'Occupy the Tundra': One woman's lonely vigil in bush Alaska

Bethel protest
She is standing alone with her dogs with an early frost on the grass, staking her claim as part of the 99%. "Occupy the Tundra," says the sign she holds, hand-lettered on an old piece of cardboard.

Thousands of Americans are occupying Wall Street and various plazas, parks and squares across America. Diane McEachern has made sure that Bethel, Alaska -- a town of 6,400 way out in western Alaska -- is among them.

The picture she posted on the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page of herself in a musk-ox neck warmer, standing in the grass with her dogs in silent protest of corporate greed, has become the rural equivalent of a million-man march. The photo has been shared by thousands of people around the world.

PHOTOS: 'Occupy' protests

"I am a woman. The dogs are rescues. The tundra is outside of Bethel, Alaska. The day is chill. The sentiment is solid. Find your spot. Occupy it. Even if it is only your own mind," she wrote as a caption.

McEachern, an assistant professor in the rural human service program at the University of Alaska's Kuskokwim Campus, said she was following the Wall Street protests and wondering how they might be brought home to a town with one main street and no roads out.

"When I saw that it was growing and there was Occupying Portland and Occupying New Hampshire, I thought, for goodness' sake, what can I occupy? How can I get on this?" McEachern said in an interview with The Times. "And I thought, well, what's my context? What's important to me?"

The foreclosure crisis may not have hit bush Alaska in a huge way, but people in Bethel are paying $6.87 a gallon for gasoline, she said. Stove oil prices for heating homes are equally unaffordable. Cuts in social services to rural villages are pending.

"And right now, they're proposing here the largest gold mine in human history, the Pebble Mine, that's going to do catastrophic damage to the environment and the native community, in the premier wild salmon habitat in the world," she said. "So I'm not well-versed on the larger economic system, but I can relate to the idea of corporate wealth being lopsidedly in the hands of so few, when so many are struggling."

McEachern said she initially took the photo as a lark, inviting a friend to snap her picture with her dogs so she could post it on her own Facebook page. When she decided to post it on Occupy Wall Street's page as well, the image unexpectedly took off.

More than 4,100 people have shared it on their own Facebook pages; nearly 8,000 others have "liked" it. "If I found my way to the tundra, I would give you a hug for how awesome you are!" one person wrote. "Thank you for keeping your lonely vigil!" said another.

"I didn't think anything was going to explode like this," McEachern said. "I didn't really quite get a clue until I opened my Facebook one morning, and there's over 200 friend requests. I've got to tell you, I'm likeable, but not that likeable," she added.

"I think it may be the little dog with the piercing blue eyes, because there are so many comments about that dog piercing their soul," she added, referring to her dog Seabiscuit, one of three resolute-looking canines in the photo. "Either that, or we need to do an exorcism."

In response to the flood of comments, McEachern recently replied, announcing plans to go out on a tundra protest again on Saturday. She took the opportunity to answer queries, some from supporters, some who hadn't had anything nice to say.

"For those who ask about the [permanent fund dividend] that all Alaskans receive [based on oil revenues], I got mine and donated it to Greenpeace on behalf of Glenn Beck," she wrote. "To the suggestion I set myself on fire ...I AM on fire!"

RELATED:

Full coverage: 'Occupy' protests

Wall Street is occupied with worries too

Cheers, marches and arrests after Occupy Wall Street reprieve

Opinion: How Occupy Wall Street can change its 'flea party' image

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Diane McEachern stands with her dogs with an early frost on the grass, staking her claim as part of the 99%. Credit: Diane McEachern.

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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