Our Stories

Coming Home the Long Way 'Round

He wore an embroidered barong shirt. She wore a lacy gown over the moose-hide slippers her grandma had sewn. His Filipino relatives cooked up a feast of pancit and caldereta, and her family read an Apache wedding song and performed the ceremony that joined their Athabaskan heritage with Filipino culture.

Margaret Hoffman '03 found her first boyfriend in eighth grade, when "E.J." David moved to Barrow, Alaska, from the Philippines. She and David linked up again during their senior year of high school and then courted across the globe for 12 years, through her Willamette biology degree and Peace Corp stint, and his doctorate program in psychology in Illinois. Dating sometimes required a 5,500-mile commute.

Their honeymoon this summer was as adventurous as their courtship. After the festivities died down, they guided their kayak into the current of the Yukon River and paddled almost 300 miles downstream to her grandmother's fish camp. The summer solstice sun lit up the midnight sky as they passed bears, eagles and moose along the banks, along with abandoned villages almost given over to wilderness.

"You can't drive to any of these towns," Hoffman says. "We stopped in some of the villages and fish camps, and everywhere we stopped, someone knew my mother or grandmother. It's a huge area, but a small population, so everyone knows everyone."

Hoffman now works with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium while David teaches psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. It's no coincidence that she's practicing health outreach to Alaska Natives; she's had her mind focused on that goal since her teens.

She studied biology at Willamette and then got her start in community health as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. "I heard about Peace Corps in high school and always knew I wanted to do it," she says.

In Nicaragua, Hoffman worked at a health outpost in San Lucas, a coffee-farming village in the northern mountains. Her mud adobe house lacked electricity and running water, but it didn't feel like a lack to her, and she had plenty of tropical sunshine from the window and door, always left open.

She worked with pregnant women and mothers, discussing health issues -- from basic nutrition and hygiene to more sensitive matters such as self-esteem and reproductive health. "We had one overly stretched nurse," she says, "so prevention was all the more important." She met mothers in their homes with their babies, and sipped endless cups of local coffee while she taught them how to cook with leafy greens and soy, and explained birth control in her steadily improving Spanish.

"I loved not living with TV, really being connected with people and connected to the land," she says. "I was never on pavement. Without all the distractions, I felt 'in the moment.'"

The simple rural lifestyle is reminiscent of the life her Athabascan mother and grandma lead. Two hundred people make a good-sized village, and people keep their doors unlocked in her mom's hometown of Ruby, Alaska. "It's a collective culture," Hoffman says. "Everyone has to work together to survive. Hard work is a common cultural value -- with farming in Nicaragua and subsistence living in Alaska -- but people are happy."

She worries about the loss of a rich culture as Alaska Natives transition from a subsistence hunting and gathering lifestyle to a cash economy. "Gas is expensive in the villages," Hoffman says. "Imagine paying $5 to $6 a gallon, and almost $9 in one village. Now people depend on motorboats to check their fishnets. And culturally, kids want to play video games rather than pick berries. It takes a whole family to sustain a traditional lifestyle."

Now that she's back in Alaska, Hoffman hopes to settle in for a while. Since returning from her float down Alaska's longest river, she's been busy at her new job with the health consortium. Her outreach position allows her to spend time in the villages, where she surveys people's diets -- always promoting traditional Native foods. She also spends a few hours a week at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center discussing diabetes prevention and care with the Hispanic community.

The romance that circled across half the globe has found its way home, as has her passion for Native healthcare. "I'm always away -- away and further away from the heart of my motivation," she wrote home from Nicaragua. "My tie is stretching out very thin, yet it's so important to me and I desperately want to strengthen it. I'm still young and idealistic, and I never want to lose my idealism. I've been so blessed in my life, these blessings have to be used to give back."