia Washington is wishing for this Christmas. "I would really like peace in my home," she said. "I would rather have a peaceful, sober dinner on the table, where everybody is sober and well.
"That's my Christmas wish list," she said.