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Former North Slope mayor and Inupiaq whaling captain Edward S. Itta died on Sunday, his family said. He was 71. He had been ill with cancer, his family said.
Itta held many prominent roles in the American Arctic. He was captain of the Saggan Whaling Crew and from 2005 to 2011 served as mayor of the North Slope Borough, a sprawling territory at the northernmost edge of the U.S., where the majority of residents are Alaska Native.
As mayor, Itta was called upon to balance the protection of traditional Inupiaq ways of life, such as subsistence hunting and whaling, with the economic potential of the oil and gas industry on which his region's economy relied.
He was known as an eloquent and influential voice for Inupiaq values in Alaska, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
"I try to remind people that we (Inupiat) need to be heard, loud and clear. We are the people of the Arctic. We still live in America's Arctic and we're going to live in America's Arctic, after all the battles over the wilderness and the oil are done. We are the ones who have to live with the consequence," Itta said in a keynote address at the Arctic Encounter Symposium in 2015.
In 2012, President Obama appointed Itta to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Itta was also president of Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska and a representative for Alaska on the Outer Continental Shelf Policy Committee, president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and a vice chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott praised Itta's "charismatic and visionary leadership" in a statement.
"While Edward will be greatly missed by many, his achievements and contributions to Arctic policy and the state of Alaska will long be remembered. Our hearts goes out to his wife Elsie, their children, and grandchildren for their loss," they said.
Andy Mack, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, spoke Monday morning in a choked-up voice about working as an advisor to Itta during Itta's six years as borough mayor.
"We were very close and he was a wonderful man," Mack said.
Itta had a powerful way of addressing tough issues publicly, including in a speech before the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2006 urging people to talk openly and honestly to find solutions to deep-rooted alcohol and drug abuse facing some Native communities, Mack said.
"He'd say things people were less willing to say and do it in a graceful and kind way, but he'd put things on the table that were uncomfortable but important to talk about," Mack said.
Mack said Itta did a phenomenal job raising awareness about issues that mattered to North Slope Borough residents.
Nationally, Itta may best be known for his work as mayor that helped oil giant Shell move forward with controversial plans to drill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. After two decades without drilling, Shell began exploring offshore in 2012 after Itta called for strong protections to protect the bowhead whales hunted in the region.
"He came to the conclusion that if done carefully, activity should move forward in the outer-continental shelf, but he wanted folks to be really careful," Mack said. "He wanted to make sure that things weren't done too quickly because you might make a mistake and harm things happening in the water."
David Hayes, a former deputy Interior Secretary under President Barack Obama for four years until 2013, met with Itta several times in Washington, D.C., and in Barrow on a variety of issues, including Shell's pursuit of its offshore plans.
Hayes said he was extremely impressed with Itta's "remarkable leadership."
Hayes, now a distinguished visiting lecturer in Law at the Stanford Law School, said on Monday he was deeply saddened to hear about Itta's death.
"I was always struck with how wise and spiritual he was and how deeply he thought about the serious issues facing his constituents," Hayes said. "I also personally think he was a world-class politician in the best sense of the word, in his effectiveness, communicating directly with people directly and forthrightly and in engaging in dialogue with all points of views."
Itta rode a "razor blade of balance," crossing political lines to meet with all sides, said Richard Glenn, a vice president at Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the North Slope regional Native corporation.
That ability was honed during a long history of leadership before Itta became mayor, including during his service as board president for the North Slope Borough School District, Glenn said.
As head of the borough's public works department in the 1980s, Itta was key to the effort that modernized North Slope villages that at one time had lacked running water and sewer services and other amenities, Glenn said.
"He presided over some of the greatest improvements to the physical infrastructure of the borough, when we went from rough-and-tumble, ramshackle villages to the more modern communities we see today," said Glenn.
Itta grew up knowing the challenges of life without those services, and understood that some development was needed to pay for them so they could be enjoyed by future generations.
A U.S. Navy veteran and former Prudhoe Bay roustabout, Itta was also willing to take on organizations he saw as overly supportive of development. Speaking in an interview in the New Yorker magazine in September about Inupiat communities' dependence on fossil fuel development while facing a different world because of climate change, Itta blasted ASRC for being too cozy with industry when it came to offshore development.
Itta's ability to engage all sides of the political equation included seeking input from younger residents.
"He spanned generations that way," Glenn said. "He knew that what we needed to keep our culture going are the folks who look back and the folks who look forward. Otherwise we're just a bunch of stratified individuals."
Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said in a joint statement issued to media on Monday that Alaska has lost a "great leader."
"Alaska has been profoundly changed by the work Mayor Itta has accomplished on behalf of our great state and the Alaskans he has represented," their statement said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.