NOORVIK — Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s choice of Noorvik for his inauguration ceremony placed a spotlight on a corner of rural Alaska that is often forgotten in campaign-season battles over Anchorage crime and Permanent Fund dividends. Voter issues here in the Northwest Arctic are as challenging as any facing the state: Overcrowded homes, job scarcity, shoreline erosion.
While the swearing-in didn’t quite go as planned, with foggy skies forcing Dunleavy to divert to Kotzebue, the new governor was eventually able to land here in his wife’s hometown for a quick visit on the first day of a four-year team. Meantime, the Daily News asked Kotzebue and Noorvik residents what problems they would tackle on their first day as governor.
From children to elders, here is what they said.
Andrew Bantatua, 12
The late afternoon sky was already true black in Noorvik, population 669, the Big Dipper revealed clear and low on the horizon. Oldest of a pack of seven boys playing in the snow, Bantatua answered first when we asked the children what they would do if they were governor.
“Change (the laws) to no drinking, no smoking and no fighting," he said. “Give stuff away, if they need stuff, for kids who don’t got money to buy clothes.”
Bantatua said people should not be allowed to hurt each other or shoot guns in town and would have enough money to spend for a home.
Who in this group wants to be governor one day? Every hand shot up.
Hannah Paniyavluk Loon, 69
Loon peered over the top of her glasses, fussing with her granddaughter’s ponytail. The girl sat playing with a homemade felt doll in a Kotzebue airport terminal, Loon waiting to see her off for a flight to Selawik. On the Ravn Alaska counter, buckets labeled “sick sacks” and “ear plugs” greeted passengers boarding trembling Cessna Caravans.
It’s probably for the best that Gov. Dunleavy decided against snowmachining to Noorvik for his inauguration, Loon said. “Usually right now we should be 33-minus degrees instead of 33 degrees.”
Loon is a Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly member. If she were governor, she said, “I would spend a large part of my time in stressed areas. Villages being eroded like Kivalina and Shishmaref and Newtok. And I would work with people on climate change and why we have very, very late freeze up."
Benji Sampson, 18
Sampson, in high tops and a Nike swoosh cap, trotted up a frosty staircase. “Call of Duty” waited inside. A senior, he’s thinking about college next year, he said. For now, basketball, gaming and cruising on snowmachines are the high school pastimes.
If he were governor, Sampson said, school lunch period would last a bit longer.
Tiffany Scott, 33
Scott, a Kotzebue nurse, sang the Alaska Flag Song at Dunleavy’s inauguration celebration in Kotzebue. Nerves shook her hands. Asked what she might focus on as governor, she gathered her thoughts and responded in an email.
“Subsistence is a way of life for us and is non-negotiable," Scott wrote. “We have hunted and gathered on these lands and waters for generations. Protecting this right is critical to our continued well-being."
“I also think about public safety and education," Scott wrote. "We must ensure that we have a system in place that protects its citizens, especially our most vulnerable, by holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. When we feel safe, we can focus on things that give us hope and a future; education is that answer. For rural students, we must remain vigilant about ensuring equity in opportunity to an education that meets the needs of our most remote students.”
Vern Cleveland, 62
When anyone visits Noorvik, second-term Mayor Vern Cleveland offers one piece of advice: Bring cash. This place isn’t cheap.
“It’s very, very expensive in our area,” Cleveland said. "The freight costs more to ship here than anywhere else. I would try and change that (as governor). Reduce the cost of living.”
Groceries cost 1.5 times as much as in Anchorage, or more, he said while walking store shelves where a half gallon of Darigold whole milk priced at $2 in Anchorage is $5.19 here and a 12-ounce box of cereal costs $7.59.
Tiffany Jack, 34
Across the grocery aisles, Jack rung up customers, coins clattering in the register. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” played softly through the intercom.
Jobs are hard to come by, she said, compounding the cost of living. She listed the few places to work: “You have here (Noorvik Native Store) , the local clinic, and IRA (tribal government) and the city. Those are the four main places of employment here in town. And then you have gaming. But they are limited to how many hours they have a month."
As governor she’d focus on housing shortages and cost of living in the bush, she said.
A mother of four, Jack says she wouldn’t move out of Noorvik if she could. But for those who want to migrate to the city? A one-way trip to Anchorage is $400 to $500.
“With the cost of living ... it kind of doesn’t make it possible to leave,” she said.
Just because there is no 24-hour convenience store in Noorvik doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in the hunt for a late-night snack.
Visit Patricia Coffin’s house and she might swing open heavy, wooden double doors that reveal a small after-hours store that shares a wall with her living room. Flaming Hot Funyuns, Twix and Pringles line the shelves. Coffin named business “Mau’s Shop,” after her teenage daughter.
If she were governor? “In this village, I would have more homes,” Coffin said.
"There is not much to lend out here. So that’s one of the priorities that we need. Many are crowded into a one-home situation.”
Sophie Cleveland, 29
Outside the store stood Cleveland, who said Noorvik is just one of the Northwest Alaska villages facing a housing crunch. Like several residents, she said affordable housing is the village’s top concern.
“There’s just so many people in one home," she said. “We don’t have no places to rent, or there’s no places available to fix up right away and move into.”
Charlie Nazuruk, 78
As the day ended, Nazuruk pulled on his beaver fur cap to doctor a broken four-wheeler.
He was a young man when President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” Nazuruk said. He has always liked that idea. As governor, he’d emphasize cooperation among Alaskans.
“If we work together as a whole," the elder said, "we can accomplish a lot.”