George and Brenda Dickison: Help Wanted


WHY WE GIVE: The Forum is a unique organization that fills an important niche in Alaska. We like that it’s focused on rural areas and art and culture and history. It funds interesting projects that maybe wouldn’t happen otherwise. It raises cultural awareness and appreciation.

Any exposure to something different from your little world really opens up your eyes.

GEORGE AND BRENDA DICKISON met when they were in high school in central Illinois. In college, George discovered his second love, Alaska, on a trip with the National Outdoor Leadership School. After graduate school, where Brenda earned a master’s degree in social work, the couple lived in Washington. George often went to the library to read the Anchorage Times help-wanted ads. In 1982, he found an ad for a position in Tyonek to implement the

Indian Child Welfare Act. Brenda fired off an application, did a phone interview, and three weeks later they were flying north.

The couple lived in Tyonek, a Dena’ina Athabascan village on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet, for nearly two years. George got a job with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and spent seven months commuting to Anchorage via air taxi before the couple relocated to the city. They remained in Alaska for 23 years, where they raised two children. (Their daughter Sandra participated in the first Alaska Humanities Forum Sister School Exchange program in 2002.)

Brenda worked in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy. She was state director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, a child advocacy program, and traveled across the state to start local programs. George moved from DNR to the North Slope Borough and eventually to the National Park Service. In 2006, the help-wanted ads took the couple away from Alaska, reluctantly, when George became director of the National Park Service’s Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado. They miss Alaska and visit almost every year.

What was it like to move from Outside to rural Alaska in the early 1980s?

GEORGE: It was an interesting time. We landed in Tyonek in our little airplane, and we were met at the airstrip by the village council president. He told us, “You’re about to read something in the paper, but we want to make sure you feel welcome here.” The very next day, there was a banner headline in the Anchorage Daily News, about four inches high, that said, “Whites Banned from Tyonek.” It got picked up by all wire services; our parents read about it; we got interviewed by someone from the New York Times because we were walking down the street and looked white. It was a really interesting time. It drove home the fact that what you read in the newspapers isn’t necessarily true. What was portrayed in the Anchorage papers was the line they were being given by one of the protagonists.

BRENDA: The village was pretty quiet about it.

GEORGE: Right, they told us: “Our elders have got to meet and then we’ll get back to you about it.” And when, about six months later, they addressed it, it turned out the interest had passed. It was a good lesson in cultural differences with how people respond to crises.

BRENDA: It was tough in Tyonek because there were a lot of problems and issues, but it was a wonderful introduction to Alaska for us. People there were truly very welcoming; they took us fishing. It was really nice.

Your daughter was part of the Forum’s Sister School Exchange program?

GEORGE: Sandra was a sophomore at Service High School when she was in the inaugurating class of the Rose Urban- Rural Sister School Exchange, as it was called then. She went to Kalskag for two weeks. When she came back, she was tapped to be a spokesman for the program. She traveled to Juneau and met with legislators. She met with Fran Ulmer, who was then the lieutenant governor; she was a guest on the Herb Shaindlin radio show, which was a little intimidating because he was sort of a bombastic radio personality.

BRENDA: It gave Sandra an opportunity to try things, which now, later in life, she’s excelled in. The exchange and her subsequent activities were very instrumental in shaping her career. And it gave her a subject for a pretty good college essay.

GEORGE: She ended up developing an interest in politics and policy and international relations. She went to graduate school in International Foreign Service with an emphasis on energy, which went back to her interest in oil and gas and such. She now works in Washington, D.C. for the Department of Energy, on international renewable energy projects.

What do you think is most valuable about cultural encounters like the Sister School Exchange?

GEORGE: We got involved with the cultures in Alaska by living in Tyonek, as part of an Athabascan culture, and then when I worked in the North Slope Borough I traveled to Barrow [now Utqiaġvik] a lot, and experienced the Iñupiaq culture there. So we had an introduction to different cultural wonders from the inside.

BRENDA: I’m a big proponent of any kind of exchange program, especially for high school kids. It’s such a formative time. I was an exchange student in Turkey in 1970, and it changed my life. I continue to volunteer with exchange students. I think any exposure to something different from your little world really opens up your eyes.

Has living away from Alaska changed your perspective on it? What do you miss?

BRENDA: Alaska is just so special in its urban-rural divide, and the cultural implications. There’s nothing quite like that here.

GEORGE: Alaska is much more multicultural than Colorado is. We miss that. We also miss our friends in Alaska. Even now, when we come back, we see somebody we know everywhere we go.

BRENDA: We always appreciated Alaska. Maybe that was due to our introduction, and the richness of all the different cultures, and the beauty of all the different places, because we like to be outdoors. It just feeds our soul. ■

Excerpted from the FORUM magazine, Spring 2018


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