‘You are our family’: For Alaska’s new governor, a unique inauguration above the Arctic Circle

NOORVIK -- It was the most Bush Alaskan thing -- “bush” meaning rural Alaska, you cheechako -- that could have happened.

To celebrate his first day on the job as governor, Mike Dunleavy planned to hold his inauguration here in his wife’s hometown, an Inupiat village buzzing with snowmachines 20 miles above the Arctic Circle. As it so often does, bad weather doused those plans.

Team Dunleavy called an audible, re-routed the new governor’s flight across 43 miles of frosted tundra to Kotzebue and held the swearing-in there at school gymnasium. And so began the term of Alaska’s 12th governor.

“This is a fantastic place to live and that’s why we are back here now," Dunleavy told the crowd in Kotzebue, where he worked for years as school district superintendent.

Meantime, back in Noorvik, villagers accustomed to canceled flights looked at the sky and shrugged. They hoped to see the new Alaska first lady, Rose “Sattu” Dunleavy, whom the governor met decades ago when he moved to Northwest Alaska. But what’s the point in getting upset?

“We’re certainly going to miss him, but disappointed? We try to keep the negative out,” Noorvik resident Elsie Sampson said early Monday when it was unclear if Dunleavy would be able to reach the village. “We want to teach our children, if things don’t work out the way we want them to, just be accepting of it and just keep moving on.”

[Dorm-style rural education, climate change and crime: A Day 1 talk with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy]

Big state, big challenges

Noorvik sits above the banks of the frozen Kobuk River, a 20-minute flight from the regional hub of Kotzebue. Spruce, thick as telephone poles, burns sweetly in wood stoves. Moose and caribou 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 built excitement in Northwest Alaska by placing a spotlight on village life, it also underscores the unique challenge of governing the largest state.

Noorvik basketball coach Mike Zibell, who teaches sixth- through 12th-graders, said the community was ready for a feel-good event after recent suicides. Housing is tight; resident Cora Brown told the Daily News her family of 15 has lived in a former bingo hall without water for the past two years.

Despite fog and snow Monday, recent temperatures here hovered between 20 and 30 degrees. There should be a minus sign in front of those numbers, Cleveland said. After unplugging his freezer for the winter, he’s had to turn it on again to avoid spoilage.

Nellie Ballot, elders council chairman, told the inauguration crowd that some Noorvik people used to live to 100 years old thanks to their traditional diets and lifestyles. At the time, temperatures of 20, 30, 40 below were common, she said.

The governor of Alaska will be thinking about these issues and others across the state, she said. “The (Indian) Child Welfare Act. The weather. Global warming.”

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.

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.

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Following the earthquake, Dunleavy abandoned plans to snowmachine from Kotzebue to Noorvik on Monday morning. He scheduled a charter flight from Anchorage straight to Noorvik. But by midmorning, a soupy fog clung to the village.

The Alaska Constitution calls for the governor-elect to be sworn in before noon and as the minutes ticked by, a Dunleavy spokeswoman said the new governor was prepared to take the oath of office on an airplane if necessary. When the decision to re-route to Kotzebue was made, 100 Noorvik residents crowded the school gymnasium anyway and watched the swearing-in on television.

Handmade signs reserved the first few rows of chairs for elder seating. Fifteen gallons of caribou stew simmered in the kitchen. If Dunleavy had stuck to the snowmachine plan, he’d be here, one woman joked.

Noorvik homecoming

After the Kotzebue oath-taking, Dunleavy tried again to reach Noorvik. This time he made it, driving from the landing strip to the school flanked by police or troopers on snowmachines.

It was Rose Dunleavy who walked into the gym first, greeted with a standing ovation by her family and former neighbors.

“We moved, but still this is our home,” Mike Dunleavy said to applause. “And you are our family. And you accepted me a long time ago when I came up here and married one of your daughters.”

After short speeches, Dunleavy posed for selfie after selfie, the phones held vertically to keep the 6′7″ governor in frame.

For his last day on the job, outgoing Gov. Bill Walker stayed in Anchorage to grapple with the aftermath of Friday’s 7.0 earthquake. Dunleavy said he considered changing plans after the quake placed Alaska’s largest population center in a state of emergency, closing schools and imploding roads. He opted for a day trip that would have him back in Southcentral by late Monday afternoon, he said.

“Given the size of that earthquake and the aftershocks, the damage was a lot less than I think most of us thought,” said Dunleavy, who told the crowd that a similar earthquake elsewhere in the world would likely have resulted in deaths. “So the response to deal with that is more than adequate.”

Dunleavy spokeswoman Sarah Erkmann Ward couldn’t not immediately say how much the inauguration trip cost.

“This will take a bit to figure out," she wrote in response to a Sunday night email. “The entire transition effort, which encompasses the swearing-in, is paid for with state funds. Really the only direct cost associated with the actual swearing-in event is travel.”

The abbreviated Noorvik visit lasted just a few hours. To the crowd, Dunleavy said the trip had the flavor of a family reunion. Now if anyone visits Juneau, he joked, they should look him up at the governor’s mansion for a place to stay.

“We’ve got a lot of rooms,” he said.

Photojournalist Marc Lester contributed to this report.