One of the Discovery Channel’s most successful of many forays into the Alaskan way of life has been the polarizing Alaskan Bush People, which chronicles the Brown family’s desire to live off the grid. The show has a huge following and scored big ratings for the cable network. The family has drawn its share of controversy over its run on TV also.
Now, after news surfaced a couple years ago that some family members were indicted on fraud charges when applying for Alaska’s oil fund payments, two of the Browns face some jail time.
From The Daily Mail:
Two family members on the reality TV show Alaskan Bush People were sentenced to 30 days in jail after they applied for the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend.
The oil wealth fund, established in 1976, requires a portion of state oil revenues to be distributed to qualified residents who have lived in Alaska for an entire calendar year and plan to stay there indefinitely.
Billy Brown, 63, and son Joshua, 31, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors of unsworn falsification for lying on applications to receive the payouts.
Billy, wife Ami, and their seven children are the subjects of Alaskan Bush People, a show that follows the family as they try to survive in the wilderness.
They often go up to nine months without seeing people outside their own family, and have developed their own accent and dialect as they live together in a cabin.
Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg rejected plea agreements from Billy and Joshua Brown, but suspended 150 of their 180-day sentences.
The sentences also include community service, probation and fines.
Neither of them will be eligible for dividends in the future.
Here’s our interview with patriarch Ami Brown that appeared in the May 2015 issue of ASJ:
By Chris Cocoles
The reality is, our fascination with “reality shows” isn’t necessarily based on the idea that everything you’ll watch when tuning into The Bachelor, Mob Wives or – gulp – Total Divas is 100 percent accurate.
It’s entertainment first and foremost: nothing more and nothing less. Whether you believe everything you’re seeing on TV is the gospel and not a little embellished for when the cameras are rolling is on the eye of the beholder. In others words, don’t take it too seriously from a viewer’s perspective.
Alaska has become the ground floor of the live-action series building block. Whether it’s crab fishing, gold mining or railroading, TV suits have concluded viewers outside the state was obsessed for an inside look at the Last Frontier. Questions inevitably born with each episode: Is it legit? Is it a fraud? Answers surely vary depending on your point of view.
The real or fake question allows loyal watchers from all of that Alaska-based programming to duke it out on Twitter and Facebook with the skeptics who cry foul on the authenticity of probably every single show we’ve featured in this magazine. And then there’s Alaskan Bush People.
The questions about how sincere the Brown family is on their Discovery Channel series chronicling the off-the-grid adventures of Alaska transplant Billy Brown, his wife Ami and their children, Gabe, Noah, “Bam Bam,” Matt, Rain, “Bear” and “Snowbird,” plus their canine pal Mr. Cupcake.
In the spirit of talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, whose famous guests read their “mean tweets” on air, an episode of Alaskan Bush People showed a montage of social media complaints about the show being a fraud.
The Internet lives for such controversy, so Google “Alaskan Bush People fake” and it’s an online feeding frenzy of columns outing the series as complete fiction. A personal favorite meme was a group picture of the family with Photoshopped images of the Mount Rushmore of such urban legends: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus and an alien.
But the Browns don’t care if you don’t believe they’re the real deal. They stand by what you see for an hour on every week.
“We live such a simple life we can’t understand which part is so hard to believe,” the family’s matriarch, Ami Brown, says. “Is it that we hunt and fish and food? Is it that we’re a happy family that sticks together? Is it that we’re independent and depend mainly on each other?”
Billy’s backstory doesn’t lack unspeakable tragedy. As a teenager growing up near Fort Texas, a plane crash killed his sister and parents, prompting him to take to the American backroads, and soon after he met Ami and eventually landed in Alaska with her.
The Browns have endured a very real crisis over the last year. Several family members were charged with falsifying documents regarding Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend annual payments for residents (the cases are pending).
So while the show has its fans and its unabashed detractors, there’s no doubt it’s one of Discovery Channel’s most talked about series. We chatted up with the family’s matriarch, Ami Brown, who talked about raising a family to subsistence hunt and fish and dealing with the real or fake questions that always makes for spirited online sparring:
Chris Cocoles The family’s patriarch, Billy Brown, came to Alaska from Texas. I believe that Texans and Alaskans have a lot in common in their approach to life, so was that a similar move in many ways?
Ami Brown Coming from Texas to Alaska was definitely going from one that’s larger than life to another that was the same.
CC Can you reflect on how difficult Billy’s life must have been when he suffered the family tragedy of the plane crash when he was younger?
AB Just the thought of losing your family at one time would be hard for most people to even imagine, and then losing them at the young age of 16 – it’s something I don’t think can be put into words. I know it’s bestowed in Billy a deep understanding of how important family, faith in God and living for today is.
CC Are you most proud of the idea that your family is living life on your terms and you relish that sense of freedom of being in remote areas where there are so few other people around?
AB There is no doubt that the whole family is proud that we live our life our way. We, of course, relish the sense of freedom living in remote areas away from most people, and it gives us freedom of choice. A dependence on only ourselves is what the Brown family is, and it is us.
CC Before we were introduced to the family on TV, how much defiance did the kids have to want to live a more “normal” childhood?
AB Before the TV show, the kids all thought their childhood was normal childhood. It was all they knew. Since the show and all of them growing up, they all say they couldn’t imagine living any other way.
CC Did the boys and girls catch on pretty quickly as skilled outdoorsmen and –women or was it a learning curve for them?
AB All the kids – boys and girls – caught on quickly and became outdoorsmen and –women early. They’re no different than all Alaskan kids who grew up their entire lives hunting and fishing.
CC How great of a mom has Ami been to raise such a large and eccentric family?
Billy Brown I think you would have to look long and hard to find a mom to top Ami. Her patience and understanding knows no bounds. She is the rock that holds the Browns together. Her attitude, faith in God and family is what has made it possible for the kids to be so well-rounded and develop their unique personalities with the confidence she will stand with them in whatever they do.
CC Is there a best and worst moment you can share about your experiences living in the Alaskan bush?
AB When you live in a place like Alaska with a family so blessed as ours, how could you possibly pick a best moment? Our best moment is that every day we get to live on this great land. Our worst moment was more than just a (single) moment. It was what we called “the dreaded winter of 1995,” when we were deep in the bush with no way out. The snow was so deep and nights so cold we burned our furniture, cabinets and even stairs to stay warm. We ate small game that took days to catch. For months we all fought to stay alive until spring finally came.
CC Even though they were kind of all thrown in this together, the kids have managed to develop their own unique personalities and quirks. But are they are pretty alike too?
AB Ever since the kids were very young, they have all had unique personalities. We think that’s because they were able to develop without any pressure to be anything but themselves. They are all alike in the things they like to do and in what makes them happy. We think that’s what makes our family so strong; we all love our life.
CC This show has a lot of loyal fans for good reason, as it’s a very fascinating look at a unique and foreign way of life to a lot of us. But lots of critics and skeptics as well. What you say to those convince those skeptics about the authenticity of what we see on air?
AB We have earned our right to live our lives the way we do. We have faced snow, wind, predators, hardships, the forest and the sea. We have fought them all together as a family and made a home in this great land like many other Alaskans have done. The spirit of adventure that’s in us was in the pioneers, the explorers, and anyone else that chose to live their lives on their own terms.
(We’re) not complying with the opinion of ideas of others; our spirit is the same that was in the folks who made America the great land we live in today. What would I say the skeptics to try to convince them about the authenticity our show? Nothing. If their lives are so small that they can find fault in with a God-fearing, close-knit family living a simple, happy life, I feel sorry for them. And I don’t think there’s anything I could say to change their minds.
I will say they’re welcome to come sit at our fire and see for themselves, anytime they like.
CC How much pride do you take in the subsistence hunting and fishing that you, especially with so much emphasis on “going organic” among Americans?
AB We didn’t know “going organic” was what we were doing. We hunt and fish because it’s how we eat and they’re things we love to do. Yes, it does give us satisfaction that we and all of our kids have the knowledge and skill to live off the forest and the sea.
CC I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but what’s it like sleeping in that one-room cabin?
AB Sleeping in a one-room cabin gives you great motivation to build something bigger.
CC Has it been beneficial to the family to get perspective of spending so much time in Ketchikan due to the circumstances you’ve endured?
AB Yes, Ketchikan gave the family great perspective of our life in the bush, even as great of a town that Ketchikan is, any town makes you realize how great it is to live without constraints of time and crowds.
CC Do you see every one of the Brown kids continuing to live off the grid as they get older?
AB When the kids were younger, we thought at least a few of them would someday move to town. But as they grew older if became more and more evident how happy they were with our world.
Today, we would be surprised if any of them chose to permanently move from the bush. They have told us, “Why would we leave a life of freedom that we can’t have anywhere else.” I think they summed it up pretty well with that.
CC Has Mr. Cupcake embraced his celebrity status?
AB There’s no doubt in any of our minds that Mr. Cupcake is truly the star of the show.