Discovery’s breakout reality show hit Alaskan Bush People combines two hugely popular things that TV viewers can’t seem to get enough of these days: people “roughing it” in the wilderness, and Alaska. The show features Billy Brown, his wife Ami, and their seven grown children – 5 boys and 2 girls – who all live in a cabin they built themselves in the Copper River Valley of Alaska.
Of course, this is after the family’s first “cabin where they lived for years was seized and burned to the ground for being in the wrong location on public land,” according to the show’s website.
The site also states 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.”
So: how accurate is Alaskan Bush People? Is the show fake? From the evidence presented online it appears as though the answer to those questions are “not very” and “yeah, pretty much.”
Before I get into sharing that evidence, let me head off some of the inevitable comments by stating that I fully realize reality TV producers have not taken an oath to present only situations and people who are 100% “real.” I further know the main purpose of these shows is to entertain. Is Alaskan Bush People entertaining? ABSOLUTELY! The Brown family’s personalities and antics are a hoot to watch, and it’s obvious why it pulls in around 4 million viewers every Friday night–not to mention the millions of viewers tuning in for the numerous marathons aired by Discovery.
That being said, it is clearly of interest to a large part of the show’s viewership (and potential viewership) to know just how much of the show is authentic and how much is staged, especially with a concept-driven premise such as this. (As an exaggerated example, consider that finding out the boats on Deadliest Catch were actually toys filmed in a scaled set would be far more upsetting than realizing the drama on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is mostly scripted.)
The first thing to try to get to the bottom of is what the true story of the Brown family actually is. Billy Bryan Brown published a memoir titled One Wave At A Time in 2007. It’s now out of print, but it’s available used on Amazon for a steep price — just click the link.
In the book, Billy reveals he was born into a wealthy family in Fort Worth, Texas, but a plane crash killed both of his parents and his sister and left him orphaned at the age of 16.
An archived copy of the March 3, 1969 issue of The Odessa American newspaper seems to verify Billy’s story about the plane 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,” reads the article. “They were identified as Billy Joe Brown, 43, the pilot, his wife [Kathryn] and their daughter, Kathy Jean Brown, 17.” Here’s an embed of The Odessa American with the article, which also includes a photo:
Found on Newspapers.com
(I should point out that the article and photo caption list three different ages for Billy’s sister: 16, 17 and 19.)
In a 2008 article about Billy Brown and his family, Capital City Weekly described the next chapter of his story:
By the age of 17, Billy was an orphan living out of the back of his car, homeless and working day jobs to eat as he criss-crossed America over the next 10 plus years in a relentless, near maniacal search of something that was impossible for him to define.
According to online records, Billy married Amora “Ami” Branson on June 16, 1979 in Fort Worth. Those records indicate Billy was born in 1953 and Ami was born in 1964, which means he was roughly 11 years older, and Ami was either 14 or 15 years old when they were wed.
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.
If you click on the link to the Capital City Weekly article, you will notice it is titled “Alaskan family to be featured in documentary.” I’m guessing that documentary turned into Alaskan Bush People. The wording of the article is particularly 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 they were returning to the Alaskan bush to “re-create the journey described in the book”?
That description seems backed up by numerous Alaskans leaving comments on the show’s Facebook page and compiled by StoopidHousewives.com, before those comments were deleted:
Verified info from my local Hoonah sources: The crew and family have been primarily staying in Hoonah at the Icy Straits Lodge, and daily boating out to the site to film. It is a long sometimes bumpy boat ride down there even on a speedboat, this is not just “across the bay”. Filming is ongoing right now and projected to end for this season by late Feb. Sounds like they spend some nights out there but unsure how often. They have a road from the dock to the property which DC is leasing from somebody local not 100% sure yet who this is. They have generators, heaters, etc a lot of items requiring fuel and there is a night watchman that comes out from Hoonah to take care of everything during the night, fuel the generators, etc. The bear that wandered by their tent actually happened; they left cameras recording all night. The family wasn’t in there they were in town. The brother had to leave his love interest in Ketchikan for the good of the show and apparently this was hard on him.
I love how they act like they are living on a remote island with no other people. There are a few small towns on the island and Juneau is like a 20-minute plane ride away from the town of Hoonah. I’m glad they found their little piece of paradise but they’re not all alone out there like they’re claiming.
There are 1200 people living on that island and about 4 small towns.
They and the Discovery crew live in a lodge in Hoonah and only go to the land to film. A group of locals have been hired to build their cabin and a couple are acting as bear guards. The land is being leased by Discovery from a local family and it is about a 20 minute boat ride from town.
I am an Alaskan who has spent years actually living in the bush. I am also a writer and journalist. The Browns have scammed a multitude of vulnerable people for many years and owe tens of thousands of dollars to their victims. And now they are soon to be felons. They make real Alaskans look like buffoons.
That last comment may seem a bit harsh, but there is an Alaskan Bush People Facebook Group with numerous people claiming to be victims, or to know of victims, of the Brown family over the last couple decades. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Billy never nor any of the Brown “boys” ever worked as commercial fisherman other than maybe a few days over the last 30 years. They didn’t 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 using his children’s stories CDs as a scam to raise money to make more CDs but his 70 to 80 children’s stories he says he has written don’t seem to be available anywhere? His books, YouTube videos, websites full of lies are now showing contradictions to the TV shows so now those are being taken down.
Even when the Browns would show up in Texas, they would show up in broken down motor home and pretending to be broke and then relatives would buy them groceries and other supplies and lend him money though he probably had stuff stored away? He never repaid them or thanked them or visited again till he needed help again. They drove around the lower 48 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 get back to Alaska and free places to stay.
There are also a number of photos that seem to show Ami and the Brown family in homes in the lower 48 over the last few years, one of which is included in the Stoopid Housewives post.
I realize that these comments (no matter how many there are, and how consistent they are) are just hearsay. But something that isn’t hearsay is the fact that the Brown family members are currently facing 60 counts of first-degree unsworn falsification, and first- and second-degree theft!
A Juneau, Alaska grand jury charged the Browns late last year, accusing them of lying in their applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. In case you were unaware: after oil was discovered in Alaska, the state set up a the PFD to fund future generations. The result is that all Alaska residents that have lived within the state for a full calendar year (January 1 – December 31), and intend to remain an Alaska resident indefinitely, are eligible for an annual 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, 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 $300. I couldn’t find a corresponding case for Billy.
The Brown family trial has been delayed numerous times and is currently scheduled for January 11, 2016 in Ketchikan Courthouse. And, thanks to Stoopid Housewives, we know that there was an application for media coverage filed and approved, so perhaps Discovery will try to incorporate the trial into the show? If so, they must have producers working overtime on how to spin the charges!
UPDATE – 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 denied the plea deal despite attorney for both the prosecution and defense arguing in favor of it! “Someone living in a trailer in the Valley (who) stole $2,000 worth of merchandise from WalMart, they would serve jail time,” the judge said. CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS!
UPDATE – The Brown family has run into more difficulties 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 purchased resident hunting and fishing licenses without meeting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game residency requirements.
The licenses, which require 12 months of residency, were all purchased in October of 2012, just after the family moved to Alaska from their residences in Colorado and Texas. (Source: Alaska Dispatch News) Those cited for making false statements include Gabriel Brown, Billy Brown, Matthew Brown, Noah Brown, Solomon Brown, and Joshua Brown. They each face a fine of $310 with “an optional appearance in the District Court of Glennallen.”
In addition, citations were issued to Amora Brown, Joshua Brown, and Solomon Brown for participating in a personal use fishery without a current ADF&G sport fishing license. Each citation comes with a $210 fine with an optional appearance in the District Court of Ketchikan.
OK, back to our original post already in progress…
Speaking of show producers spinning, it seems they did a marvelous job with some irate neighbors, a helicopter, and some fireworks. From Alaska Dispatch News:
Discovery Channel started following the Browns as they moved from Southeast to Chitina under a murky set of circumstances involving a cabin being burned down by “the man.” They were quickly run out of Chitina when, according to the program, shots were fired at the Browns and production stopped. However, what likely happened is they weren’t actually living in the wilderness. They were living in the middle of a subdivision and a neighbor was annoyed and shot fireworks at a production helicopter. Yada yada yada. They moved back to Southeast, sank a boat (maybe two, I can’t remember) and finally ended up near Hoonah, where stories have been surfacing that they might not be the true bush rats they claim to be.
So: for those millions of viewers watching and enjoying Alaskan Bush People, by all means, continue! But be aware that what you’re seeing is apparently staged, for the most part. The Brown family’s charisma and entertaining quirkiness is legit, but it doesn’t appear that the family is actually living the life portrayed on the show when the cameras aren’t rolling.
UPDATE – Click here for details from Matt Brown’s 2013 arrest for DUI and hit and run involving alcohol, sex, puking, and an ill-advised chips run to Walmart after 4 in the morning. (At least it did happen in the state of Alaska, although far from the bush.)
Alaskan Bush People airs Friday nights at 9/8c on Discovery.