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Kivalina: An Arctic Alaskan village straddling 2 worlds

Loren Holmes
4th grader Joslyn Swan wishes her teacher Sara Schneider, a first-year teacher originally from Vancouver, Washington, a happy birthday on the eve of Schneider's birthday. Dec 13, 2012
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50 mph winds scour the village of Kivalina, bringing a windchill of -40. Dec 12, 2012
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The pledge of alliance, translated into Iñupiaq, on the wall of the special education classroom in Kivalina's McQueen School. Dec 12, 2012
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From left, McQueen School 9th graders Kevin Hawley and Samuel Hawley walk home after classes. Dec 12, 2012
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A Bering Air flight buzzes the village of Kivalina before landing on the dirt runway. In the summer barges bring bulk fuel and construction equipment, but in the winter airplanes are the only means of transportation. Most supplies, including food, mail, and medicine, arrive by plane. Dec 11, 2012
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Kivalina's new stone seawall, installed in 2011, has helped protect the village from storms, keeping erosion at bay for now. The village, located on a barrier island off of Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast, has lost over half of its land during the lifetime of many of the village's elder residents. Dec 12, 2012
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The Iñupiat Eskimo village of Kivalina sits on a narrow barrier island off Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast. A new stone seawall has helped curb erosion from winter storms, but it is only a stopgap, at some point in the near future the village will have to move. Dec 11, 2012
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A map in the Kivalina City Hall shows possible relocation sites, outlined in black. While plans to move the village have been talked about for almost 30 years, the cost is prohibitive, and no progress has been made. Current U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates are almost $400 million to move the community. Dec 13, 2012
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Oran Knox fishing for cod on the sea ice near Kivalina. Dec 10, 2012
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Bowhead whale bones greet visitors to the town of Kivalina, Alaska. Located 85 miles above the Arctic Circle, when the sun sets on December 4 it won't rise again until January 7. Dec 10, 2012
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Freshly killed caribou litter the yard of Jerry and Becky Norton's home in Kivalina. Subsistence is an important part of the culture and the diet in this mostly Iñupiat Eskimo village. Dec 12, 2012
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Trash piles up outside Jeremiah Kayoulik's home in Kivalina. Kayoulik, 20 years old and unemployed, lives with his brother Warren Hawley, a 10th grader at McQueen School, and nephew Roshaun Tuzroyluke, 2nd grader at the school. Also living in the house are Kayoulik's sister and two more of her young children. Dec 12, 2012
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Russell Adams watches his infant daughters Priscilla Adams, 2 years old, and Darlene Adams, 1 year old, in his home in Kivalina. With him is Gilbert Hensley. All together, 7 people live in the tiny, 300 square foot house, including two school-aged girls. There is no running water, no space for a desk. Only a television for entertainment. Dec 10, 2012
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McQueen School kindergartners, from left, Damian Frankson and Randy Swan, walk home after classes. Dec 11, 2012
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Julia Koonook, left, and Janelle Adams play on a computer in Janelle's house. Her mother Myra Adams manages the large village store, and her mother and father, Burt Adams, have a smaller store inside their home. Dec 10, 2012
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Christina Swan leads 5th and 6th graders in a practice of their Christmas program songs, at the Episcopal Church in Kivalina. Dec 13, 2012
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Sick with the flu, Warren Hawley, a 10th grader at Kivalina's McQueen School, doubles over in a coughing fit in his kitchen. Sleeping on a mattress are his nephews Roshaun Tuzroyluke, age 7, and McKye Swan, age 4. Dec 11, 2012
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Katrina Stalker, far right, and other McQueen School 1st graders rehearse songs for their Christmas celebration at the Kivalina Friends Church. Dec 11, 2012
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Warren Hawley, a 10th grader at McQueen School, helps his nephew Roshaun Tuzroyluke, age 7, get ready for the walk to school. Still asleep on a mattress is 4 year old McKye Swan, and sitting at the kitchen table is Hawley's brother Jeremiah Kayoulik. Dec 11, 2012
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A young student walks to school in the dark in Kivalina. Located 135 km above the Arctic Circle, when the sun sets in Kivalina on December 4 it won't rise again until January 7. Dec 12, 2012
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Children leave Kivalina's McQueen School after classes. Dec 11, 2012
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Kimberly Swan makes sure her nephew Carlos Sage, age 5, eats his breakfast at Kivalina's McQueen School. She walks with him to school most mornings. Dec 11, 2012
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High School freshman Lazarus Adams, wearing a polar bear fur ruff, walks home with a group of middle-school girls after classes at Kivalina's McQueen School. Dec 11, 2012
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High School freshman Lanette Adams, far right, leads the students and faculty in the pledge of allegiance before the start of classes at Kivalina's McQueen School. Dec 13, 2012
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4th grader Larry Swan leg wrestles with 6th grader Shannon Knox in Kivalina's McQueen School gym. Leg wrestling is a traditional Iñupiat Eskimo game, one of many that the students practice regularly. Dec 13, 2012
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Basketball trophies in Kivalina's McQueen School. Basketball is far and away the most popular sport in most rural Alaskan communities. The McQueen Quavviks girls basketball team were state champions in 1992-1993. Dec 13, 2012
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Karen Adams, 11th grader, top, does geometry homework with 9th grader Louise Wesley in the McQueen School hallway. Dec 12, 2012
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First-year teacher Sara Schneider, originally from Vancouver, Washington, tutors 4th grader Lillian Hawley, far left, in math during an after-school study session at Kivalina's McQueen School. With them are 6th grader Shannon Knox and 5th grader Solomon Sage. Dec 13, 2012
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From left, 9th graders George Hawley and Samuel Hawley relax in the Kivalina's McQueen School hallway after classes. Dec 12, 2012
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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, some 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)alaskadispatch.com