It’s been a festive day in the northwest Arctic community of Kivalina today as residents celebrate the grand opening of a new store. It’s an end to eight months of struggle with limited supplies after Kivalina’s store burned to the ground December 5th.
Janet Mitchell is Kivalina’s city administrator. She says the village doesn’t have firefighting equipment so men cut a hole in the ice of the local lagoon and pumped water on the fire, mainly to keep it from spreading to nearby teacher housing. Mitchell says a temporary store was established but it was a very small space.
“They ran out of things very quick and that posed a difficulty for young babies or young families, families that need formula.”
Mitchell says eggs cost more than $8 a dozen and pilot bread was $7 because supplies were so limited. Mitchell says the temporary store was in a storage structure built in the early 1900s and mainly sold staples of eggs, flour and rice. Mitchell says Seattle-based Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, or ANICA, owns the store. The new store is two or three times bigger than the old structure, she says, and today company officials flew in for the grand opening, serving hamburgers and hot dogs to the community.
Kivalina’s population of 468 has a high percentage of young people. Janet Mitchell says close to half are 18 or under and many of the young people don’t care for traditional foods. Subsistence resources are also harder to get in a changing climate. Mitchell says the ice went out in early June and with it went the subsistence mainstay, ugruk, or bearded seal.
“It’s our winter food. That we didn’t have an opportunity to hunt the bearded seal. So it’s going to be a very, very lean year in terms of Native foods.”
Mitchell says her large extended family normally harvests between 15 and 20 large adult seals. This year they got one small seal. She says less than 20 have been harvested by the entire community and they haven’t seen many caribou either. She says even older Kivalina residents who normally rely heavily on subsistence hunting will have to include more western food in their diet.
“The store is going to be very important to have if we don’t have the capability of hunting the foods we normally do, we’re gonna need the foods from the store.”
Although she prefers Native food, Mitchell says she buys supplies at places like Costco when she can get to Anchorage.
“But we have families that number up to 20 in one household so that can be quite a challenge to keep them fed, especially when they don’t hunt.”
Mitchell says her community continues to fight development to protect subsistence food but the store will be increasingly important in the future.