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Kivalina: An Arctic Alaskan village straddling 2 worlds

  • Author: Loren Holmes
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published December 31, 2012

KIVALINA, Alaska -- On the shore of the Chukchi Sea sits a narrow strip of sand, one among thousands of barrier islands along this remote and rugged stretch of northwest Alaska. For hundreds of years, the Iñupiat Eskimos have used this island as a hunting camp, for whaling in the spring and caribou hunting in winter. Today the island has a permanent settlement of around 375 residents, most of whom are Iñupiat. They call it Kivalina.

At first glance, students at Kivalina's McQueen School seem to do many of the same things any American child would do. Arriving at school early in the morning, they eat breakfast in the school cafeteria. Eggs, sausage, fruit, a pancake and syrup. They say the pledge of allegiance and march off to class. They study American history, social studies, English, math. After school, they play basketball. The McQueen Quavviks girls basketball team were state champions in 1992-1993.

But beyond the doors of the school, things start to look more like the hunting camp of yesteryear. An arch made of bowhead whale bones greets visitors near the airport. On porches and in yards all over town, caribou carcasses lay, stiff and frozen, partially dismembered. Fish drying racks are scattered along the beach. Subsistence is what brought people here in the first place, more than a thousand years ago, and subsistence remains a driving force why people choose to stay.

For many families here, schedules are dictated by the environment -- a time for fishing, a time for hunting. First come whales, then seals and walrus. Since the arrival of Christian missionaries, religion has also become part of the yearly cycle. Christmas is celebrated every day for a week in Kivalina; Easter too. These celebrations are not only familial, they are communal. The entire village gathers in the school gym, the largest room in the community, and feast on beluga whale, seal and Eskimo ice cream, a mixture of caribou and seal fat, sugar and berries. Villagers hold a tournament of Native games, including the high kick, seal hop, and ear pull. It's also a time for prayer and singing, and a chance for the drummers and dancers to show off what they've been practicing for months. Kivalina is one of the few villages in the school district where students still practice traditional dancing, according to McQueen School special education teacher Katy Campbell.

For students, these cultural schedules often clash with the American school system. Family and cultural influences can take precedence, leaving a child without enough time in class to make adequate progress.

When a bowhead whale is landed, the entire village turns out to help haul it ashore, butcher and distribute it. That is the time to work on the whale, not homework. For a community of 375 people, there are only a few dozen full-time jobs, says Danny Foster, an unemployed 20-year-old living with his girlfriend and her three children. He attended the McQueen School through 9th grade, before dropping out because of drug and alcohol problems. He now has his GED but still no way to apply it. For him, subsistence is more than just a way to carry on the culture; it is a means of survival.

Not only do the rhythms of a subsistence lifestyle often conflict with school, but at times the environment itself seems to conspire to interrupt class time. This year, 2012, freezing temperatures came earlier than normal. Water lines, which fill the town's water tanks, froze and broke before the tanks were full, forcing the school to delay its opening for five weeks. The school is the only building in the community with running water and flushing toilets. It is hard to blame one year's storm on something as far-reaching as climate change, but that is what people in the village are doing. Climate change is a familiar foe here.

In 2008 Kivalina became known for suing the oil giant ExxonMobil over claims that global warming was destroying the community. Sea ice normally protects the island from winter storms, but the ice has been forming later and later each year, for at least the past half century. With less sea ice, these winter storms become more powerful and more destructive. The island on which Kivalina sits has shrunk by about half during the lifetimes of many elder residents. For the past 30 years, there has been talk of moving the village someplace less vulnerable to storms, but with cost estimates running over $400 million, the plan is in permanent limbo.

With their village literally shrinking, population growing, and a lack of jobs, the 375 people that live in Kivalina squeeze into 75 households. Russell Adams, a carver, lives in the 300 square foot, two-room house where he was born. With him are his wife, Betty Ann Norton, and their two infant children, two school-aged daughters, and a young, unemployed man. His daughters, Chelsea and Esther, have no desk on which to do homework. No computer, no textbooks. Their only activities at home besides caring for their infant siblings are to watch television. In the village, there is a TV in every home, and it seems like it is always on.

With home often an environment ill-suited to studying, the school offers help. Students stay at school after class to finish their homework in a place with space and adult help at hand. Even those not needing help will stay, sprawled out in the hallway floors, chatting with friends and studying. For some students, especially the older boys, staying late might just be a way to stay warm while they wait for basketball practice to start. Kivalina winters often reach minus-40, without the windchill.

Even though Kivalina is small (and getting smaller), it is not easy for students to get to school. Situated above the Arctic Circle, it's night when they start school, and almost night when they head home. With temperatures well below freezing and a steady wind, frostbite is a serious concern. Some students who are dressed well enough and live close enough will walk. Those who are close but don't have adequate clothing will run to school. Others, often the youngest students, will ride with a family member, often aboard a four-wheeler or snowmobile. There is no bus.

In other parts of the world, "snow days" days built into the academic calendar account for missed school due to bad weather. Kivalina has exactly one snow day. When it snows, and the wind blows, houses can become completely enveloped, wrapped in snow. "On those days, students just come in a little late, since they have to dig a path out of their front door," says McQueen principal Zoe Theoharis. A snow day in Kivalina would be more like a blizzard in the Lower 48 states, with stout winds and temperatures below minus-30 F. In those cases the school becomes an emergency shelter. This year, with the water shortage pushing the start of school back five weeks, attendance has been high. "Everyone had a terrible time of the doldrums waiting for school to open," Theoharis said.

Students and teachers both seem motivated to make up for lost time. "I'm not looking forward to Christmas break," Solomon Sage, a fifth grader, said before the holiday. "I'll miss my teachers." After that declaration he headed off to church to practice songs for the Christmas celebration.

This year, the teachers seem to have a good rapport with the students. But it hasn't always been that way. Teacher turnover is very high in some rural Alaska schools, with most leaving after two or three years. High turnover can lead to mistrust and misunderstanding, especially when all the teachers are non-Native outsiders and every student is Native. Kivalina's McQueen School was temporarily closed twice because of high tensions between teachers and parents, first in 1979 and again in 2002. The first time the school closed because a student threatened a teacher with a gun.

Current principal Theoharis doesn't quite fit into either category; although she's not Native, she's not exactly an outsider, either. She has been principal three years, and was teacher before that, when her husband Tom was principal. She and Tom, now the town's fire chief, have lived year-round in Kivalina the past 25 years. Together they have weathered the storms, both literal and metaphorical, that have ravaged this tiny coastal community. And together they have helped bring the community together.

"These challenges can be met," she said. "I'm a firm believer in the students and in this community. Everybody here knows that you have to walk in both worlds. You can be committed to subsistence but you also have to be a part of the larger economy."

Contact Loren Holmes at loren(at)