The Untold Truth Of The Parents On Alaskan Bush People

For 12 seasons, the Discovery Channel has captivated audiences with Alaskan Bush People, the reality show starring the Brown family and their quest to live off the grid in a supposedly desolate part of Alaska. Billy and Ami Brown claimed to have brought up their seven children by living off the land for several decades — though since the show has gained popularity following its 2014 debut, so has the scrutiny of their so-called "bush living."

With the latest season ending in October 2020, it's unclear whether the Brown clan will return to our TV screens (via Premiere Date), or even if unseen footage of Billy will appear in upcoming episodes, following his death in February 2021. Ever since Season 8, with Ami and Bill battling grave health issues, the family moved several times, before settling on a mountain in Okanogan County, Wash., so they could still indulge their rural fantasy while staying closer to a hospital, Parade notes.

According to TV Insider, Season 12 was partially "self-shot" by the Browns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and ended not only with the family losing their home in the Palmer wildfire, which broke out near their land in August 2020, but also with the show's dwindling ratings. While the Browns' future certainly seems up in the air (especially since some fans are gunning for the show's cancellation), much has been revealed of their past, especially when it comes to the patriarch and matriarch of this wild crew, Billy and Ami Brown.

Alaskan Bush People star Billy Brown grew up wealthy

According to Capital City Weekly (via Starcasm), Billy Brown had a nice life in North Richland Hills, Texas. He was given lavish gifts, including "a new ski boat" at 14, "a new Camaro" at 15, and "the family Cessna 172" (a small airplane) at 16. Noting on an episode of Alaskan Bush People that he'd grown up in "an upper-middle class family," Billy said, "We were a very tight family. My mom and dad were my very great friends. The only best friend I had over them was my sister." 

But his whole life changed in 1969, when he lost his entire family in a plane crash. According to Billy's two memoirs, One Wave at a Time and The Lost Years — yes, he was an author, as well as a bushman and former commercial fisherman — he became a ward of the state, and was somehow duped out of any inheritance by scheming judges and lawyers. It's all pretty murky, as is much with the backstory of the Browns. But this was where Billy's wanderlust kicked in. Broke and homeless, he "criss-crossed America over the next 10 plus years" (via Capital City Weekly), at some point meeting future wife Ami Brown (more on that below).  

At any rate, due to his reality TV earnings, Billy was technically more privileged and wealthy at the end of his life than he was even at the beginning, with a reported familial net worth of $60 million, per The Sun.

Ami Brown has a strained relationship with her family

Ami Brown's family estrangement has manifested itself a few times on Alaskan Bush People, but also in a bizarre incident in which her mother, Earlene Branson, attempted to travel to Alaska to surprise Ami in 2016. According to Juneau Empire, after 37 years of estrangement, Earlene "made the 3,500 mile trip without confirmation from the Browns" only to find that they were vacationing in Malibu at the time. In what is probably the saddest sentence ever spoken, the then-83-year-old Branson said of her daughter, "I want to hug her neck and see my grandchildren. I just want to see her before I die."

The whole thing was oddly planned and publicized by Earlene's great-nephew, Chuck Gilbert, who even posted videos of the journey to a YouTube page called Memaw's Trip To Alaska. For some reason, the page still exists, although all of the content has been deleted.

So, what was Ami's response to all of this? She accused her relatives of exploitation, and said on an episode of Alaskan Bush People that her father's alcoholism "tore our family apart." She added, "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." For their part, Ami's alienated kinfolk have accused Billy Brown of being extremely controlling, and effectively brainwashing Ami against them. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Branson v. Brown.

The Alaskan Bush People matriarch's mom and brother threw lots of shade

Amora Lee Branson grew up outside of Ft. Worth, Texas. She was the youngest of three siblings, according to her mother and brother, Earlene and Les Branson, who spoke to R Online in an apparent attempt to refute some allegations made in Billy Brown's autobiographies. Les claimed Ami "had a good childhood," and Earlene said she was "spoiled rotten" — a stark contrast to Billy's claim that Ami "grew up dirt poor." Les and Earlene also contradicted Ami's claims of growing up in a home "filled with violence," although they acknowledged that her parents' divorce "brought her some pain."

Additionally, the Bransons claimed that a 26-year-old Billy, who'd done plumbing work for Earlene, lied about his age when he convinced them to let him marry Ami when she was just 15. "[Billy] gave the impression that he was very wealthy," Les claimed. "... We thought that he would provide for Ami, that he would keep her in school, and never keep her from seeing us. And we never saw her again!" 

Yeesh, and here we thought escaping to a frigid Alaskan forest would be a surefire way to escape family drama. "For years, I've wished that amends could be made, so our children could have family," Ami once said. "But there are many people out there that are more family than them." Tragically, this reconciliation never happened prior to her mother's death in 2018. Ami's other brother, Larry "Rene" Branson, also died from cancer in 2020.

Inside Billy and Ami Brown's unconventional marriage

Ami and Billy Brown were married for over 40 years. Billy called it "love at first sight" in his One Wave at a Time memoir (via PopSugar), but it wasn't always marital bliss. As previously mentioned, the Alaskan Bush People stars share an 11-year age difference, and Ami was only 15 when the two married in 1979. This caused quite the scandal when R Online obtained their marriage certificate in 2015. But as ScreenRant notes, it was technically legal back then for a Texan girl to get hitched at just 14 years old with parental approval. However, Ami's mom had some conditions: she had to complete her high school education. 

Obviously, this didn't happen: Ami cut ties with the Branson clan after the nuptials, and her brother, Les, challenged Billy, who reportedly told him, "That's none of your mother's business now. She belongs to me!" Um, yikes? The pair welcomed their first two children by the time Ami was 19 and ended up living in Alaska. They later had to be rescued after getting "stranded for 18 months on Mosman Island," according to Capital City Weekly (via Starcasm). This somehow led the Browns to realize that the Alaskan wilderness was where they were meant to be. They welcomed a total of seven kids, and the rest is reality TV history. 

"As long as Ami and my family are beside me," Billy was quoted as saying in his Discovery Channel bio, "I'll ride the wind of adventure to the end."

Billy Brown's secret kid wasn't a secret at all

One of the big plot points in Alaskan Bush People's fifth season was Billy Brown reuniting with a supposed "long lost daughter" from a previous marriage. He cryptically hinted at his failed marriage with a woman named Brenda in The Lost Years, writing, "For those years of my life there's not much I want to say," before describing his ex-wife as "mature for her years," and having told him that "she never loved me ... and in less than a year she found she didn't even like me." Presumably, it was from this marriage that Billy had two daughters, with whom he had been estranged for decades.

The show took full advantage of this storyline and even flew Twila Byars, one of Billy's daughters, up to Browntown — the family's ramshackle woodland homestead — for what was portrayed as a reunion of sorts. Except, according to Channel Guide Magazine, it was quickly revealed that not only had the family known about Twila for quite some time, but there was also evidence on social media that Twila and Billy had "communicated over the years on occasion," per an insider cited by R Online. (Wait, does this mean something on reality TV might have been fake?! We know, not exactly a shock.) 

Twila later appeared to throw shade at her dad's side of the family on Facebook, claiming to be "the normal one in [her] D.N.A. lineage." But shady secret daughters unfortunately wasn't where the fraudulent activity ended for the Browns.   

This Alaskan Bush People father-son duo got busted for defrauding the state of Alaska

In 2016, Billy Brown and son Joshua pleaded guilty to falsifying information on their applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, per Juneau Empire. The PFD is "an annual dividend that is paid to Alaska residents from investment earnings of mineral royalties." To qualify, you have to have lived in Alaska for one entire year, as well as "intend to remain an Alaska resident indefinitely," though you are allowed to live out of state for "varying reasons" for up to 180 days.   

Though they claimed to have lived in the Alaskan wilderness for decades, it was revealed that they "previously signed written statements admitting they left the state in October 2009 and didn't return until August 2012," but continued to collect PFD funds through that time. A grand jury investigation led to charges for six out of the nine Brown family members related to the case, but those additional charges were dropped in exchange for Billy and Joshua's plea deal.

In total, the family swindled the state out of $20,938 in PFD money. Billy and Joshua were sentenced to 30 days in jail (via house arrest), in addition to community service and paying back the money plus additional fines. The incident served to highlight two things: The Browns have almost certainly never lived entirely off the land, and for at least three years, they couldn't even stand to live in the state they claimed to love so dearly for even half the year.

Billy Brown's conflicting tales about the family's original Alaskan cabin

Alaskan Bush People star Billy Brown publicly shared three different accounts of how the family lost their original, hand-built bush cabin. According to the show synopsis on The Discovery Channel's website, "The cabin where they lived for years was seized and burned to the ground for being in the wrong location on public land," which is an accusation that heavily implies that a government agency destroyed the family's home.

But according to R Online, Billy wrote in his 2007 memoir, One Wave at a Time, that the fire was accidental. And in yet another variation of the story, per Channel Guide Magazine, when talking about the fire during a segment on the show, Billy walked the whole thing back to: "My cabin burned and I wasn't home. That's all I can say." 

So, did Billy actually fear retribution from the alleged arsonist government agents, or was the whole thing a bit of extra drama cooked up to amplify the perceived drama of the family's situation? That mystery has remained unclear.

Alaskan Bush People star Ami Brown battled lung cancer

In 2017, the Brown family found themselves in the midst of Ami's lung cancer diagnosis. As chronicled on the show, her treatment brought them out of the bush and into Southern California, then Colorado, so she could receive the best care possible. Speaking with People that August, Billy revealed that Ami's prognosis was not good: "It's in both lungs, in the middle and sides of the lungs." 

Having been given "as low as a three percent" chance of living, Ami revealed in a separate interview that the reason she wanted to keep doing the show as well as make her treatment public was to help people who may be going through a similar battle, and to "take away a lot of their fear" about what treatment entails. "I realized early into this that it's very easy to want to give up and just die," Ami said. "And on the pessimist side, it could be my last days. But I have the will to fight." She was thankfully declared cancer-free in January 2018.

However, some fans doubted the legitimacy of Ami's diagnosis. The ongoing speculation gave way to social media backlash against the Browns, which led to Ami's doctor releasing a statement to People in March 2019. "Amora Brown was diagnosed with Stage III non-small cell lung cancer in April 2017," read the statement. "Treatment for her cancer included a four-month course of chemotherapy with radiation. Her disease responded well to the treatment, and ... she is now in remission."

Family patriarch Billy Brown also had health problems

Before Ami Brown's fight for her life became a plot point, Alaskan Bush People also documented husband Billy's struggle with some kind of seizure disorder in 2015, which in an echo of Ami's cancer situation, also forced the family into the "lower 48" while he recovered.

Speaking exclusively with R Online, the Brown family patriarch said in his typically vague fashion, "The seizures have been going on since my coma, and what happened is they started progressing and lasting a lot longer, getting harder." Supposedly, doctors could never track the cause of the eight-day coma, which also left him with a host of other issues: "Everything shut down: my kidneys, my lungs. My brain swelled to like 75 percent. They literally thought that I would be child-like if I did wake up. It was really bad thing that we've been fighting for almost 10 years now."

Billy was later briefly hospitalized for an upper respiratory infection in October 2018, per Country Living, and would continue to deal with heart, kidney, and breathing issues over the next couple of years. According to The U.S. Sun, Billy's doctors believed his health troubles were in part caused him "def[ying] doctor's orders and continu[ing] to live on the mountains with his family." After undergoing surgery in 2019, Billy and Ami's son, Bear, revealed (via Soap Dirt) that his dad required further testing and treatment.

The parents on Alaskan Bush People began living an even simpler life

Amid their respective health struggles, Ami and Billy Brown began to take things much easier than the Alaskan terrain had apparently required in previous years. "Alaska beat the crud out of me," the family's patriarch confessed to People in 2019, while Ami quipped that they were "[not] spring chickens anymore." 

With the so-called "Wolf Pack" settled on a mountain in Washington state, the semi-retired couple could focus on their health, with Ami returning to California for post-cancer checkups four times a year. "In over a year I hadn't walked hardly at all," Ami said. "So walking around here can be really taxing on my legs." Luckily, she has a tractor, gifted to her by her husband, to help her out. "It's pretty cool," Ami, who in true fashion said she also enjoys tending to her garden, said. "And I might have me an orchard for the grandbabies."

Meanwhile, their adult kids began taking on the labor of "recreating their self-proclaimed 'Browntown,'" as Parade put it, "This time with each of their own individual homes, starting their own families and attempting to launch a self-sustainable ranch." Billy told People, "We fell in love with the whole area." For her part, Ami added, "We're very blessed."

Alaskan Bush People star Billy Brown died following a seizure

Billy Brown reportedly remained "in and out of the hospital" as he continued to deal with these medical issues, per The Sun. Tragically, on Feb. 7, 2021, the Alaskan Bush People patriarch died unexpectedly at the age of 68. 

The following day, the couple's son, Bear, took to his private Instagram account to share the sad news. "We are heartbroken to announce that our beloved patriarch Billy Brown passed away last night after suffering from a seizure," he wrote. "He was our best friend — a wonderful and loving dad, granddad and husband and he will be dearly missed. He lived his life on his terms, off the grid and off the land and taught us to live like that as well." Bear continued, "We plan to honor his legacy going forward, and to continue with his dream." As of this writing, Ami hasn't commented on the loss of her husband. However, daughter Rainy requested fans' thoughts and prayers, "especially [for] my mother."

Though the backstory of these nature-loving folks is a bit dubious, it's undeniable that the Alaskan Bush People parents loved each other and their children dearly. As the family mourns Billy's death, let's recall some wise words from his heartfelt 2017 interview with People: "We talk a lot about wanting freedom in our lives. That's why we moved out there. But ... freedom is having a family so strong and so with you that you can get through anything."