This lonely fishing village is accustomed to torment. Out in the Gulf of Alaska at the southern end of Kodiak Island, it has endured earthquakes, tsunamis, black rains of volcanic ash and, 14 years ago this week, the most environmentally destructive oil spill in history.
In the past few months, though, Akhiok has been hit by tidal waves -- of money. Checks for $100,000 rolled in last August. Another round of $100,000 payments arrived in January.
Most adults here have cashed two lottery-sized checks because they voted overwhelmingly last year to cash out most of a $36 million trust fund owned by the native village corporation. The trust had been designed to pay 147 Akhiok shareholders, and their descendants, about $1,000 a month forever.
The money came from Exxon, part of a settlement for the 1989 oil spill. The vote to liquidate came after seven years of bad blood and accusations of bad faith, much of it involving family members. Fretting about the sour stock market also played an insidious role, although the trust was in low-risk investments and relatively well managed.
The shock of cashing out has turned lives upside-down in this village of 30 prefab houses, no store, no hotel and per-capita income averaging about $8,500. Some native residents moved away, bought homes and created college funds for their children. Many others say sudden wealth -- and impulse spending on trucks, furniture and mobile homes -- has left them bewildered and well on the way to being broke.
Frank Berestoff, who fought with and then disowned his sister because she did not want to cash out the trust, has already spent his $200,000. He bought three fancy pickup trucks and a surround-sound stereo system, paid his child-support arrears and hired a lawyer to keep a son out of jail.
"I heard, yeah, money, cool," said Berestoff, 42, an out-of-work logger who is now living with the sister he disowned (who has saved her money, except for getting her teeth fixed and taking a vacation to Hawaii). "Now I kick myself in the butt. I would rather have the monthly checks."
Akhiok's insistence on fast cash over a guaranteed monthly payment is rippling across the Gulf of Alaska. It is rattling -- but has not broken -- the resolve of other native corporations that came into millions after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"How could it not be a temptation after what Akhiok did?" said Fred Christiansen, who owns a lodge in Old Harbor, another impoverished fishing village on Kodiak Island. The only way to get to Old Harbor or Akhiok is by boat or small plane.
Demanding that they, too, get a $100,000 check, people in Old Harbor circulated a petition two months ago calling for liquidation of a $21 million trust. It failed on a technicality, said Jeff Peterson, a member of the village corporation board. But he said a majority of the 325 shareholders wanted -- and still want -- a big check.
More than $300 million is similarly at stake for at least 10 other small native communities in and around the Gulf of Alaska. The money is part of a $900 million settlement that Exxon paid for the spill in Prince William Sound that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into one of the world's most pristine and productive fisheries, contaminating 1,300 miles of coastline and crippling the salmon industry.
Since 1995, more than a third of the Exxon settlement has been paid to native corporations such as the one in Akhiok. The money is used to buy native land and set it aside for conservation. It has restored damage caused by the spill and prevented damage from logging and commercial development.
Environmentally, the scheme has been a resounding, if little-publicized, success. On Kodiak Island, it is responsible for the purchase and protection of 207,000 acres of prime habitat for salmon, bald eagles and Kodiak brown bears, the largest carnivores on North American land. The result is one of the biggest expansions of a national wildlife refuge through purchases in the 100-year history of the federal refuge system.
Cash paid to native corporations in villages such as Akhiok was intended, in part, to redress the chronic failure of a compensation scheme passed by Congress in 1971. Called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, it deeded 44 million acres to native groups. The land, and the businesses natives could spin off of it, was intended to make them economically self-sufficient.
If they had oil or timber, it did make some native corporations rich. But many others, like Akhiok, couldn't make money off their remote holdings. Akhiok was so desperate for cash in the early 1990s that its then-president, Ralph Eluska, suggested corporation land be rented out for storage of nuclear waste.
The Exxon-funded land purchase scheme struck nearly everyone in Alaska as a win-win solution. Native residents voted overwhelmingly to participate. It injected about $40 million into the treasury of the Akhiok native corporation. (No crude washed up on the shores of Akhiok, but the spill severely harmed its fishing industry.) The purchases also protected native land from commercial development while guaranteeing Akhiok residents the right to hunt and fish on it.
Eluska, who was in Washington in 1995 when the purchase plan was approved by the Interior Department, was so delighted then that he cried for joy.
"There were lots of reasons to be moved," he recalled. "This was a way to build a safety net that would be there through the generations."
When Eluska returned to Alaska, however, it quickly became clear that most shareholders wanted their money immediately. The corporation board headed off a revolt in 1997 by paying $30,000 to most shareholders, which drained $5 million from the trust fund.
Last year, with a new board of directors in control of the native corporation, Eluska's safety net was cast aside.
"The board members persuaded the people that we should just pay one generation off and we are done," Eluska said. "I disagreed with it, and I quit."
The new head of the native corporation, Pauline O'Brien, said the board merely followed the dictates of the shareholders, 79 percent of whom voted to cash out all but $5 million of the trust. There are now 189 shareholders, but only about a third of them live in Akhiok or elsewhere on Kodiak Island. The rest are in Anchorage and the lower 48.
"They got what they wanted," O'Brien said. "The board did try to educate the people before distribution, with investment seminars and home-buying advice. Not many people showed up."
Mable Berestoff, 59, a retired fish packer, said she did pay attention. As a shareholder with twice the average number of shares, she has collected $400,000 from the trust. She said more than $350,000 of it is in savings.
"I can handle this money," she said.
But she is not typical, according to Mitch Simeonoff, president of the Akhiok tribal council.
He voted against cashing out, fearing that most people in Akhiok, himself included, would burn through the money in a year or so.
To his regret, Simeonoff's fears are proving prophetic, even for himself. He has already given away most of his windfall to his three grown children.
"The boys wanted new cars, and I can't deny them," he said. "My monthly payment is gone, and in another year I will be broke. We made a big mistake."