Edward Itta remembered for balancing two worlds

Former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. (Photo courtesy of the Itta family)
Former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. (Photo courtesy of the Itta family)

Former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta died Sunday in Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow. Family members said the cause was cancer. He was 71.

Itta was a powerful voice for North Slope communities. He was perhaps best known for first opposing, and then negotiating with Shell when the oil company wanted to drill in the Arctic Ocean. Above all, he insisted Inupiaq communities have a say in development in the region.

“After all the battles over the wilderness and the oil are done, we are the ones that have to live with the consequences,” he told an Arctic symposium in Seattle in January 2015. “We are the most directly impacted people. Decision makers, policy makers at all levels, need to understand that.”

As mayor, Itta became known for balancing the need for oil development and protecting subsistence.

He grew up as one of 11 children. In a phone interview Monday, his sister, Brenda Itta-Lee, recalled an older way of life, with little in the way of a cash economy, dependent on subsistence.

“Whaling, especially, was very important to Edward,” she said.

 in 2009 testifying before Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. (Photo courtesy of Department of Interior)
in 2009 testifying before Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. (Photo courtesy of Department of Interior)

Itta-Lee said she and her siblings grew up with a foot in two worlds — traditional and modern, Inupiaq and English. Her brother became a whaling captain who negotiated with oil companies.

“He could speak just as powerfully in two languages,” Itta-Lee said. “We (had) a Western American schooling, where we were taught an American way of life. And Edward also mastered how to survive successfully in that setting. So he was very much admired for being bilingual and also bi-cultural.”

It was a crucial skill set when he became mayor of the North Slope Borough in 2005. Interest in the Arctic was on the rise, especially from oil companies. Shell developed big plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

But the company hadn’t consulted local communities, who worried about the impact on marine mammals, and especially on the whale migration.

Itta wasn’t having it. He insisted the Inupiat have a seat at the table, eventually suing the federal government to demand a more thorough environmental review.

Journalist Bob Reiss wrote about Itta’s long fight and eventual negotiation with Shell in his 2012 book, The Eskimo and The Oil Man.

“It was too much, it was too fast, it was too soon, Edward said,” Reiss said Monday. “Here was this mayor that Shell had not even taken into account, who came up with the strategy of challenging them in court, and who brought the second largest oil company on Earth to its knees, in court. Just stopped them dead.”

Reiss says Itta agonized over his choices. North Slope communities depend on oil revenue to sustain their quality of life and public services, and on-shore oil production was in decline. Yet the ocean is central to both life and identity, and offshore drilling could threaten that.

“He said to me once, and this sort of epitomized everything: he said, ‘Well, what if it’s me?'” Reiss said. “And he meant more than, ‘What if it’s me?’: ‘What if it’s me, what if it’s my family?’ he said. ‘What if it’s me who stops the oil?’ Meaning, stops the money, stops the taxes, stops the building. ‘What if it’s me?’ But then a second later, he said, ‘Well, what if it’s me who allows the oil, and then something goes wrong, and then we lose the whales?'”

Reiss recalls sitting in on a meeting between Itta and Shell that encapsulated that struggle. Itta had come back from whaling camp to meet with oil industry executives.

“The whales only come twice a year,” Reiss said. “Edward was a whaling captain. He was responsible for the lives of his men. These are relatives, these are his best friends. Certainly the last thing that a whaling captain wants to do is leave the camp and go back to town. Which he did that day because — and this is the way the book starts, actually — Edward is on a snowmobile back to town, and a private jet is on the way up from Houston, with the top people at Shell. ”

The Shell executives wanted Itta to reassure people on the North Slope that drilling would be safe, Reiss said. Itta refused, saying Shell hadn’t done its homework, and hadn’t talked to the community.

“Well, I will say, Edward took their head off [that day],” Reiss said, laughing. “He really did! And it was great to watch as a journalist.”

The borough’s lawsuit helped force a more thorough environmental review, and over years of negotiations, Itta convinced Shell to build in measures to protect marine mammals, including a planned pause in work during the whale migration.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack worked for Itta during those years, as the government affairs director for the North Slope Borough.

Asked how he liked working for Itta, Mack said, “Loved it. Loved every minute of it.”

“He’s a tremendously powerful example of a person who was really true to his principles, but practical,” Mack said. “He was also very committed to the people that he worked for.”

Above all, Reiss said, Itta had heart.

“Whether he was talking with an Inupiaq person, whether he was talking to a Yup’ik, whether he was talking with a Norwegian, or a senator, or an admiral, or an oil person, Edward could really feel your heart, and respond to it, as one human does to another. And I think that’s why he is as beloved as he is,” Reiss said. “Yeah, he was a leader. Yeah, he had brains. Yeah, he knew how to get through Washington. But when you were in a room with Edward, you were two people talking, and you were talking from the heart.”

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Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets. rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel