The children of Kivalina

There’s no hotel in Kivalina, and there’s little extra space in people’s homes: it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a two-bedroom house. So all the visitors, including us, stay in the village’s single school. As such, it’s natural that we get lots of contact with the young people in the village. The day we arrived we spoke to the high school class, gave an overview of our research, and talked about what they do outside of school, which turns out to be a topic of great interest to everyone we spoke with: the elders, especially, struggle to keep alive the Iñupiat culture and subsistence way of life. Based on what the kids told us, the prognosis is mixed: they love to play basketball (the Kivalina Qayviks were onetime state champions) and Xbox, but they also love to compete in the Native Youth Olympics, and proudly showed us some of their moves.

The first evening, after a thirteen-year-old girl gave us brief tour of town, several of the children played with us for hours, clearly not wanting to leave the school or perhaps the visitors. It was all we could do to pry them off of us and force them out the door, where they proceeded to play on the steps of the school building until after midnight. They told us there are demons in the school, that the school is haunted, that we should pray before we go to bed. They asked us if we prayed at night, and if we knew how to pray, and when one of us said no a girl showed us how. The stories about demons and haunted buildings are, I think, standard stuff for children – like when my friends and I would tell ghost stories around the campfire to out-scare each other and show how brave we were.

But several of these kids also spoke easily of death, frequently linking it with consumption of alcohol: my aunt and uncle, said one, went to a bar in Kotzebue and got drunk and tried to walk back home, but they froze on the permafrost and died. I’ve never come across children who talk so easily of the death of family members, even in quite poor villages. Perhaps this is an effect of all the media attention from the lawsuit and other conditions – maybe they’ve learned that telling certain kinds of stories results in getting more attention from reporters. Or perhaps parents and pastors tell and re-tell such stories to warn of the dangers of drinking alcohol, which is banned in the village.

Either way, I feel acutely here the power and indifference of nature. Several of us dipped our hands in the Chukchi Sea and found the water unbearably cold: we would survive perhaps two or three minutes if we somehow fell in. As for demons, I never saw any in the school, but the first night I dreamt that I went for an evening walk on a rocky seacoast and didn’t notice the tide coming in until I was surrounded by icy water on one side and a rock face on the other.

Of course, that fate is not one I’d ever experience in the village – the maximum elevation is about ten feet, and the only rocks to be found are in the riprap that protects the island from those chilly waters now that the landfast ice forms too late in the season to protect the village from autumn storms. Which is why we are here, and why the village will not be here much longer.