In 37 years, Earlene Branson has seen her daughter in only one place: Reality TV.
Branson is the 83-year-old mother of Amora “Ami” Brown, star of the Discovery Channel’s Hoonah, Alaska based show “Alaskan Bush People.” Branson — who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease — traveled with family from Texas to Hoonah last week in an effort to contact her daughter.
She made the 3,500-mile trip without confirmation from the Browns. After landing in Hoonah, Branson learned her daughter was still nearly 3,000 miles away. The Browns were in Hawaii and the reunion never took place.
“I don’t like flying, but that’s the only way I could make it to see my daughter,” Branson said during an interview in Juneau. “I want to hug her neck and see my grandchildren. I just want to see her before I die.”
Branson returned from Hoonah on Wednesday, where her family confirmed the Browns were out of town. When asked for comment, Ami Brown said in a statement to the Empire that the estrangement stems from a painful past.
“I had a very difficult childhood and in order to move forward and live a healthy life, I chose to eliminate certain people from my past,” Brown said.
In a video on the Discovery Channel website, Brown elaborated.
“I come from a family of alcoholism,” she said. “My father was an alcoholic and it tore our family apart. Watching these things as a child, you learn from it. That is the reason why I don’t let them know where, physically, I am.”
The Browns were on a trip to Hawaii while Branson and her family visited Hoonah, social media posts indicate. Ami Brown thinks her mother’s family may be exploiting the situation as a publicity stunt, something Branson’s family denies.
“It saddens me that someone would exploit this situation, and a person in ill health,” Brown said.
Branson made the trip with her great nephew Chuck Gilbert, a Colorado-based businessman who had planned to film the trip for a YouTube channel he created titled “Memaw’s Trip to Alaska.” All three videos on the channel have been taken down.
Gilbert, who financed the trip as a birthday wish for Branson, said he has been getting backlash from the publicity, saying he only started the Youtube channel and reached out to media in an attempt to make sure the Browns knew Branson was coming to Hoonah.
“Our main goal, and I am sure it may not appear that way now, was to go there and show our smiling faces,” Gilbert said. “My hope is that the locals and the people … they spend time with, spent enough time with us to see that our wish was genuine and anything they may have been told might not be true. Our hope is that maybe if we broke down some barriers, created some possibilities, that even if Ami (Brown) doesn’t want to see her (Branson), out of seven grandchildren, at least one out of seven will want to see her.”
Gilbert said he risked a lot, personally, to make the trip happen, including subjecting himself to criticism on social media. But Gilbert said he felt guilty for distancing himself from his own ailing grandparents, so he decided to try and do something for his great aunt.
Branson, who was disappointed in missing her daughter and her grandchildren in Hoonah, said that coming to Alaska was her idea.
“My nephew, he told me, ‘Aunt Earlene, if you had one wish, what would it be?’ and I said, ‘To see my daughter,’ and it’s come true, only I haven’t seen her yet,” Branson said.
Branson has seen every episode of “Alaskan Bush People.”
“It’s hard, but I’d rather see them on TV than not see them at all,” Branson said. “I sit and watch them all the time, I haven’t missed a one.”
In the fall of 2014, a Juneau grand jury indicted six members of the Brown family — 63-year-old patriarch Billy, 52-year-old matriarch Ami, 31-year-old Joshua, 28-year-old Solomon, 26-year-old Gabriel and 23-year-old Noah — with multiple felonies for unsworn falsification and theft in connection to a Permanent Fund Dividend fraud case.
As part of a plea deal in January, Joshua and Billy Brown were ordered to serve up to 30 days in jail, pay a total of $12,000 in fines, perform 40 hours of community service that can’t be filmed for the show and to pay back the $9,130 they collected illegally. The pair pled guilty to unsworn falsification in the second degree for lying about their Alaska residency on PFD applications from 2010 through 2013.
Gilbert still holds out hope his great aunt will reunite with her daughter, but Branson is losing faith. They left Juneau on their way back to Texas on Thursday.
“There’s a real good chance that what we’ve done here might break down some barriers,” Gilbert said.
“No, not for me,” Branson said.