Dunleavy sworn in as governor after a very Alaska travel glitch

11:45 A.M. UPDATE: Dunleavy is now governor

NOORVIK -- As Noorvik elders sang “Arigaa” in the high school gymnasium, Mike Dunleavy was sworn in 40 miles across the frosted tundra in Kotzebue to become the 12th governor of Alaska.

More than 100 villagers, elders seated in the front row, watched live-stream video of the ceremony and roared with cheers when Dunleavy’s wife, Rose, who lived in Noorvik, appeared on the screen. Watch the video here.

Third-graders sang “My Country 'Tis of Thee” in Inupiaq. Speakers talked about keeping Southcentral Alaska, still reeling from a massive earthquake, in their prayers.

A persistent fog thwarted Dunleavy’s plans to hold the inauguration in this Inupiat village of 669 people, and former Gov. Bill Walker stayed in Anchorage to grapple with the aftermath of the 7.0 quake.

Dunleavy told the crowd that the people of Kotzebue whipped together a swearing-in ceremony just 90 minutes after the decision was made to divert to that hub city. The Alaska Constitution calls for the governor-elect to be sworn in before noon, and a Dunleavy spokeswoman said he was traveling with a judge and would take the oath on the airplane if necessary.

“This is how we do it in rural Alaska," Dunleavy told the audience of mostly Alaska Natives, vowing that he would make public safety, particularly in the Bush, a top priority.


“I’ll never forget you," said Dunleavy, who worked as a teacher and school superintendent for several years above the Arctic Circle.

10:05 A.M. UPDATE: Dunleavy lands in Kotzebue, will not make it to Noorvik in time for swearing-in

Welcome to Bush Alaska. A persistent fog has thwarted plans to hold Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy’s inauguration in this Inupiat village. A spokeswoman says Dunleavy has landed in Kotzebue and plans are underway to hold the swearing-in ceremony there.

Meantime, a giant Alaska flag sheet cake just arrived at the Noorvik school, lunch is steaming and the celebration here will go on as planned without the new governor. “We’ll eat whether he gets here or not,” one employee said.

Village residents, including Gordon Newlin, brother of Dunleavy’s wife, Rose, are looking to the sky and shrugging. Weather delays and changes are to be expected, they said. As people file into the gymnasium they hope to watch the swearing-in on a livestream from Kotzebue. If he’d stuck to the snowmachine plan, he’d be here, one woman joked.

9:10 A.M. UPDATE: ‘If he has to, he’ll take the oath on the airplane': Weather casts doubt on Noorvik inauguration

Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy is in the air, headed from Anchorage to Noorvik, but it’s unclear whether he will be able to land for his swearing-in ceremony. Weather has caused pilots to cancel some flights this morning from Kotzebue into the village.

Dunleavy spokeswoman Sarah Erkmann Ward said she is “cautiously optimistic” that Dunleavy’s flight will arrive as expected. “If he has to, he will take the oath on the airplane,” she said.

In other words -- the inauguration is playing out in classic rural Alaska fashion with the best-laid plans ever at the mercy of local weather patterns. In this case, at least some school district officials are likely to make it to the village for the ceremony. Either way, the celebration will be held.

Erkmann Ward said Dunleavy is traveling with the judge who will take his oath and has the necessary paperwork to be sworn in before noon as mandated by the state constitution.

“He is ready to be sworn in by whoever, wherever,” she said.


NOORVIK -- Picture a schoolhouse, smelling of pumpkin pie and caribou soup, surrounded by miles of frosted tundra.

There has never been an inauguration ceremony for an Alaska governor quite like this.

Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator and Republican, will become just the 12th person to hold the office.

“Folks are really excited,” said high school basketball coach Mike Zibell, who grew up in this Inupiat village with Dunleavy’s wife, Rose.

The governor-elect canceled plans to make the final leg of the journey by snowmachine and shortened the visit after Friday’s earthquake placed Southcentral Alaska in a state of emergency. Gov. Bill Walker, in his last hours on the job, opted to stay in Anchorage to “assist with the reopening of state facilities and damaged infrastructure.”


Dunleavy was expected to take the oath of office by noon in front of up to 600 people. (The official village population is 669.) GCI Channel 1 will broadcast the event beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Noorvik sits above the banks of the frozen Kobuk River, about 43 air miles from the regional hub city of Kotzebue, where Dunleavy once served as superintendent of schools. Black spruce burns sweetly in wood stoves. Moose antlers hang above door frames, strung with Christmas lights.

Like all Alaska villages, it is a place where hunting and fishing put food on the table but store-bought groceries cost an arm and a leg. Gas prices are double the city rates, said Noorvik Mayor Vern Cleveland. Milk, bought by the can, can be the equivalent of $20 a gallon.

In other words, as the inauguration builds excitement in Northwest Alaska by placing a spotlight on village life, it also underscores the unique challenge of governing the largest state.

Zibell, who teaches sixth- through 12th-graders, said the community was ready for a feel-good event after recent suicides. Others said housing is tight. Temperatures Sunday hovered between 20 and 30 degrees. There should be a minus sign in front of those numbers, said Noorvik Mayor Vern Cleveland. He’s had to plug his freezer back in to avoid spoilage.

[Alaska experiencing some of the most extreme climate change in the U.S., says new report]

In at least one regard, Noorvik is different from most other Northwest and Western Alaska villages. If you look at a map of the election results, the village was a deep-red island of Dunleavy voters surrounded by a sea of mostly blue precincts that favored Democrat Mark Begich.

“Welcome home, First Lady Rose!” read a poster in the school cafeteria.


Zibell said it wasn’t just the family connection. He voted for Dunleavy in part based on a few conversations they have had over the years, he said. “He really gets the dilemma between urban and rural divide, economically.”

The promise of bigger Permanent Fund dividend checks didn’t hurt. Reduced dividends were felt especially hard in the Bush, he said, where household incomes are lower.

As the village prepared to welcome the new governor, with 45 pies warming in the school cafeteria and chairs arranged in the gymnasium, 78-year-old Charles Nazuruk worked on a snowmachine at the edge of town. He’d be at the ceremony, he said. Rose is a relative.

As for what the world should know about Noorvik? “We love people. That is how our ancestors built (the village). To love people.”

Nazuruk said the key to winning a second term, for Dunleavy, will be to talk to Alaskans and to listen.

Note: This story will be updated throughout the day with coverage of the inauguration.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com