Yup’ik fishing ancestry inspires Alaskan engineer and author

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For Mia Heavener ’00, much of life revolves around water. As a senior civil engineer for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), she designs water supply systems for communities in her home state. And in her spare time, she often works with her family’s commercial fishing business, which started with her great-grandmother. Almost every summer, she goes on a three-week expedition to fish for sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.

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“I was working at 1 am this morning. You just follow the tides, ”says Heavener, who is of Yup’ik descent. The Yup’ik are one of the largest indigenous groups in Alaska, where indigenous peoples make up nearly 18% of the population.

“My great-grandmother was born in Nushagak Bay and I learned to work really hard here,” she says. “It was also the last place, the last time I saw my father alive.” Although she lost her father when she was only 11, she chose to follow in his footsteps as a civil engineer.

After graduating from MIT and briefly working for a company in Cambridge, Heavener returned to Alaska and found engineering work at ANTHC. She also felt a vocation as a writer (“I’ve always been a dreamer”), and took a hiatus from that work long enough to earn her Masters of Fine Arts in English and Writing from Colorado State University, based on literature studies. she had pursued her studies alongside civil engineering as an undergraduate student. Her first novel, set in an Alaskan fishing village and titled Under Nushagak Bluff, was published in 2019.

In a typical week, Heavener gets up early to write before long days of engineering. Although based at ANchorage, Anchorage’s Indigenous Central Hospital, she travels statewide. Of the approximately 250 villages in Alaska, she says, many have only communal water sources, and about 30 still have no running water or sewers.

“Everyone should have clean drinking water – it’s a pretty basic right – but there are definitely places in Alaska that don’t,” she says. Its mission is to bring appropriate health and sanitation standards to as many communities as possible.

“The first time I designed a water plant was in the village of Old Kasigluk,” she recalls. “They had nothing there. They just carry water and they use a bucket [for their toilet]. I remember seeing the kids washing their hands in their house for the first time – they just had silly smiles on their faces, turning on and off, on and off.

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