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Bethel (Mamterilleq in Central Alaskan Yup'ik) is a city located near the west coast of the U.S. state of Alaska, approximately 400 miles (640 km) west of Anchorage, in the Bethel Census Area. Accessible only by air and river, Bethel is the main port on the Kuskokwim River and is an administrative and transportation hub for the 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Bethel is the largest community in western Alaska and in the Unorganized Borough, as well as the 9th largest in the state, with a population of 6,080 as of the 2010 Census. Bethel is home to the lone detention center in southwestern Alaska, the Yukon Kuskokwim Correction Center.
Annual events in Bethel include a noted dogsled race, the Kuskokwim 300, Camai, a traditional Yup'ik dance festival held each spring, and the Bethel Fair held in August.
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. They both learned Yup'ik, which greatly enhanced their effectiveness as missionaries. He made Yup'ik the language of the Moravian Church in the community and region, and helped translate scripture into the people's language. The missionaries moved Bethel from Mamterillermiut to its present location on the west side of the Kuskokwim River. A United States post office was opened in 1905.
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 big 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.
On February 19, 1997, a school shooting attracted widespread media attention to Bethel when 16-year-old Evan Ramsey, a student at Bethel Regional High School, shot and killed his principal and one student and wounded two others, for which he later received a 210-year prison sentence.
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.
Bethel is located at 60°47′32″N 161°45′21″W (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.
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).
The first settlement at the location of Bethel reported on the 1880 U.S. Census as "Mumtrekhlagamute Station." It had 29 Inuit. 1/2 mile away was the adjacent Mumtrekhlagamute Village (1880 population: 41 (all Inuit); 1890 population (as Mumtrekhlagamiut) was 33 (28 Inuit 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 Natives 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.
The state-owned Bethel Airport is the regional transportation hub, and is served by four passenger carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Ravn Alaska, 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 there are approximately 16 miles (26 km) of roads which are not connected to any contiguous highway system. Winter ice roads lead to several local villages, but their condition varies depending on temperature and snow fall. 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 surprisingly large taxicab industry. With 93 taxi drivers, the town has more cab drivers per capita than any other city in the country. Most local cab drivers are Albanian or South Korean immigrants.
The town is home to the Alaska State prison system's Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center, which has a capacity of 207 inmates, men and women. The prison has 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.
Lower Kuskokwim School District operates five schools in Bethel:
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.
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.
Bethel and the smaller communities surrounding it are primarily served by Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital, a 50-bed general acute care medical facility. Services located in the hospital include an adult medical-surgical ward, a pediatric ward, an obstetric ward, as well as outpatient family medicine clinics, an emergency room, pharmacy, lab, X-ray, and specialty clinics. The facility is accessible by road for those individuals living in or visiting the city of Bethel. Depending on weather and the season, road access to the hospital may also be available to some of the surrounding communities. If not, individuals must be airlifted into the facility via helicopter or air ambulance. Also, there are five sub-regional primary care clinics located in some of the more remote and less populated cities neighboring Bethel (Emmonak, St. Mary's, Aniak, Toksook Bay, and Hooper Bay). Many of the services found at the hospital in Bethel are also available at these sub-regional clinics, such as urgent care, diagnostic review, physical exams, prenatal care, minor surgery, laboratory tests, X-rays, and distribution of medications. The hospital, sub-regional clinics, and additional village clinics are all part of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
Bethel has a public television station, KYUK-LD, and three radio stations, public KYUK, private, non-profit KYKD, and commercial KEDI. Since the founding of its community radio station in 1970, the media has become part of Yup'ik development in southwest Alaska and important to the people's self-definition. The city is also home to the weekly regional newspapers Delta Discovery and Tundra Drums.
Bethel has one official sister city.
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