Instead of Juneau or Anchorage. For two days, the Northwest Arctic Borough is suddenly Alaska’s seat of power, with the governor, the lieutenant governor, the whole congressional delegation, and 10 legislators all descending on the region.
But the most high-profile visitor is Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
While Jewell had long planned to appear at an Alaska Federation of Natives board retreat in Kotzebue, the visit became more political after Obama announced his plan to prohibit drilling in a good swath of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and certain offshore areas.
Many of Alaska’s lawmakers were motivated to come up to the region to confront her on these actions, but Jewell had her own agenda for the visit.
At 9:30 in the morning, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell left the Kotzebue airport in a Cessna Grand Caravan bound for Kivalina. She was traveling to the barrier island to learn about the effects of climate change on the community. In her wake were about half a dozen legislators who ended up piggybacking on her itinerary.
As Jewell had a private meeting with members of the village council, legislators like House Majority Leader Charisse Millett toured the local school. With the current building over capacity and in a location where it is vulnerable to storms and erosion, Kivalina is requesting money for a new building that would be built on dry ground miles outside the community.
After visiting classrooms, the legislative delegation was brought to the school gym to meet with members of the community, like Eleanor Swan. She’s working a projector that shows violent waves smashing against the town.
“When it flooded here in town in 2004, the water got way high, and they had to move the principal’s house,” Swan said.
Swan is originally from Noatak, but she’s lived in Kivalina for 29 years.
“It changed since I moved. There was more beach when I came here. That’s long gone. We hardly have a beach now.”
Shortly before noon, the secretary showed up, putting her in the same room as Alaska lawmakers. While legislators had made the trip to talk to Jewell about drilling restrictions on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they gave her wide berth in the gymnasium. She sat alone until Millie Hawley, the leader of the village council, noted the empty seats next to her.
”Where’s her staff?” Hawley asked. “She looks so lonely.” “Nobody sits next to me,” Jewell said. “I’m used to it.”
After a prayer was said in a mix of Inupiat and English that implored for the survival of Kivalina, Jewell spoke.
She kept her comments strictly to climate change. She did not bring up offshore drilling, or any other controversial issue that has made her a target for Alaska lawmakers. Instead, she asked to hear about how changing weather patterns were affecting the community’s ability to get caribou, whale, and seal.
“For the elders that are willing to open, I would be very interested in hearing about the changes you’ve seen on the landscape, how that’s impacted your subsistence, where you’d like to see things go for the future.”
Jewell then heard from residents who expressed concern about the rate at which village land was disappearing, and how declining sea ice and harsher storms have hurt the community.
There were no big announcements about funding for Kivalina projects or money for relocation costs — just a general commitment that the federal government would work with them.
About halfway through the meeting, the legislative delegation left without approaching Jewell. They had their own plane to catch, and a meeting to finally confront Jewell scheduled for later in the day.