Climate warrior Obama invades tiny town in Arctic

The young attendees of Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat, the only Iñupiaq immersion school in the United States, would have the chance to perform for the president in their native language.

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But the 20 preschoolers, along with their bright-blue circle time rug, sleep cots, toys and teachers, would have to vacate their tiny schoolhouse because it was going to be turned into a mobile Oval Office.

Saito, the school’s education director, described the task as an honor. “You know, the new students are only 3, 3 1/2. It’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

By Tuesday morning the children — who ultimately served as one of Obama’s warm-up acts — were still practicing the Pledge of Allegiance and “My Country Tis of Thee” in Iñupiaq, a language that recently has begun to experience a resurgence here.

“Kamanautaanun ilaalisan United Statesyum suli nunaaqqipayaat makittaviatnun,” the 3- and 4-year-olds dutifully recited, their hands over their hearts and eyes glued on the picture of a flag tacked to the wall.

But Obama’s visit is only the latest evidence of how Kotzebue and its surrounding communities have become symbolic of the massive environmental changes now underway, and the political effort to respond to it.

This Arctic community of 3,200 — with no roads in or out of it — is now a required stop on the anti-climate change movement, a living example of the threat global warming poses to the wildlife and the landscape and to the people who have subsisted here for millennia. The community has already welcomed two Cabinet secretaries in the past six months, and this week the nation’s biggest climate change crusader of all — Obama — showed up: They come to sound alarms, issue cautions, warn of disaster.

Northwest Arctic Borough’s mayor, Reggie Joule, says the recent attention is “a double-edged sword.” The warming in the Chukchi Sea could translate into new economic opportunities: Shell has already booked two dozen rooms in the town’s one hotel for the summer and has staged 11 vessels in the Kotzebue Sound. But residents are worried about how drilling and increased international ship traffic could harm local wildlife and the way more intense storms and shifting weather patterns has already disrupted the natural rhythms of life here.

“We need to figure out how we can take these situations and do the best with both,” Joule said.

But having the president visit an imperiled and remote community — even one not quite as remote or imperiled as those further out, a few of which are slowly falling into the sea — is not easy. Qikiqtaġruk — the indigenous name for Kotzebue, in which the dotted g makes a throaty sound similar to a French “r” — means “almost an island.” Not only did the armored presidential limo have to be flown in, so did the press vans that followed it. Cars sit out to rust here once they outlive any useful purpose: The town hauled away roughly 60 of them in the two weeks leading up to Obama’s visit.

Forty-eight hours before Obama’s arrival, Cindy Fields and her friend Wanda Baltazar were cutting up the chum salmon they had just pulled from a net in the sound with an ulu, a fan-shaped hatchet. About a dozen Secret Service agents gawked nearby.

“We didn’t know we’d have an audience,” Fields said dryly, as she methodically crunched the fish’s bones and sliced its belly in two.

The Secret Service agents swelled the town’s ranks so visibly that Lance Kramer, an official with the region’s tribal association, poked fun at them during a community potluck Tuesday night. “I see the White House guys running the streets every day,” Kramer said, as he tried to coax them into competing in Eskimo feats of strength with locals. “They call them Secret Service. They’re not really secret. I see you running.”

Across town, the Qikiqtaġruk Northern Lights Dancers were trying to get their act for the president down to exactly 15 minutes. Several men banged their flat Eskimo drums as they sang; a few women performed synchronized moves on an aging linoleum floor. It was the group’s third performance before a high-ranking federal official since November.

“We’ll have to do this one song for them, so they’ll recognize we’re Americans,” announced dance leader Martin Woods, launching into an unconventional rendition of the alphabet song.

“I’d say do dances,” said the troupe’s coordinator, Paula Octuck, only mildly amused. “They know we’re American.”

Kotzebue has come to epitomize the effort to save Alaskans’ traditional way of life in the face of climate change. It is a place where residents still regularly engage in subsistence hunting: Based on a recent survey, the Alaska Fish and Game Department estimates these activities provide each person in town roughly 75 pounds of caribou a year, along with another 13 pounds of moose. Hunting for seals and fishing is even more important: Alex Whiting, an environmental specialist for the tribe, estimates that 70 percent of the subsistence food tribal members eat comes from Kotzebue Sound.

Hunting and gathering serves a practical as well as cultural purpose: The median household income here is $53,163, according to 2010 Census data, but the cost of living is so high a family would have to earn $67,600 to get above the poverty level. With exorbitant local grocery prices — ribeye steak is $18.98 per pound, a large bunch of bananas costs $11 — nearly every freezer in town contains a bucket of seal sitting in its own oil along with frozen berries from the hillside.

But the sea ice on which bearded and ring seals, as well as walruses, depend is retreating farther to the north. It now freezes at least a month later than it did three decades ago, according to University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Hajo Eicken, and it is unstable in June — when it used to be solid. This poses a threat to the animals, who are more vulnerable to predation and have a harder time feeding, and to villagers who can no longer hunt and travel safely across the ice.

Larry Westlake, a local elder who lives in Kiana, 80 miles east of Kotzebue, and serves as Northwest Borough Assembly president, noted that this summer seal hunting not only came early — in late June — it lasted “just a couple of days” because the ice moved out so quickly.

“Every bit of our cultural life and our cultural gathering is in jeopardy,” Westlake said. “It threatens our cultural hunting and fishing so bad it makes the elders wonder, ‘How can we survive this?’ “

More than a year ago Obama told an environmental supporter that he wanted to see a polar bear, the species whose decline symbolizes the threat global warming poses to the planet’s wildlife. Polar bears do not roam out on the sea ice on Kotzebue Sound, but Pacific walruses as well as bearded and ringed seals do. Federal authorities have already listed bearded and ringed seals under the Endangered Species Act, on the grounds that sea ice is disappearing; they will decide by 2017 if Pacific walruses should join the list.

Local officials were determined to make the event a memorable one for Obama, putting their own hunting plans on hold or taking extraordinary measures to ensure they were on hand when the president arrived. Maija Lukin, the town’s mayor, had been taken to Anchorage late last week to get an emergency appendectomy. She told Obama that her appendix “burst from excitement” at the prospect of meeting him. The president responding by insisting she join his car in the motorcade.

It was the sort of trip where nearly everyone got a presidential moment. Wilbur Karmun, one of the dancers, got to perform at the airport as Obama shook hands with veterans and snipers were perched on a platform nearby. John Baker, the 2011 Iditarod champion, got to show off his dogs as Obama donned a musher’s jacket. And the regional school superintendent, Sandy Shroyer-Beaver, got to share not one but two Eskimo kisses with the president just before his speech.

Obama’s financial pledges to remote villages suffering from climate change’s impacts fell far short of what they said was sufficient — “We’re going to need more money than that,” one said — but most seemed happy he just showed up.

Not everyone, however, flocked to see the president. On Tuesday night Baltazar and her husband, Ernie Hyatt, got their 26-foot Hewes Craft ready to take to the launching dock and packed their guns: They were off to hunt moose, extra provisions for winter.