Inequity in alcohol enforcement in Mertarvik and Newtok causes frustration

From left, Jack, Martha Simon, and their son at their home in Newtok, Alaska on July 12, 2020. Martha is concerned about the quality of life in Newtok, and is anxious to move to Mertarvik where a third of the village has already relocated. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

This week, KYUK is looking at Mertarvik, a community that is being created by relocating residents of the village of Newtok, which is being eaten up by high tides. The move has to be phased in over time as funding becomes available. Mertarvik is the first community being created by climate change refugees.

In the first year at Mertarvik, the village council banished someone for selling alcohol. But nine miles away in Newtok, residents say that bootleggers are being left unpunished. Some of the people left behind in the old village are asking if that’s fair.

Many Mertarvik residents say one of the things they like about their new village is how quiet it is. But that may be because the new village is shipping out some of its troublemakers. 

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“We had to banish one person,” said Newtok Village Council member Phillip Carl. He said that someone was transporting alcohol into Mertarvik and selling it. The council’s president, George Carl, said that it had no choice but to banish the individual after they were given multiple warnings. 

“That’s my goal, to keep this village safe,” said the elder Carl.

The council has two villages it has to keep safe, though, and in Newtok, Martha Simon says that the issues caused by alcohol are getting worse.

“Lately there’ve been a lot of drunks,” Simon said.

Newtok’s relocation efforts are well underway, with one-third of the village now settled in at Mertarvik. Managing both communities is proving to be a struggle for the Newtok Village Council as they work to build more housing in Mertarvik. Newtok, Alaska on July 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Simon says that’s because recently, the number of bootleggers and homebrewers in Newtok has been growing unchecked. After hearing how the situation is being dealt with in Mertarvik, she says that it’s unfair.

“That isn’t allowed over there. So it shouldn’t be allowed here,” Simon said.

The village council says that the disparity is due to a difference in the council’s power to enforce alcohol rules in the two villages. In Mertarvik, the Newtok Village Council owns most of the homes, which they rent out. Residents must sign a contract agreeing not to use alcohol or drugs. When someone breaks that agreement, the village council can evict the tenant, essentially banishing them from Mertarvik. Council President Carl says that he has no such authority in Newtok.

RELATED: RELATED: After moving to new village, Mertarvik residents say they are living healthier, more traditional lives

“Across there, the houses belong to the individual, and the rules in your house, that’s their rules. I can’t do anything,” Carl said. “But here in Mertarvik, there’s a big difference. If you use alcohol, drugs, you’re in trouble if you don’t follow those housing codes.”

Alcohol enforcement is just one of many differences in the quality of life between the two villages. In Mertarvik, people have new, bigger homes. They say they’re healthier, with cleaner air, and toilets instead of honey buckets. All that has Simon feeling left behind in Newtok.

“I do get jealous,” Simon said. “Maybe because how things are going on here.”

Tribal Administrator Andrew John says that there are numerous efforts to improve life in Newtok. For example, the village has cleared hundreds of trash bags that sat on Newtok’s docks for over a year. John says that they’re also rebuilding rotted sections of boardwalk using wood from homes that have been torn down because they were too close to the eroding riverbank.

KYUK, Newtok Village Council President George Carl on July 13, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

“We are recycling and repurposing as much as we can to help the living conditions of our people,” John said.

But council members like Catherine Charles say that the real solution to the disparity between the two villages isn’t putting band-aids on Newtok, it’s bringing everyone over to Mertarvik.

“We’re not leaving them there. We’re trying to build houses here first so they could all move here,” Charles said. “And that’s our main priority right now. More houses.”

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One village council is managing two separate villages. Tribal Administrator Andrew John says it can be especially difficult when both Mertarvik and Newtok each demand a considerable amount of attention.

“Yeah, it’s, it’s a delicate balance, you know,” John said. “No one said it was gonna be easy, by any means.”

After all, he says, Newtok is the first community in the world to relocate itself like this.

The Newtok Village Council invited KYUK to see how its relocation efforts are going. Before traveling, KYUK reporters consulted with medical professionals and received negative COVID-19 test results. While in the village, reporters wore masks when invited into peoples’ homes.