Yup’ik fishing ancestry inspired the Alaskan engineer and author

For Mia Heavener ’00, most of life revolves around water. As a senior civil engineer for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), he designs water systems for communities in his own state. And during his vacation, he often worked in his family’s fishing business, starting with his great -grandfather. Almost every summer he joins a three-week expedition to fish for sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.


“I work at 1:00 this morning. You just follow the tides, ”explained Heavener, who is from Yup’ik heritage. The Yup’ik are one of the largest Native groups in Alaska, where Native peoples make up nearly 18% of the population.

“My great-grandfather was born in Nushagak Bay, and I learned to work well here,” he said. “It was also the last place, the last time I saw my father alive.” Even though he lost his father at the age of 11, he chose to follow in his footsteps as a civil engineer.

After graduating from MIT and briefly working for a Cambridge company, Heavener returned to Alaska and found an engineering job at ANTHC. He also felt a call as a writer (“I’ve always been a daydreamer”), and took a break from work long enough to get his master of fine arts degree in English and writing from Colorado State University, founder in literature studies he went on with civil engineering as an undergrad. His first novel, set in an Alaskan fishing village and titled Under Nushagak Bluff, was published in 2019.

On average weeks, Heavener wakes up early to write before the long days of engineering. Even though he is headquartered at ANTHC, the central Native hospital in Anchorage, he travels throughout the state. Of the approximately 250 villages in Alaska, he said, many have communal water sources, and nearly 30 have no running water and sewers.

“Everyone should have drinking water — it’s a basic right — but there are definitely places in Alaska that don’t have that,” he said.His mission is to bring proper standards of health and sanitation to many communities as much as possible.

“The first time I designed a water plant was in the village of Old Kasigluk,” he recalls. “They didn’t have anything 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, turned it on and off, turned it off and turned it off. ”

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