Counterpoint: Honey buckets and politics



First of all, Suzanne, thanks for covering the governor’s Naknek debate in your blog. Overall you did a good job of pointing out some of the highlights. And although I don’t always agree with you, I’m always amazed at how much political ground you cover.

You’re at you’re best when you turn up those little gems – like the piece you did about Mike Hawker’s post-legislative life, serving the Catholic Church. I learn a lot from your blog.

But what I learned about your coverage of the Naknek debate surprised me – that you did not see the significance of my question about whether the candidates had ever used a honey bucket.  I believe you called it a “new low” in debates.

One of the reasons this debate was organized was to bring attention to issues important to Rural Alaskans. Over the years, I’ve moderated a lot of debates and forums, and typically there may be only one or two questions of interest to Rural Alaskans.

This forum was fascinating, because candidates typically have their talking points mapped on the major issues and are not asked the kind of questions we heard raised in this debate, so the candidates responses were less scripted and more thoughtful.

Walker, Treadwell, Hawkins

The honey bucket question was one of several asked to establish the candidates’ rural “cred.” Had they traveled enough to know the kinds of daily challenges Rural Alaskans face? What was the last rural community they had visited? Did they know any words in an Alaska Native language?

For a rural audience, the “honey bucket” question is sort of like the tip of a political iceberg. Some candidates will never visit a community without modern bathroom amenities – so they have no idea about the challenges people face on a daily basis.

Communities without indoor plumbing and adequate sanitation often have higher rates of disease and less opportunity for economic development – because so much time and labor is expended hauling river water, chopping ice and dumping buckets. Also, communities without sanitation will never be able to develop tourism.

Dunleavy, Begich

Years ago when I was in Chevak, I had a chance to visit with a well-known mask carver named Earl Atchak. The washing machine was in the living room and was his family’s prized possession. He pulled out a shirt, that would soon be hung outside to dry, and said, “Look. Clean clothes. Wow. Man. Everyone feels better when it’s easy to be clean.”

He says the advent of indoor plumbing in Chevak has given everyone more time to be productive. And for him more masks and dolls mean more money to support his family. And Earl has been known to get thousands of dollars for some of his pieces.

There’s another reason to bring up honey buckets.

In the 1994 governor’s race, Tony Knowles pledged to put the honey bucket in a museum. That failed promise haunted him right through his run for the U.S. Senate, not that he didn’t try.

And today, about three-dozen Rural Alaskan communities are still waiting.

Maybe I could have framed my question better, something like “Will you put the honey bucket in a museum?” That would have been a good one too.

This debate, overall, was a refreshing change. I did not craft many of the questions. Most of them came from Rural Alaskans and many of them emphasized the importance of fisheries and their impact on just about every Alaskan coastal community.

As the organizers of the debate put it: this is one of Alaska’s permanent funds that  doesn’t get its due.

The debate organizers, by the way, were two Naknek moms, Katie Copps Wilson and Sharon Thompson, who worked hard to attract the five main candidates in the governor’s race. They were excited when Mark Begich and Mead Treadwell, who filed on deadline day for the race, quickly adjusted their schedules to come. But as the date for the debate approached, they were very nervous. They’d never done anything like this before and didn’t want to embarrass their community.

They wisely enlisted the help of Laine Welch, producer of Alaska Fish Radio, who has many years of experience moderating statewide debates on fisheries. Longtime fisheries reporter Margaret Bauman was also tapped. It was one of the better forums I’ve been asked to moderate.

The debate was part of the Bristol Bay Fish Expo, a fundraiser for “The Little Angels Academy,” which strives to be more than a daycare, but also an early child development program.

It’s based at the Naknek school, which is an older building, but nicely cared for. The auditorium is still lovely, and speaks to a time when fishing brought a lot more money to the community. It’s a reminder that people here invested in education and had big dreams for their children.

The fact that the five main candidates would come to this debate is refreshing.  As more voters are concentrated in the Railbelt, candidates have less incentive to travel far afield.

Of course, voters want to hear the candidates to shop and compare. And rural voters rarely get to have all the candidates in front of them at one time.

Carvel Zimin, who is president of the Bristol Bay Borough, said he appreciated the good discussion and said every candidate brought something to the table, even Scott Hawkins, who admittedly had less experience in Rural Alaska.  He didn’t know any words in an Alaska Native language and had never used a honey bucket. But Zimin said he appreciated Hawkins’ candor and thought he had a lot of good ideas.

Rural voters also want a two-way street. They want the candidates to learn from them as well. And I think the candidates learned an important lesson in Naknek.

It was a beautiful June night, but the forum went on for almost three hours. The auditorium was getting hot towards the end — yet the crowd, for the most part, stuck around through the whole thing. A lot of people listened intently on the radio, which was broadcast by KDLG and KAKN. The debate was the talk of the town the next day.

The theme of the debate was rural sustainability — how to help rural communities not just survive but thrive.

I hope the takeaway for the candidates is that people care deeply about fisheries, habitat and wildlife protection, education and economic development.

This will be an interesting race to follow, because it could be very close – and historically, that’s when the rural vote can swing a race.

But we now have two candidates who potentially will draw heavily from the pool of rural voters – Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich. If they split that vote, will it make it easier for a Republican to win? Does Mike Dunleavy’s position of the Permanent Fund help him win some rural votes? How will Mead Treadwell’s work on climate change hurt or help him in this race? Some of the many questions that makes the Naknek forum so fascinating.

Here’s a link to the debate in its entirety, along with questions from the audience.

Rhonda McBride is the host of KTVA’s  Frontiers program, which airs on Sundays. She worked at KYUK in Bethel, Alaska Public Radio Network, KAKM, and KTUU, as well as serving for a year in the administration of Gov. Sarah Palin as rural advisor.


  1. When the effort to “spin” a story is longer than the original story, readers should beware and that is happening here. Ms. McBride clearly has an interest in rural Alaska but often overstates the severity of rural issues and tends not to mention that virtually all of the public spending comes from either the State of Alaska or federal government. Rural Alaska is complex and the problems vary. There are many good people in rural Alaska. Generalizing about rural problems tends to create misconceptions. Since she is a professional journalist, I will be counting on Ms. McBride to fairly present all sides on rural issues.

  2. For me the question that best delineates Alaska males from males who could do everything in Seattle they do in Anchorage or Fairbanks is, “When did you last shoot something you ate?” If the answer is years ago then you could just as well be living in Seattle, or even Los Angeles. In Southeastern we use buckets in skiffs, especially if the weather is rough or the beach too rocky to land. We use outhouses at our cabins and camps. Another question is, “Did you shoot a gun this week?” But Anchorage has become so violent recently that maybe that gun question could aim the conversation in the wrong direction; or something like that.

  3. I have used a honey bucket. I lived two summers in Nome in the late 1960s. There were honey buckets even in “downtown” Nome. The last time I checked nobody is being forced to live in “rural” Alaska and put up with the “honey bucket” lifestyle. In fact many people are leaving life in rural Alaska and moving to larger communities for a variety of reasons, usually revolving around lack of job opportunities. Also, why is it up to the state government to rid these communities of their honey buckets? Oh, well yes, living in rural Alaska relieves one of paying taxes for utilities and their upkeep.

    Commenting to the post by KAYAK: I was born (1947) and raised in Fairbanks. I own five guns, but I have never shot any animal to feed myself or my family. I have never considered living in Seattle or Los Angeles.

    • Most of our resources come from rural Alaska. Why must rural Alaska subsidize the roads and plumbing of those in “downtown” Anchorage without expecting the same for themselves?

  4. People choose to live rural. I live off-grid and use a honey bucket myself. That’s my choice. I don’t expect the government to come provide me with the modern toilet nor is it the government’s job to do so.

  5. One of the main purposes of government is to provide infrastructure. Thats how you stimulate an economy — and I believe thats how we see the airports, roads, and communities on the road system, develop the necessary commodities for overall living. Closing, I think Rhonda’s question was germane, represents the issues still facing our state, and helps highlight the many needs throughout Alaska.

  6. I only read the article to see how the candidates answered. But I was not able to find their responses. A wee bit too much type face wasted on this one.

  7. Rhonda, you do an amazing job of heping the rest of the state understand what’s important in the rural parts of AK. Please run for office.

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