A young Iñupiaq man tried to sell me his pocket knife for $10 on the plane from Kotzebue to Kivalina. He'd just gotten out of jail in Kotzebue, hadn't eaten for a day and wasn't sure where he'd find his next meal. He told me about the uncertainty he'd face when he returned to Kivalina – a criminal record, no job and no money. I gave him some snacks I had, explained that I didn't have any cash and wished him luck. When we got off the plane he didn't even have a bag.
When President Obama visits Kotzebue next week he'll likely highlight climate change's dramatic impact on communities like Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok. Hopefully he'll use his bully pulpit to underscore the need to wean our nation of its unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels and outline a path to doing so. I'm optimistic that he'll use this opportunity to challenge doubts – including those of our own Congressional delegation – about the connection between the climate changes threatening our way of life here in the Arctic and greenhouse gas emissions.
But what President Obama is unlikely to touch on are the rarely discussed social and economic dimensions of life in this part of the world or the pressures faced by too many of the families who live here, including the young man I met on the plane. For many Iñupiat who live in the Arctic, climate change is background noise compared to more day-to-day challenges of survival. A warming Earth is yet another layer of stress cast over our society in a part of the world that continues to stagger under the weight of more than a century of colonization and the trauma, poverty and social challenges associated with that curse.
The specter of thinning polar bears and sea ice does not necessarily loom large for the mother and child living under the constant threat of domestic violence, the parents struggling to put enough food on the table or the sexual assault survivor with more reliable access to a bottle than to mental health services and support. The possibility of an oil spill wreaking havoc in the Chukchi Sea pales in comparison to what's at stake if our young people continue to commit suicide at a rate more than 10 times the U.S. rate.
President Obama's visit to Alaska opens a policy window that our state government and Alaska Native advocacy organizations need to seize on in order to highlight these and other social and economic disparities between Alaska Natives and the U.S. as a whole. Those disparities tell part of the story of two very different Americas. The U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which Obama's visit will serve in part to highlight, provides an additional opportunity for Alaska Natives and the state to help set the federal government's Arctic policy agenda to better reflect the needs of the people who live here.
Elevated rates of poverty, sexual assault, domestic violence and addiction – these interconnected challenges don't define Iñupiat or other Arctic peoples and societies, but yet these longstanding issues are being eclipsed by discussions that seem increasingly concerned with maintaining American political and economic hegemony in the region.
This is an unprecedented time of international focus on a part of the world that has always been treated as marginal. That energy needs to be directed toward identifying more novel ways to provide the basic services and support necessary (such as law enforcement, the development of an Alaska state suicide prevention strategy, a boarding school truth and reconciliation commission, residential alcohol treatment centers and domestic violence shelters) that are critical to the healing and healthy functioning of our society.
Outside interest in the Arctic has surged in the last decade in response to its profit potential. Arctic issues have been hijacked from indigenous communities by academics, think tanks and environmental groups in the process. These people will be long gone when the oil and mineral deposits dry up, but we'll still be living here.
Climate change does pose real threats to our homeland, nation and planet, but too many indigenous peoples living in the Arctic face more immediate threats and stressors that have largely been neglected by our state and federal leadership during the last half century. The Kotzebue-born Iñupiaq leader John Schaeffer referenced these social and economic stressors during a community meeting more than three decades ago, calling our society "sick" and in need of direction. Schaeffer realized that traditional Iñupiat society is unsustainable against a backdrop of too much poverty and violence. We're still dealing with these problems today.
President Obama's visit to rural Alaska and the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council are historic opportunities to advance a more people-focused Arctic policy agenda that has as its goal the closing of social and economic gaps between rural Alaska and the rest of the country. Only when these gaps are closed will Iñupiat and other Arctic peoples be truly empowered to self-determine our futures. Only by addressing these gaps can we begin to talk seriously about the future of the Arctic or "sustainable resource development" because the beautiful people who live here are the true resources of this region.
Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger is from Anchorage with roots in Deering and Kotzebue. He lives in Kotzebue.