Is Alaskan Bush People fake?

The Discovery Channel’s beloved reality show Alaskan Bush People unites two enormously popular current fads that television viewers can not seem to get enough of these days: families“roughing it” out in the wilderness, and the great state of Alaska. The TV show features Billy Brown, his wife Ami, and their seven grown children – five sons and two daughters – all of whom reside in a remote cabin That they built themselves in the Copper River Valley of Alaska.

Naturally, this is some time after the family’s first “cabin where they supposedly had lived in for many years prior to it being seized and burned to the ground because it was located in an illegal location residing on public land,” at least that’s what’s reported to the television shows website.

The website also claims that the Browns “are so far removed from civilization that they often go six to nine months of the year without seeing an outsider. They’ve developed their own accent and dialect, refer to themselves as a ‘wolf pack,’ and at night, all nine sleep together in a one-room cabin.

This is quite an amazing story which leads us to wonder how accurate are the claims of this reality television show? Is Alaskan Bush People fake? If you take the time to do the research like I did the answer to those questions seem to be “not very” and “yeah, pretty much.”

Prior to getting into any evidence, let me avert a few of the unavoidable remarks by saying that I fully understand reality television producers haven’t taken a legal oath to only show us situations and people who are a hundred percent “genuine.” I further acknowledge that the main propose of these type of “reality” shows are to entertain viewers. I do I find Alaskan Bush People entertaining? ABSOLUTELY! The Brown family’s personalities and zany antics are a hilarious to watch, and that’s why the reality television program attracts a viewing audience of approximately four million people every time that a new episode is aired–let alone the millions of viewers watching the many TV marathons broadcast by the Discovery Channel.

With all that being said, it’s understandably of great interest to a large section of the TV programs viewers (and potential viewers) to know just how much of the reality television show is authentic and how often things end up just staged, particularly when it comes to a concept-driven premise such as this. (As an unlikely example, imagine discovering that the fishing vessels on Discovery Channe’s other show Deadliest Catch were in reality just CGI’d boats and actors filmed in front of a green screen. I imagine that would be far more upsetting than it being announced that all the drama on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is for the most part just scripted content.)

The very first thing that you have to do in order to attempt to get to the bottom of is figure out what is really the true story of the Brown family. Back in 2007, Billy Bryan Brown published a memoir titled One Wave At A Time. It’s now out of print, but if you look hard enough you can find and read it online.

Billy reveals in his book that he was born into an affluent family in Fort Worth, Texas, but an airplane crash killed both of his parents and his sister. As a result, he was left orphaned at just 16 years old.

An archived copy of the March 3, 1969, issue of The Odessa American newspaper appears to verify Billy’s story about the airplane crash: “A Fort Worth couple and their 16-year-old daughter were killed Sunday when their light airplane plunged into Lake Travis, about 30 miles northwest of Austin in Burnet County” says the newspaper report. “They were identified as Billy Joe Brown, 43, the pilot, his wife [Kathryn] and their daughter, Kathy Jean Brown, 17.” Below is a photograph of The Odessa American with the article, which also includes a photo:

(I feel that I need to call attention to the fact that the newspaper article and photograph caption lists three different ages for Billy’s sister: sixteen, seventeen and nineteen.)

In a 2008 newspaper article published about Billy Brown and his family, Capital City Weekly described the next chapter of his story:

By the age of seventeen, Billy was orphaned living out of the back of his car, homeless and working day jobs to eat as he crisscrossed the United States over the next decade plus years in an unrelenting, near maniacal search of something that was impossible for him to define.

Online records show that Billy wed Amora “Ami” Branson on June 16, 1979, in Fort Worth. Those records suggest Billy was born in 1953 and Ami was born in 1964, which implies he was approximately eleven years older, and Ami was either fourteen or fifteen years old when they were married.

Capital City Weekly continues:

In the mid-eighties, still searching, Billy, his young wife Ami and two young sons, ages 3 years and 18 months found themselves, literally, standing on the dock in Wrangell, Alaska.
With little more than two sleeping bags, a tent and 13 dollars to their name, they were in awe of their surroundings but somehow felt deep inside that they had just arrived home…
However, in the naivety of youth, and their ignorance of the Alaskan winters, they soon ended up stranded for 18 months on Mosman Island, which was initially terrifying, but, in Ami’s words, became their “first taste of the wonder of freedom and the true value of family.”

Once rescued and returned to Port Protection, they soon chose to continue their lives in the bush, and eventually, aboard fishing boats during the season, remained in Alaska and grew as a family to love the Alaskan ways.

^ Above is a Brown family photo just after Snowbird was born

The Capital City Weekly article, titledAlaskan family to be featured in a documentary.” That documentary evolved into the television show Alaskan Bush People. Some of the wording in the newspaper article is especially interesting:

The Browns are returning to Alaska in early May from a book signing and speaking engagement tour in the lower 48, to once again venture into the bush to re-create the journey described in the book.

Accompanied by a professional camera crew, they will be filming this 57 day journey for a TV documentary to be aired nationally and internationally in early 2009.

So apparently they were coming back to the Alaskan bush to “re-create the journey described in the book”?

That description appears to be backed by a lot of Alaskans leaving comments on the reality show’s Facebook page before most of those comments were deleted:

We were able to verify the below-listed facts via independent sources:

The crew and family have been mainly staying in Hoonah at the Icy Straits Lodge, and daily boating out to the site to film. It is a long occasionally bumpy boat ride down there even on a speedboat, this isn’t  just “across the bay” trip. Filming is ongoing and projected to finish for this season by late February. Sometimes they do spend a few nights out there but it is unsure how often. They have a road from the dock to the property which DC is leasing from somebody local, not a hundred percent sure as of yet who this is. They’ve got generators, heaters, etcetera and numerous items needing fuel and there’s a night security guard that comes out from Hoonah to attend to everything during the night, fuel the generators, and so forth. The bear that wandered by their tent in actually occurred after they left the cameras recording all night. The family was not in there they were in town. The brother had to leave his girlfriend in Ketchikan for the good of the show and obviously this was hard on him.

I love how they act as if they’re living on a remote island without any other people. There are a a couple of small towns on the island and Juneau is only a 20-minute plane ride away from the town of Hoonah. I am happy they found their little piece of paradise but they’re not all alone out there like they are claiming.

Another person states:

There are 1200 people living on that island and about four small towns.

They and the Discovery crew sleep in a lodge in Hoonah and only go to the lproperty to film. A group of locals have been hired to build the cabin and a couple are acting as bear guards. The land is being rented by Discovery from a local family and it is about a twenty-minute boat ride from town.

I am an Alaskan who’s spent a long time actually living in the bush. I’m also a writer and journalist. The Browns have scammed a multitude of vulnerable people for a lot of years and owe tens of thousands of dollars to their victims. And now they’re apparently soon to be felons. They make real Alaskans look like buffoons.

That final comment might seem a little brutal, but there’s an Alaskan Bush People Facebook Group with a lot of people claiming to be victims or to know of victims, of the Brown family over the last few decades.

Here are a few of the vetted excerpts:

Billy never nor any of the Brown “boys” ever worked as commercial fisherman other than possibly a couple of days over the last thirty years. They did not hunt or fish much even when they were in very game rich areas and fish-rich areas like around Haines and Prince of Wales Island. Billy has been exploiting his children’s stories on CDs as a scam to raise money to make more CDs but his seventy to eighty children’s stories he alleges he’s written do not look to be available anywhere? His books, YouTube videos, websites full of lies are now showing contradictions to the television show so now those are being brought down.

Even when the Browns would surface in Texas, they’d show up in their broken down motor home and pretending to be broke and then relatives would purchase groceries for them and other supplies and lend him money though he in all likelihood had stuff stored away? He never repaid them or thanked them or visited again till he needed assistance again. They drove around the lower forty-eight from WA state to California to Texas to Tennessee and back to WA state and ferry to Alaska, conning people and especially churches to raise money to return to Alaska and free places to stay.

There are also a number of pics that appear to show Ami and the Brown family in homes in the lower forty-eight over the last couple of years.

I understand that these comments (regardless of how many there are, and how consistent they’re) are just rumors at this point. There is something that actually isn’t hearsay however and that is the fact that the Brown family members are presently facing sixty counts of first-degree unsworn falsification, and first- and second-degree theft!

A Juneau, Alaska grand jury charged the Browns, charging them with lying in their applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. Just in case you were unaware: after oil was found in Alaska, the state set up a PFD to fund future generations. The result is that all Alaska residents that have resided within the state for a full calendar year (January 1 – December 31), and plan on remaining an Alaska resident indefinitely, are eligible for a yearly payout based on the performance of the fund’s investments. That amount has varied from $331.29 in 1984 to $2,069 in 2008.

From the Alaska Dispatch News:
Billy Brown, 61, faces 24 of those charges, linked to PFD applications submitted from 2010 to 2013 and for the theft of more than $13,000 in dividend money for himself and others, the documents say.
Others facing charges include 51-year-old Amora Brown, 30-year-old Joshua Brown, 27-year-old Solomon Brown, 24-year-old Gabriel Brown and 22-year-old Noah Brown…
Scott Stair, the investigations manager with the Alaska Department of Revenue, said Thursday that an out-of-state fraud tip prompted the Alaska Department of Revenue to investigate the Brown family.

Stair said that between October 2009 and August 2012, the family did not meet the “physical presence requirement” to receive PFDs. This means the state believes the family spent more than 180 days a year living outside of Alaska and lied about it on their applications, Stair said.

Online court records also indicate that Amora Brown was involved in a small claims court case in 1992 involving the PFD for an amount just over three hundred dollars.

Bobby and Joshua Brown admitted they lied on the forms as part of a plea deal that would have meant no jail time for them in addition to the charges against the other Brown family members getting dropped (after paying restitution). However, a judge refused the plea deal in spite of lawyers for both the prosecution and defense arguing in favor of it! “Someone living in a trailer in the Valley stole $2,000 worth of merchandise from WalMart, they would serve jail time,” the judge said.

That’s not all apparently the Brown family has encountered more troubles stemming from an exaggeration of their time in Alaska. In July of 2015, citations were issued to six members of the Brown family after they bought resident hunting and fishing licenses without meeting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game residency requirements.

The permits, which require twelve months of residency, were all bought in October of 2012, just after the family moved to Alaska from their residences in Colorado and Texas. Those cited for making false statements include Gabriel Brown, Billy Brown, Matthew Brown, Noah Brown, Solomon Brown, and Joshua Brown. They each were fined $310 with “an optional appearance in the District Court of Glennallen.”

Additionally, citations were issued to Amora Brown, Joshua Brown, and Solomon Brown for taking part in a personal use fishery without a current ADF&G sport fishing license. Each citation came with a $210 fine with an optional appearance in the District Court of Ketchikan.

The way the television programs producers are spinning, it seems they did a fantastic job with a few angry neighbors, a chopper, and a few fireworks. Alaska newspapers report that the Discovery Channel started following the Browns as they moved from the Southeast to Chitina under a murky set of circumstances involving a cabin being burned down by “the man.” They were promptly run out of Chitina when, according to the program, shots were fired at the Browns and production stopped. However, what actually occurred is they were not actually living in the wilderness. They were living in the middle of a subdivision and a neighbor was irritated and shot pyrotechnics at a production chopper. So they packed their bags and moved back to Southeast, sank a boat and eventually wound up near Hoonah, where stories have been coming out that they might not be the true bush rats they lay claim to being.

So for the large amount of curious TV audience members out there watching and enjoying Alaskan Bush People, by all means, go ahead and continue! Just be aware that what you are seeing is almost completely staged. The Brown family’s charisma and entertaining quirkiness is one of the few real things about the show, only it does not appear that the family is really living the life depicted on the television program when the tv cameras aren’t rolling.

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