OLD HARBOR, Alaska –
Every summer Cynthia Berns charters a 30-minute flight to her childhood home, a place tucked away only to be reached by plane or boat. On a sunny summer morning she walks on the fishing docks toward her father’s boat. The dock is surrounded by the same mountains and sea embedded in her family’s memories. For the past 10,000 years her family has worked in these lands and today she sees the faces of fishermen she’s known her whole life fixing nets and working on their skiffs, preparing for the next catch. However, every summer fewer skiffs remain, familiar faces become aged and the hands of seasoned fishermen find small relief with many of their children away from home.
Several hours earlier Cynthia met a Public Affairs Officer from the Army Reserve and had given the officer’s team a tour of community projects 9th Mission Support Command Soldiers volunteered to help with during their free time. She embraced the team with hospitality and invited them with a glimpse into her culture and tribe. Cynthia shared the prominence of the village’s fishing culture, the local revival of traditional dance and the expanding farm managed by the community. The fruition of these projects is the younger generation actively engaged in the betterment and sustainability of their village, taking wisdom and guidance from elders, to build a viable future for her people.
The vision that her home will be the home of her children and her children’s children, requires a future in which descendants will need not choose between culture and assimilation. It is this vision which drives Cynthia to find ways to build the economy of her community while protecting her culture comprised of centuries-old traditions.
Nestled at the base of southeasterly mountains on Kodiak Island, Alaska lies a rural Alutiiq village situated inland of the Sitkalidak Strait. The beauty of this quaint fishing town and its inspiring story of resiliency can be felt by any outsider fortunate enough to listen with their heart as they experience something so special yet indescribable radiate from the locals and their land. The Alutiiq people of Old Harbor called their village home for roughly 10,000 years, depending heavily on subsistence and commercial fisheries. From their generosity through food, hospitality, culture and military service, the people of Old Harbor envision a future in which cultural survival and sustainability converge, bringing hope that younger generations will return to their ancestral home.
“There’s been a big rural to urban out migration over the last few years,” said Cynthia Berns. “We’re really trying to reverse that by building the infrastructure so that we can build upon our fishing industry and sports-fishing industry to build our economy up, and have younger families move back home where they can be close to their cultural roots and subsistence lifestyle.”
Cynthia Berns, the Vice President of Community & External Affairs for Old Harbor Native Corporation, represents the interests of OHNC, the City of Old Harbor and that of her tribe regarding construction of the new road through the Innovative Readiness Training Old Harbor Hydroelectric Road project. Among Old Harbor’s actions toward a cleaner, more economically and culturally secure future for its people was the decision to apply to the IRT program. IRT is a Department of Defense program which partners American communities with military units to collaborate on a project that benefits the community. The idea is that units’ capabilities, comprising manpower and equipment, are matched with a community’s requested services. In turn, units gain deployment-readiness training while partnered communities receive the support services they need to thrive.
Since 2021 U.S. Army Reserve units from the 9th Mission Support Command, the most geographically dispersed Reserve command in the Indo-Pacific region, supported the IRT Old Harbor Road project to build a new access road in Old Harbor. Under the 411th Engineer Battalion, the 297th, 797th, and 871st Engineer Companies were collectively partnered with Old Harbor. The 297th EC, an Alaska based unit, remained in-state while the 797th and 871st engineer companies and the 411th Engineer Battalion Forward Support Company traveled from Guam, Hawaii, and American Samoa to see the project through. Leadership from these units collaborate with OHNC, the City of Old Harbor and Alutiiq Tribal Council of Old Harbor throughout the planning and execution phases of the project.
“It’s gonna bring down the overall cost of the project and will help us to save here with the funding needed for the construction of the hydro [hydroelectric powerhouse],” said Berns. “That will bring down the overall cost of electricity for our community members and really help for the sustainability of our village.”
Once fully developed the road will connect the village to the proposed hydroelectric powerhouse and the proposed fish hatchery facility which will be situated further into the Alaskan wilderness away from the coast. Although the hydroelectric powerhouse will provide long-term economic benefit by reducing energy costs for residents, it will also power the fish hatchery and expand local job opportunities. Access to these facilities will perpetuate local, small-scale fisheries and enable economic growth within the village. Moreover, the fish hatchery will provide a space for younger generations to learn and connect with their Alutiiq traditions by processing and preparing seafood through cultural practice.
The impact that Army Reserve Soldiers have on the community by being part of the IRT Old Harbor Road project cannot be understated. Every day, the three engineering companies are hard at work providing critical construction services and vehicle maintenance. Soldiers work onsite during clear, sunny days, and likewise when cold Arctic rain and winds blow against their skin. Although exposure to the Arctic climate is one of the major adjustments faced by Soldiers on ground, limited connectivity with virtually no phone-service and limited resources are added obstacles often encountered in Old Harbor’s remote environment.
Despite many obstacles the companies braved these challenges to support the project. Soldiers operate in an austere environment in the Arctic, leaving their civilian lives and loved ones behind for months, to successfully execute their mission and make a positive impact on the future of Old Harbor. The Soldiers’ efforts culminate toward the completion of a 7,500-foot road, which is anticipated to be finished by Aug. 4, 2022. Yet despite their many shifts on the construction site Soldiers engage in other ways to serve the community. The renown of their presence in Old Harbor is demonstrated not only by their professionalism, but also their continuous demonstration of selfless service to local residents.
Tribal Chief Loyd Ashouwak of the Alutiiq Tribal Council of Old Harbor and Annie May Lewis, the Tribal Administrator, recounted how Soldiers helped coordinate a Fourth of July celebration for the village. “It’s been a positive experience seeing them help out whenever,” said Lewis. “We had to haul all the stuff from the storage over to, in front of, the building and put it all together.” In addition to setting up festivities, Chief Ashouwak explained the Soldiers helped run food and game booths throughout the celebration.
“Since they started the project they’ve been helping out,” said Chief Ashouwak. “I’m starting to work on the boon truck that’s broken down on the unloading dock. I’ve seen a couple of Army people looking and working on it. So them being in the village, whatever needs to get done and if they have time to lend a helping hand, it’s great. It’s awesome.”
The success of the IRT Old Harbor Road project is more than just a road, it’s the service of Soldiers from the 297th, 797th, and 871st engineering companies and the 411th EN FSC which had woven into something greater than themselves. The Soldiers’ service helps pave a way for the village’s economic and cultural livelihood for generations to come. More importantly, the project isn’t just about building a new road. At its core the road not only symbolizes a self-sustaining future for Old Harbor, but also the lifelong bonds formed between the Soldiers and residents as they’ve worked together to make such a future possible.
When Pvt. Deshaunn Olloway, a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to the 871st EC, who is a native of Alaska, was asked about his experience being part of the IRT Old Harbor mission, his eyes looked west toward the mountains and said, “It’s been amazing.” “I’ve learned a lot of things and I feel like I’m doing my part, you know, with the people around here. This is part of the reason I joined the Army so I can help people out. It’s really nice.”
Cynthia jumped into her truck and drove back to the office, a small two-story building she currently shares with Soldiers managing the road project, after giving the public affairs team a tour throughout the village. Soldiers walk in and out from the building. She recognizes faces from the construction site of those who helped the villagers, people she’s known her entire life. Cynthia hears a now familiar sound of dump trucks driving to the project area from the main road, and a deep sense of pride swells in her chest as she sees the work of the Soldiers and community bring to fruition the very future she hopes for her people.