Rural Alaska

Kivalina store reopens to fanfare, much relief

A week after its grand reopening, things are pretty hectic at the Kivalina Native Store.

But busy is good, said store manager Henrietta Adams on Monday. Adams was so busy with customers, in fact, that she didn't have time to chat but said it's going well.

The Native Store burned to the ground in December, with locals and volunteer firefighters staying up all night pumping water from the lagoon and thawing frozen water pipes to hose off the blaze and save surrounding buildings. From January through last week, the community used a smaller space for the temporary store.

The new store is in the same location as the old one was, said City Administrator Janet Mitchell. It's much bigger and carries a wider variety of food and household goods.

The timing is especially good for the reopening of the well-stocked market, said Mitchell.

"The ice went out real early and so we got no ugruk (seal) for the winter," Mitchell said. "We have to manage without it, but it means we'll have to rely on fish and caribou. We're going to need the store. Almost the whole community didn't get enough ugruk."

Mitchell said the prices at the Kivalina store have risen a little to compensate for the loss, and while those who travel to Anchorage usually stock up on bulk items, the store is used often, especially for eggs and produce. Plus, she added, younger people are more likely to eat more of a Western diet, so they rely more on the store for groceries than those who subsist on Native food.

"We're actually fortunate right now that a lot of young people eat Western-style food," Mitchell said. "They can live on it, so it's good that we do have a store. It's the older generation that needs the Native foods. It's a small percentage of young people that rely on the Native store."

The poor seal harvest was due to sea ice near town going out earlier than usual. The community thought the ice would come back, as it usually does, and they'd get their chance to hunt, but it didn't. Ugruk that is left over from last year will go to the elders, Mitchell added. Fish and caribou, assuming there are bountiful seasons, will have to help sustain the village through the winter.

"We're also going to rely a bit on Western-style food, but we'll try to shop in Anchorage because the prices are so low compared to here," she said.

Mitchell added that Kivalina got five beluga whales this spring and summer, the most the village has harvested in a decade.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.