Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Pioneers on the `Last Frontier'

In another age, the Hillman family might have loaded themselves and their possessions into a Conestoga Wagon, hitched up their team, and set off for the Western frontier. As modern pioneers, Ray, Maxine, five of their eight children, and a 16-year-old friend piled into the family's 1972 Dodge van and set off for the ``Last Frontier'' of Alaska. Like the pioneers of old, they brought along their ``livestock'' (two cats and a dog); food and supplies (enough for nine months, much of it home-grown); necessities such as the deep fryer, microwave, camping gear, and fishing poles; and the family photograph albums. The three oldest children stayed behind to attend college in Idaho.

From Idaho Falls, they rolled 2,000 miles over the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and Canada in six days to board the ferry at Prince Rupert Island for Metlakatla, in southeastern Alaska.

About these ads

Ray and Maxine Hillman are everything you would expect pioneers to be. Ray is a ``man's man'' who loves the rugged outdoor life, yet is a gentle, understanding, decidedly un-macho protector and patriarch of the family. Maxine is the frontier homemaker par excellence, keeping everyone fed, clothed, and on schedule - a short-order cook and 24-hour confidante.

In Metlakatla, the only remaining Indian reservation in Alaska, Ray teaches industrial arts in the high school. Maxine substitute teaches, sells pies she bakes to order, and runs a bed and breakfast for visitors connected with the school district.

From the living room of the six-bedroom house they rent from the school board they can see eagles soar against the snow-tipped mountains, and salmon leap in the icy waters of the bay. They can watch lumber from the community sawmill being loaded onto Japanese and Korean ships in the harbor below, and they can walk the few feet down to the breakwater and catch a salmon for the family dinner table.

The outdoor life, high salaries, and excellent teaching facilities were lures for the Hillmans, but far from the only ones.

``We weren't getting anywhere with our life,'' says Maxine. ``It was just humdrum, so we decided to have an adventure.''

Ray adds that the standard comment from their friends was, ``Gee, I wish we could go, but we just can't do that. The only thing stopping them was the fear of going into something with which they weren't familiar.''

``I was happy to move,'' says 13-year-old Amy. ``I get to do new things here.'' But Alaska was not what she expected. ``You think, `Alaska - you're gonna freeze!' But it's like Idaho, except rainy.''

About these ads

Metlakatla is on Annette Island, 20 minutes by floatplane from Ketchikan. The weather is surprisingly mild, rarely dipping below freezing. But the island is also in the path of the rainstorms that sweep down into the Northwest. Winds up to 70 or even 100 miles per hour can keep the community cut off from the mainland for days or weeks at a time.

Yet for those who have never watched whales play or seen it rain ``sideways'' from the wind, it's a land of wonder.

``I remember the first time the children saw the northern lights,'' says Maxine. ``They came in and said, `There's something in the sky that's weird!'''

Jodi, 15, likes being able to travel with the women's basketball team. ``In Idaho, we were always home fighting over TV stations.'' Now, she says, there's so much to do that ``we don't fight because we're never home.''

Life on an island in Alaska does have its drawbacks, however. Shopping is limited to a grocery store, a hardware store, a few shops selling artifacts and postcards, and one ice cream and sandwich shop.

But if Maxine and Ray had any worries about the move, it was how their children would adjust to being the minority group in school.

The town was founded as a Christian community by Tsimshian Indians 100 years ago. When the federal government passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1972, Metlakatla was the only community that elected to retain its reservation status. This means that only native Alaskans can own property here, which contributes to a regular turnover in the teaching staff.

``The older children, especially, have had a harder time adapting,'' says Ray, ``and we've had to be there to cushion this for them, to let them know that they're still needed and loved and accepted.

``The longer they're here, the more comfortable they're becoming with it, but they still need the family unit, the family security, more than they've ever needed it before. Because of this it has drawn us much closer as a family.''

Following the teachings of their Mormon faith, the Hillmans hold ``family councils'' once a week, in which everyone is free to talk over problems. In addition, Ray and Maxine set aside a special time to be alone with each child at least once a month.

``We walk down and get an ice cream cone, and just listen to what they have to say, and if things are bothering them it will come out,'' says Maxine. ``We can't always solve the problems, but we can say `we understand.'''

In raising their eight children, Ray and Maxine have endeavored most of all to see each child as an individual, never comparing them with each other. And they say their own relationship with each other is the thing that gives ``solidity'' to the family.

``Ray and I have special time for each other,'' says Maxine, while Ray adds, ``When the children are gone, we'll still be best friends.''

The large family unit has helped the young Hillmans adjust to their new life. All say having the others around keeps them from being lonely, though Scott, as second youngest, says he wishes he weren't so far down the pecking order. Nine-year-old Aaron, the youngest, actually would have liked a few more younger brothers and sisters.

Sally, the oldest still at home, says the experience in Alaska has brought her closer to the boys. ``They don't know it, but they help a lot. Aaron and I sat on the porch the other night, talking about the things we've been doing. He sat in my lap, and we both cried about missing my boyfriend in Idaho. We talked about the things we missed, and made a list of the things we liked better up here.''

She had been looking forward to her senior year in Idaho, where she would have been a cheerleader. In Metlakatla, she's in the starting lineup of the women's basketball team and had a leading role in the fall play. She has developed some close friendships, and enjoys traveling with the team. On balance, she says she's not sorry they came, because ``Dad's happier than he's ever been, and it's been really good for the family.

``I probably will appreciate it even more in later years - I know I'm growing as a person.'' The experience of being a minority, she says, has made her more aware of how other minority groups must feel.

Do the Hillmans see themselves as pioneers?

``That was one of the reasons that I was so excited about coming,'' Ray concedes. ``I think it's the dream of most men to be able to be the provider and the explorer for the family, and this is one of the last frontiers in the United States. We're behind a lot of the world in a lot of things, but I think we enjoy more of a freedom, and the opportunity of enjoying the out-of-doors, that you don't have very many places.''

``We were adventuresome,'' says Maxine. ``We wanted to go somewhere new and do something totally different than we've ever done before, so we came to Alaska.''

And with a smile at her husband, she adds, ``It has been an adventure, hasn't it?''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.