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Bethel, Alaska

Mamterilleq

Orutsaraq
City of Bethel
Aerial view of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River
Aerial view of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River
Location of Bethel within the state of Alaska
Location of Bethel within the state of Alaska
Country United States
State Alaska
Borough Unorganized
Census Area Bethel
ANCSA regional corporation Calista
Incorporated August 1957
Government
 • Type Council–manager government
Area
 • Total 50.11 sq mi (129.78 km2)
 • Land 44.51 sq mi (115.27 km2)
 • Water 5.60 sq mi (14.51 km2)
Elevation
3 ft (1 m)
Population
 (2020)
 • Total 6,325
 • Density 142.11/sq mi (54.87/km2)
 • Alaska Native
62%
Time zone UTC−9 (AKST)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−8 (AKDT)
ZIP code
99559
Area code 907 Exchange: 543
FIPS code 02-06520
GNIS feature ID 1398908

Bethel (Central Yupik: Mamterilleq ) is a city in Bethel Census Area, Alaska, United States. It is the largest community on the Kuskokwim River, located approximately 50 mi (80 km) upriver from where the river flows into Kuskokwim Bay. It is also the largest city in western Alaska and in the Unorganized Borough, as well as the eighth-largest in the state. Bethel has a population of 6,325 as of the 2020 census, up from 6,080 in 2010.

Annual events in Bethel include the Kuskokwim 300, a dogsled race; Camai, a Yup'ik dance festival held each spring; and the Bethel Fair held in August.

History

Southwestern Alaska was the traditional place of Yup'ik people and their ancestors for thousands of years. They called their village Mamterillermiut, meaning "Smokehouse People", after their nearby fish smokehouse. It was an Alaska Commercial Company trading post during the late 19th century, and had a population of 41 people in the 1880 U.S. Census.

In 1885, the Moravian Church established a mission in the area under the leadership of Rev. William Weinland and Caroline (born Yost) and John Henry Kilbuck, Jr., a Lenape, and his wife Edith, a daughter and granddaughter of Moravian missionaries in Kansas.

Alaska Natives in this area have had a long Christian history, in part from Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Moravian influence. As in many Alaska Native villages, Christian tradition has become interwoven with the people's original culture.

Development came to the area during and after World War II, causing social disruption among the Alaska Natives.

In 1971 Bethel established a community radio, which has been a strong influence in the redevelopment and revival of Yup'ik culture and self-definition. It was the first Native-owned and operated radio station. Similar stations were soon started in Kotzebue, and by 1990, there were 10 stations in communities of fewer than 3,500 people.

In 2009, Bethel opted out of status as a "Local Option" community, theoretically opening the door to allowing alcohol sales in the city; residents and city officials maintained that all liquor license requests would be actively opposed. In October 2015, though, a vote for allowing alcohol sales in Bethel passed and two liquor licenses were approved for existing stores in the city.

On November 3, 2015, the Kilbuck building housing both the Ayaprun Elitnaurviat Yup’ik immersion school and the Kuskokwim Learning Academy caught fire, destroying the immersion school and damaging the boarding school. Fire fighters demolished part of the building in an effort to save a media center containing Yup'ik artifacts and elder interviews.

Geography

Bethel is located at 60°47′32″N 161°45′21″W / 60.79222°N 161.75583°W / 60.79222; -161.75583 (60.792222, −161.755833). According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 48.7 square miles (126.1 km2), of which 43.2 square miles (111.8 km2) is land and 5.5 square miles (14.3 km2), or 11.34%, is water.

Though the region is flat and generally treeless, Bethel lies inside the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the second largest wildlife refuge in the United States.

Climate

Bethel has a subarctic climate (Köppen Dfc), with long, somewhat snowy, and moderately cold winters, and short, mild summers. Monthly daily average temperatures range from 6.6 °F (−14.1 °C) in January to 56.0 °F (13.3 °C) in July, with an annual mean of 29.9 °F (−1.2 °C). Warm days of above 70 °F (21 °C) can be expected on 13 days per summer. Precipitation is both most frequent and greatest during the summer months, averaging 16.2 inches (411 mm) per year. Snowfall usually falls in light bouts, and is actually greater in November and December (before the sea freezes) than in January and February, averaging 45 inches (114 cm) a season. Extreme temperatures have ranged from −48 °F (−44 °C) to 90 °F (32 °C).

Climate data for Bethel, Alaska
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 49
(9.4)
51
(10.6)
53
(11.7)
63
(17.2)
80
(26.7)
90
(32.2)
86
(30)
87
(30.6)
76
(24.4)
65
(18.3)
60
(15.6)
49
(9.4)
90
(32.2)
Average high °F (°C) 12.4
(-10.89)
13.9
(-10.06)
21.8
(-5.67)
33.3
(0.72)
49.4
(9.67)
59.4
(15.22)
63.1
(17.28)
59.7
(15.39)
51.7
(10.94)
35.3
(1.83)
23.1
(-4.94)
15.6
(-9.11)
36.6
(2.56)
Daily mean °F (°C) 6.6
(-14.11)
7.6
(-13.56)
14.5
(-9.72)
25.9
(-3.39)
41.3
(5.17)
51.4
(10.78)
56.0
(13.33)
53.5
(11.94)
45.4
(7.44)
30.0
(-1.11)
17.4
(-8.11)
9.4
(-12.56)
29.9
(-1.17)
Average low °F (°C) 0.7
(-17.39)
1.3
(-17.06)
7.2
(-13.78)
18.4
(-7.56)
33.1
(0.61)
43.3
(6.28)
48.8
(9.33)
47.5
(8.61)
39.1
(3.94)
24.7
(-4.06)
11.7
(-11.28)
3.2
(-16)
23.3
(-4.83)
Record low °F (°C) −48
(-44.4)
−40
(-40)
−42
(-41.1)
−31
(-35)
−5
(-20.6)
28
(-2.2)
30
(-1.1)
28
(-2.2)
18
(-7.8)
−6
(-21.1)
−31
(-35)
−44
(-42.2)
−48
(-44.4)
Precipitation inches (mm) .62
(15.7)
.51
(13)
.67
(17)
.65
(16.5)
.85
(21.6)
1.60
(40.6)
2.03
(51.6)
3.02
(76.7)
2.31
(58.7)
1.43
(36.3)
1.37
(34.8)
1.12
(28.4)
16.18
(411)
Snowfall inches (cm) 5.8
(14.7)
3.8
(9.7)
6.5
(16.5)
4.1
(10.4)
1.7
(4.3)
.1
(0.3)
0
(0)
0
(0)
.3
(0.8)
3.8
(9.7)
8.9
(22.6)
9.5
(24.1)
44.5
(113)
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 8.7 5.8 8.6 8.9 11.0 13.2 15.1 18.3 17.2 12.7 11.8 11.0 142.3
Avg. snowy days (≥ 0.1 in) 7.9 4.8 7.7 6.9 2.3 .1 0 0 .5 5.9 9.1 9.0 54.2
Source: NOAA (normals, 1971−2000), Weather.com (extremes)

Demographics

Historical population
Census Pop.
1880 29
1890 20 −31.0%
1910 110
1920 221 100.9%
1930 278 25.8%
1940 376 35.3%
1950 651 73.1%
1960 1,258 93.2%
1970 2,416 92.1%
1980 3,576 48.0%
1990 4,674 30.7%
2000 5,471 17.1%
2010 6,080 11.1%
2020 6,325 4.0%
U.S. Decennial Census

The first settlement at the location of Bethel reported on the 1880 U.S. Census as "Mumtrekhlagamute Station." It had 29 Yup'ik. 1/2 mile away was the adjacent Mumtrekhlagamute Village (1880 population: 41 (all Yup'ik); 1890 population (as Mumtrekhlagamiut) was 33 (28 Yup'ik and 5 Whites). Bethel was established at Mumtrekhlagamute Station in 1885 and supplanted it by the 1890 U.S. Census. It reported 20 residents (13 Yup'ik and 7 Whites). Mumtrekhlagamiut would later be absorbed into Bethel. Bethel did not appear on the 1900 Census, but has on every census since 1910. It would formally incorporate as a city in 1957.

As of the census of 2000, there were 5,471 people, 1,741 households, and 1,190 families residing in the city. The population density was 125.0 people per square mile (48.3/km2). There were 1,990 housing units at an average density of 45.5 per square mile (17.6/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 26.83% White, 0.93% Black or African American, 61.78% Native American, 2.87% Asian, 0.16% Pacific Islander, 0.51% from other races, and 6.91% from two or more races. Hispanics or Latinos of any race were 1.70% of the population.

There were 1,741 households, out of which 44.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 42.6% were married couples living together, 15.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 33.7% were non-families. 24.5% of all households were made up of individuals, and 3.2% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.00 and the average family size was 3.65.

The age distribution was 35.5% under 18, 9.0% from 18 to 24, 32.7% from 25 to 44, 18.9% from 45 to 64, and 3.9% who were 65 or older. The median age was 29 years. For every 100 females, there were 110.4 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 109.6 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $57,321, and the median income for a family was $62,431. Males had a median income of $45,321 versus $39,010 for females. The per capita income for the city is $20,267. About 10.6% of the families and 11.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 9.7% of those under the age of 18 and 18.3% of those ages 64 and over.

Transportation and economy

The state-owned Bethel Airport is the regional transportation hub, and is served by three passenger carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Grant Aviation, and Renfro's Alaskan Adventure. It also receives service from three major cargo operators: Everts Air Cargo, Northern Air Cargo, Lynden Air Cargo, and numerous small air taxi services. The airport ranks third in the state for total number of flights. It offers a 6,400 foot asphalt runway, a 4,000 foot asphalt runway, and 1,850 foot gravel crosswind runway, and is currently undergoing a $7 million renovation and expansion. Three float plane bases are nearby: Hangar Lake, H Marker Lake, and the Kuskokwim River.

The Port of Bethel is the northernmost medium-draft port in the United States. River travel is the primary means of local transportation in the summer. A Bethel-based barge service provides goods to Kuskokwim villages.

Within Bethel are approximately 16 miles (26 km) of roads that are not connected to any contiguous highway system. Winter ice roads lead to several nearby villages, but their condition varies depending on temperature and snowfall. An extensive network of snow machine trails connects Bethel to villages all over the Delta, from the Bering Sea to the Yukon.

The town's single paved road, about 10 miles, supports a taxicab industry. With 93 taxi drivers, the town has more cab drivers per capita than any other city in the US. Most local cab drivers are Albanian or South Korean immigrants.

Bethel is home to the lone detention center in southwestern Alaska, the Yukon Kuskokwim Correction Center. This prison has a capacity of 207 inmates, men and women, and a staff of 45.

Bethel is also the site of a proposed major Alaskan coal-fired power station and a unique 8.5-mile (13.7 km) prototype single-wire earth return electrical intertie to Napakiak, Alaska, constructed in 1981.

Sports and recreation

Bethel is home to a noted mid-distance dogsled race, the Kuskokwim 300. Held every January since 1980, the race commemorates an early mail route that once tied the settlement to the outside world. Top mushers and hundreds of sled dogs participate in the race for a purse of $100,000, the largest offered by any 300-mile (480 km) sled dog race.

Local recreational activities include snow machining, skiing, bicycling, kayaking, caribou hunting, and salmon fishing.

Bethel is an established starting point to Float Alaska wilderness rivers in the Kisaralik, Kwethluk, Aniak, Kanektok, Arolik, Goodnews, Eek and Holitna River systems.

Arts and culture

Traditional dancers from all over Alaska and beyond participate every March in the Cama-i dance festival. Hundreds of costumed dancers, drummers, and singers perform traditional Yup'ik story dances during the three-day festival, sponsored by the Bethel Council on the Arts. "Cama-i" (pronounced Cha-Mai) translates as "a warm hello."

The Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center also hosts a bimonthly "Saturday Market" where artisans and crafters from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta come to sell their crafts. There is a variety at the market, but many of the crafts include traditional Yup'ik qaspeq, story knives, woven baskets, ulu knives and more.

Sister cities

Bethel has one official sister city.


Education

Lower Kuskokwim School District operates five schools in Bethel:

  • Gladys Jung Elementary School - Bethel
    • Jung, previously known as the Kilbuck School, serves grades 3–6. As of 2018 its enrollment was about 345.
  • Mekelnguut Elitnauriviat School - Bethel
    • Nicknamed the "M.E. School," it serves grades Kindergarten through 2. As of 2018 it has 260 students and 18 teachers.
  • Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School - Bethel
    • It is a K-6 Yup’ik-English bilingual program that originated from a total immersion language program established in 1995. As of 2002 the school had 197 students. The school occupies space in Mekelnguut Elitnauriviat and Gladys Jung schools; As of 2002 grades Kindergarten through 1 are in the former and the remainder are in the latter.
  • Bethel Regional High School - Bethel
    • Known locally as "Bethel High School", it serves grades 7-12. As of 2019 there are approximately 540 students enrolled, and 34 staff members.
  • Kuskokwim Learning Academy (alternative)

Other institutions:

  • Bethel Alternative Boarding school
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Yuut Elitnaurvik

Notable people

  • John Binkley (born 1953), businessman, Republican politician
  • Valerie Davidson (born 1967), politician
  • Nora Guinn (1920–2005), judge
  • Lyman Hoffman (born 1950), politician
  • Peter Kaiser (born 1987), musher
  • Oscar Kawagley (1934–2011), anthropologist, teacher, actor
  • Marie Meade (born 1947), dancer
  • Jake Metcalfe (born 1958), politician
  • Don Page (born 1948), physicist; noted for being a doctoral student of Stephen Hawking
  • Mary Sattler (born 1973), politician
  • Tiffany Zulkosky (born 1984), politician
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