Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Justin Boot is someone who is admired for his unconventional way of living, even for an Alaskan. He is most known for his honky tonk music career and his bi-annual festival; Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival, or TCBG, that is hosted on his 80 acres of property in rural Alaska. This property is littered with outhouses, converted school buses, tree houses and even sail boats that have been converted into living spaces! He hunts moose and fishes for protein, he also chops wood and plays music outside of grocery stores to earn his income.
Justin Boot grew up in the lower 48 and moved to Alaska, the 49th state, in 1989, his freshman year of high school. Alaska embodies a much different environment than the lower 48. To start, Alaska has the wildest light patterns that I have ever seen. The way the earth is tilted on its axis puts the state at an angle where they have portions of the year that are almost 24 hours of darkness or twilight, unless you live above the arctic circle (which counts for about a third of the state) where you will experience a full 24 hrs of dark, referred to as ‘the polar night.’ During the summer, there is something they call ‘the midnight sun’ referring to the time of year that the sun hangs as high in the sky as it does mid-afternoon, for up to 24 hours, depending on where in the state you are.
Alaska also has the densest population of Native Americans in the country. In the U.S. Census concludes that Native Americans take up %15.6 of the state's population of 731,545. This number, I assure you, does not account for all the Alaskan Natives that live in the remote villages that are spread across the state. Justin Boot is Lakota-Sioux and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, their reservation is just south of Standing Rock. Growing up Boot was able to identify with cowboy culture, thus avoiding the inherent racism that plagues Alaska upon Alaskan Natives, especially those from the villages or the bush as Alaskans say.
Villages like Point Hope, Utqiagvik, Nome, Eek, or Bethel, to name just a few, are not reachable by road and rarely have public boat transportation. So the only way to and from these villages is by way of plane. A plane ride that isn’t necessarily affordable for the average village resident. This circumstance is why many Alaskan Natives are left behind in Anchorage. Many fly to town to get supplies, especially when PFD’s are distributed, (Permanent Fund Dividend) a check for permanent Alaskan residents funded mostly by the oil and natural gas companies. Some miss their flights or run out of money and then get left behind in Anchorage without resources, friends or family.
This travesty is on display all over the city of Anchorage as you drive along the roads, especially in the Mountain View and Spenard area, you will see houseless Alaskan Natives roaming and even sleeping in the snow and ice. Countless houseless people die because of the weather conditions every year. Boot recalled in the 1990’s residents went around shooting the houseless Natives with paintball guns, including a friend of his. He recalled the time when an Alaskan Native woman was choked out and then sexually assaulted and the assaulter got off with 'time served.’
1 in 2 Alaskan Native women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. An Alaskan Native woman is sexually assaulted every 18 hours. In 2016, 5,712 cases of missing indigenous women were reported and only 116 were logged. MMIW (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) is a movement that sheds light on this subject and the astounding numbers of indigenous women that are murdered or go missing, without police attention. Please go to- MMIW, to learn how you can support this movement.
Boot spent a lot of the time in the villages from ages 15-20 and was able to learn a lot about Alaskan Native culture during this time. He immersed himself, eating Muktuk, a traditional Inuit and Chukchi meal of frozen whale skin and blubber, with the locals and Akutaq, A sweet Inuit treat made from fish/animal fat or seal oil, berries, sugar and Crisco. He helped set net for salmon, herded reindeer and had the chance to see the Yukon Fiddlers who played Athabascan Fiddle music. As early as 1847, trappers and miners from the Hudson Bay co. traveled the Yukon river and taught the Athabascan Native people that they met along the way, dance steps and the fiddle. This eventually morphed into the fiddle style named; Athabascan Fiddle.
Boot shared a story about his stay in Kotlik, a Yup’ik village with a population 577 as of 2010, when he was doing his road surveying work at16 years old. He described the village; “There’s an airstrip and a little bit of a dirt road to the school. Everything else is boardwalks because it’s all on tundra. It’s all soft, wet, swampy ground and Kotlik river goes right through town.” The local kids played basketball on the wooden platform by the school, literally 24 hours the day in the summertime, playing under the midnight sun.
One eve, Boot went out to join one of the games but when he went out to the courts there wasn’t anyone there, the kids were along the river. “I walked over to see what was going on and one of the little girls came up and asked me if I could swim. It had been really warm, like 70 and 80 degrees and it’s a muddy dark river, so it warmed up a little, and so all the little kids could swim in it.” The bank was shallow enough for the kids to play in the water but a 4 year old girl had dipped into the deep part and the eddy current swept her under.
“Her uncle just happened to be going by in a boat and saw what happened so he jumped in too, to try and get her but he couldn’t swim neither ‘cause nobody swims- ‘cause it’s always too cold. So when I got there they were holding hands, holding their heads over the water.” People on boats came to respond to the incident with metal bars with treble hooks at the end but by the time the boats had gotten there they had already gone below the water line. They dragged them up to shore and was administering CPR when Boot realized he couldn’t hear a plane, the only mode of transportation to a hospital, most villages don’t have a hospital in town.
“So I ran back to camp and tried to wake the camp boss up and say hey we gotta call a helicopter.” Sadly, the camp boss didn’t want to get up even with an earful of this devastating news. “So I went and got on the radio and I called the other camp in Emmonak, a little bigger village. That actually is where the flight service was, there wasn’t even a plane in Kotlik.” When Boot finally got through to someone, the first thing the guy asked was, “Who’s paying?”
The mother of the uncle showed up and told them to stop working on him as he had gone through the ice earlier that year and she figured that it was his time. The girl was life flighted to Bethel and was revived, but suffered from cerebral death and later died. “Life’s tough in the village,” Boot choked out these words with great sadness.
When I heard this story I couldn’t help but think of how climate change has affected Alaska. On a personal level Boot mentioned with optimism that climate change has “made me some money lately. I own 80 acres and the spruce beetles killed all my spruce trees.” He uses the dead trees to mill into lumber or firewood and sells it. Alaska’s ecosystem needs 6 weeks of 30 below weather to kill all the spruce beetles. Because they are not getting killed off, they are ravaging Alaska’s dense and large masses of spruce forest, causing devastating wildfires (along with mismanagement of our forests) that take countless wildlife and human lives a year.
He spoke about how when he first arrived in Alaska, Anchorage would be 30 degrees below freezing this time of the year but at the time of this interview (mid-December) it was 30 degrees above freezing. He mentioned that the salmon runs have been getting weaker as times grow more recent. Glaciers are melting, rivers are running dry, wild life is going extinct; all of these things are something you can see before your very eyes by driving down the Seward highway. “What we do to this earth definitely makes a difference. This is our bread basket, it’s what we eat. Man made shit has exceeded the biomass.”
Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival
Boot’s festival is held on his land out in Trapper Creek, population 422, on his 80 acres of land with two stages, one of the built on the axle of an up-cycled RV. TCBG usually hosts around 40 bands and has countless volunteers who trade their time to help make the festival happen in trade for entry. He held his very first festival in 2006 after the host of Hunter Creek Bluegrass Festival, died. He then held two festivals a year all the way up until 2017. He took 2018 off to deal with all the spruce beetle kill on the property because it’s not safe to host 2,000 people in a forest of dead trees. He came back with a bang in 2019 with a line up that consisted of lower 48 artists; Pat Reedy & the Longtime Goners, Freight Train Rabbit Killer, The Maness Brothers and James Hunnicutt. And our beloved Alaskan artists; Blackwater Railroad, The Jeffries, The Avery Wolves, The Shootdangs, and Justin Boot himself.
Boot was involved in the state’s musical community as a booker and musician himself so even though the festival started out as a bluegrass festival, it quickly evolved into a space that hosted all genres, being that he booked his friends that played everything from country to metal to hip hop and everything in between. “It created this environment where everyone felt free to be whoever they wanted to be, as long as that person wasn’t an asshole. It really built a community. Everybody really looked forward to going there. It was a gathering of the tribes. Anyone that had anything to offer, even if it was just a good attitude, was offered to stay.”
I’ve seen a lot of fire shows in my short lifetime but nothing beats the Alaska Fire Circus. I still get chills when I think about the fall festival back in 2014. The circus was blowing fire, Boot was on stage and started singing a song titled, 'We can’t be satisfied’ by Eddy Lee, our dear friend that passed away the December before. As he sang this song, the northern lights came out for the first time that year and danced above our heads while the circus blew fire into the air, meeting the dancing lights mid-sky. Maybe it was magic or maybe it was the magic mushrooms, I don’t know, but in that moment I felt a connection to the earth that I have never felt before. It was probably the mushrooms but either way TCBG holds a special place in mine and many others hearts.
The Pandemic Takes Hold of the 49th State
When I asked Boot how the pandemic has affected him, he responded by saying, “Well, I can’t play in front of the grocery stores no more. I didn’t have a festival in 2020 and am not going to have a festival in 2021. So yeah, no festivals, no gigs, no busking really. I’m just cutting firewood and eating pinto beans, getting by.” In spite of the pandemic Boot has started an online variety show on Wednesday evenings called; TCBG Passport Series. This series hosts around 4 artists from 6-8 pm (AK time) online every week, you can find his next event here.
The state in its entirety doesn’t have a mask mandate and from speculation residents where it isn’t mandated aren’t volunteering themselves on the side of precaution. There is concern for the villages that are now seeing Covid cases rise. Like the story Boot shared from Kotnik, many don’t have the money to pay for the flight to the nearest hospital and lack western medical resources.
In spite of the pandemic Boot has pivoted his focus on to his project in the works, “In addition to the festivals I want to turn my place into a DIY sustainable living & learning center.” He described a center where people will host learning workshops on their skilled trade to teach the community. Some of the skills Boot has to offer is; how to build zero energy homes like the one he is building on his property currently. How to can vegetables, meat and fish. How to harvest timber responsibly. How to build dug in greenhouses. Mechanics, Machining, welding...the long list of skills goes on. “You know, just doing what I do, scavenge the carcasses of this dying world and make what you can of it.”
To listen to the entire interview with Justin Boot check out our youtube channel's video- Episode 6-An Interview with Justin Boot.