Arctic Sounder: Movers and shakers in 2018

This year, it was both the people and the land itself that broke records and barriers across the Northwest Arctic and North Slope. Quakes shattered previous standards in the Arctic and shook up residents visiting Anchorage. Women and men alike stepped forward to call for more accountability in the justice system and to reach out a helping hand to those in need.

As 2018 comes to a close, we take a look back at some of the most moving stories in the Sounder over the past 12 months. 

Youth step up 

As 2018 started off under cold January skies, so did a new cohort of Arctic Youth Ambassadors. They're a group of young people from across Alaska who are chosen every few years to represent the state's interests at the national and international levels. 

"Changes in the Arctic did not happen overnight and some of the challenges the region (and the world) face, such as climate change, cannot be solved overnight," wrote Alaska Geographic, one of the guiding organizations, on its page. "Younger generations will play an important role in addressing these challenges. The Arctic Youth Ambassadors is one group of knowledgeable youth from across the state who understand the Arctic and its people and can explain it from a youth perspective for their peers across the U.S. and the world." 

The 2018 group included three ambassadors from north of the Arctic Circle: Utqiagvik's Eben Hopson, Noorvik's Shania Wells and Kotzebue's Margaret "Kayla-Jean" Booth. 

"It's all about where I come from because that's the main thing I want to focus on. I want to serve my people and not just be an ambassador for the title," said Wells. "It's all for them. It's all for my people." 

Another young resident who stood out among his peers in 2018 was Hopson Middle School student Sakkaaluk Panningona. This year saw him finish an arduous yearlong sewing project. 

"This is the first time a student has completed a pair of hard-soled maklak-kamipiak that I am aware of, as I've been teaching 13-14 years," said his teacher, Beverly Hugo. 

He designed the maklaks himself and made them, start to finish, with the help of his family and teachers. The school district featured his work on their Facebook page, along with a picture of him, holding the boots and smiling. 

He hopes to continue with similar projects that are based on other traditional Inupiaq skills, which he said he's proud to learn. 

"I really hope that this gets to some of the youth to encourage them and let them know that they could do something challenging and to let them know that there's other stuff to do than getting in trouble or doing drugs," Panningona said. 

In April, a Kotzebue High School senior also had her work featured prominently. Susie Hunnicutt, who was 17 at the time, had her creative and colorful Easter egg design showcased in the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll. 

"I didn't really expect to win it, but after I found out that I won it, I was a little in shock," she said. 

Finally, students from both Huslia and Shungnak came together for a historic meeting at Selawik Hot Springs. 

Inupiat and Athabascans have been meeting at the springs to trade and share news and stories for many generations. In 1975, the Upper Kobuk Elders' Council and the City Council of Huslia worked together to build a set of cabins at the hot springs for both groups to use. 

After 42 years, youth from both communities did just that.

Going for miles 

Mushing news was all aflutter with tales of daring adventures and met milestones in 2018. 

Kaktovik rookie Vebjorn Aishanna Reitan, who was 21 at the time, spent the early weeks training for his first Yukon Quest. 

Out on the trail, he braved chilling temperatures and tough racing conditions that took half the teams out before the end. 

"Being so cold like it was, we had really clear nights. It was really good northern lights. In the days it was still clear and we got to see a lot of country," he said. "It was just really beautiful. You just had to remember to lift your gaze a little bit and look past the dog team and see a little bit of the country there." 

Over passes and through valleys, up and down icy trails, Reitan led his team to the finish line, where he picked up the Rookie of the Year award. 

Another young Inupiaq musher, Bailey Schaeffer, also scored accolades, though not in the same race. 

Schaeffer, whose family hails from Kotzebue, won the Junior Iditarod this year and was all smiles at the finish line. 

"My favorite thing about racing is probably getting to run dogs with other people, because I don't really get to run dogs with other people here, especially people my age. So, you make a lot of cool friends there and you get to see them every year," she said. 

Girdwood musher Nic Petit won his second Kobuk 440 in April. He first took the title as a rookie in 2016.This year, he flew in a full three hours ahead of his nearest competitor, Tony Browning. 

Petit was so ahead of the game this year, he won every race he entered across the state, except for the Iditarod (where he came in second). He finished the 440 with 39 hours, 38 minutes on the clock, beating his last time by just over two hours. 

Off the competitive trails, Quest musher Reitan and his father, Kaktovik musher (and Iditarod competitor) Ketil Reitan, marked a long-distance mushing milestone in 2018. This year, they ticked the final village off their list and reached their goal of visiting every single community on the North Slope by dog team. 

"I would text my mom whenever we got to a village and say, 'Tell me who I'm related to there,'" said Vebjorn. "It was a big traveling family reunion." 

Next year, they have their sights potentially set on Canada for another series of long trips. 

"It seems like with all these old trading routes, it all makes sense where all the villages are. We pass these places where you know there were camps and people use to live there," Vebjorn said. "You see that dog mushing has been a way of traveling and you can really notice it on where people set up camps. Usually, there would be about 50 miles between where people use to live. That's a long trip for a dog team back then. For us, it's a bit easier, but mostly you could go from camp to camp in the old days here." 

On the road again 

Over the frozen months at the start of the year, some North Slope residents took an experimental trip along newly-constructed winter snow roads. 

"It was definitely an adventure not to be taken lightly, but if you travel with the borough you get with the safe traveler program and you will be taken home," said James Roy Ahmaogak. 

Roughly 300 miles of hard-packed snow roads were constructed as part of the Community Winter Access Trails project, led by the North Slope Borough. The idea was to find a way to connect Utqiagvik, Atqasuk, Wainwright, Nuiqsut and Anaktuvuk Pass with the haul road by way of Prudhoe Bay. 

It was also a way to test the viability of the proposed Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources (ASTAR) project, which is tied to both future transportation and development prospects in the area. 

To the south, another road caused quite a stir in 2018. The proposed Ambler Access project would bring more than 200 miles of road to the Northwest Arctic, connecting the Dalton Highway with the Ambler Mining District in the foothills of the Brooks Range.

The road has received copious support from developers and industry representatives, along with tentative support from area Native corporations. 

However, several municipalities along the proposed track spoke out against the road this year, citing concerns about caribou migration and hunting areas.

"The Native Village of Kotzebue Council believes that the relatively short-term economic and other benefits of industrial development in the upper Kobuk region is outweighed by the widespread long-term negative impacts to the fish and wildlife that will result from this development," the council noted in a resolution opposing the road this year. 

Other communities, including Allakaket, Ambler, Bettles, Evansville, Huslia, Kobuk, Koyukuk, Louden, Rampart and Ruby, have also passed resolutions or written formal letters against the project, which is still up in the air.

One project that finally saw its funding materialize this year was the Kivalina school and road project. The Northwest Arctic Borough approved a local funding match for the road, putting the final wheels in motion for the long-awaited project.

Both the road and school projects were, in a way, prerequisites for one another, so funding has been tricky to secure on both ends. 

"I'm excited. Kivalina has been waiting for this for a long, long, long time. Ever since this borough was formed and (it became a) mayor's priority, we were struggling to get to this point in time," said former Borough Mayor Clement Richards Sr. "I'm very excited for Kivalina. I'm very happy." 

The Alaska State Legislature appropriated $50.5 million for the school during the 2016-2017 legislative session. One of the caveats of the appropriation was a 20 percent local match, which is now in place. 

Politics in motion 

The year started off with uncertainty for House District 40 as the legislative session began without the district having any representation in Juneau.

A legislative report released early in the year validated earlier harassment complaints against former HD 40 Rep. Dean Westlake, a Democrat from Kiana.

The report found evidence of "pervasive" inappropriate conduct by Westlake, which authors said contributed to a "hostile work environment" for those around him. The investigation, and Westlake's eventual stepping down, stemmed from four complaints of harassment lodged by three legislative aides.

The first week of February saw Kotzebue Democrat John Lincoln take the reins in Juneau. Lincoln was appointed by then-Gov. Bill Walker to fill out the rest of Westlake's unfinished term.

Initially, the Democratic party had nominated Sandy Shroyer-Beaver, Leanna Mack and Eugene Smith for the role before the new session began. Walker passed over each of the nominees, which left the district without representation for the session's start.

Utqiagvik's Abel Hopson-Suvlu and Lincoln then stepped forward for consideration. About 24 hours after their names were made public, the governor announced his choice. 

"I know that serving in this role is an important responsibility and I'm extremely grateful for all the support I've received already," said Lincoln. 

Lincoln found himself the winner once again after elections returned him to the seat this fall. Utqiagvik's Leanna Mack and Kotzebue's Patrick Savok also vied for the seat, but Lincoln scored a landslide victory. 

In the Northwest Arctic, the mayoral seat went to a runoff between candidates Lucy Nelson and Nasruk Carl Weisner. Nelson took the seat in a close, but amiable, race. 

On the North Slope, the borough saw quite a bit of turnover this year. In a single day, Borough Mayor Harry Brower fired both Police Chief Travis Welch and Borough Attorney Laura Russell. 

"The North Slope Borough Mayor decided to go with different leadership," said Alaska Police Standards Council Executive Director Bob Griffiths. 

Russell had reportedly filed workplace discrimination and harassment complaints the day before she was terminated. Just hours after she sent an email regarding the complaints to the mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Deano Olemaun, her account access was shut off. Russell described the issues as including both sexual harassment and gender discrimination. 

Reaching for the stars

Several individual residents met their personal goals in 2018 or reached important milestones in their own lives. 

On the Slope, Fire Chief Joseph Dingman retired after more than three decades in fire service. His retirement was marked by a walk down the road in full uniform, with a cloud of confetti overhead and smiling, clapping crowds honoring him as he went. 

University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Chelsey Qaggun Zibell, originally from Noorvik, launched her website with resources for teaching and learning the Inupiaq language. 

"I think there's so much culture embedded in language that if you want to continue the culture, continuing the language is also very important," she said. 

Kotzebue's Myles Creed saw Facebook's Inupiatun Interface go live. It was a project he spearheaded with others from the region last year. 

Longtime Barrow Whalers head coach Jeremy Arnhart stepped down after more than a decade on the job. Before he went, he saw his team to a state title and a lot of personal success for the players. 

"You don't talk about wins and losses and stuff like that, but there are a lot of life lessons that are valuable in sports that they can take on once their playing times are over. They can continue those patterns," Arnhart said. "The thing I like is, for me, accountability, working hard, working as a team. You put a lot of hard work and dedication into being good on the court and you know, that's going to carry on throughout life. So, I hope that those lessons that we teach them here in sports, they can carry on."

Utqiagvik resident Brittni Driver summited Africa's tallest peak and won a cake-making competition in the same week. 

"I get up at the top and I was just so awed by the beauty. The moon was rising and the sun was rising shortly after. It was a tiny little crescent moon, which meant the night sky was really bright. The stars were so bright. It was clear," she said. "So, headlamps on, hiking in the dark, just me and my guide. We saw a group up ahead and we saw a group behind us, just their headlamps, which we kept confusing for stars." 

She reached Kilimanjaro's 19,340-foot summit at 5:45 a.m., after making a final 3-mile push with 4,000 feet of altitude gain. After coming back down, she made an award-winning avocado and chocolate tart to celebrate the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which she and others enjoyed in Lilongwe, Malawi, while they watched the wedding on a big screen. It was two victories for the price (and miles) of one. 

Across the globe and back in the U.S., Tara Sweeney was confirmed by the Senate to the post of Secretary for Indian Affairs. She came to the Interior Department from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. 

Above the Arctic Circle, Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough was sworn in as the Alaska head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council during the group's general assembly in Utqiagvik.

She called for a focus on self-determination and self-sufficiency, saying the right to self-determination is a prerequisite for human rights. 

"We need every Inuk. Period. We heard everyone say this already," Dorough said as she accepted the chairmanship. "There are 7.6 billion people on earth. There are approximately 165,000 Inuit on the entire planet. So, we need every single one of us — every woman, every man, every young person, every child, every mother, every father, every Elder. We need every Inuk. We need every one of you here today, But even more important — and we've already heard this — we need all of those Inuk at home. We need every future leader. We need every past leader."

Alaska will chair the council for the next four years. 

And in Anaktuvuk Pass, residents had a local win when Stanley Riley brought home the gold from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. 

After hitting hard times, gaining weight and getting into hard drugs, Riley knew he had to change his life around. He wanted to become a positive role model for his community, so he decided to get in shape and get back on the right track. 

"I didn't have a lot of male role models growing up, like father figures. I just wanted to be different. I wanted the kids to understand that there is a giant, super-strong Inupiaq guy that's got their back all the time. I wanted them to know that even though you have a hard upbringing and you come from nothing and nowhere — sometimes it feels like that — that you can do anything," he said. 

The first time he climbed Sissugvik near the village, a group of younger residents clapped when he made it to the top. This year, a long way from where he used to be, Riley placed in head pull, four-man carry and maktak eating at WEIO. He now hopes to break a world record at WEIO and compete in the Arctic Winter Games.

To cap off the year, Governor-elect Mike Dunleavy was sworn into office in Kotzebue, after weather prevented him from reaching his wife, Rose's, hometown of Noorvik. He was the first governor to be sworn in north of the Arctic Circle.

On unstable ground

Early in the year, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake shook southcentral Alaska. The Arctic was spared, though some residents said they felt a tremor. 

"It sounded like a loud gunshot. Not long after, I thought it was the ground cracking," said Atqasuk resident Della Shugluk. "I didn't think much after (until) I woke up hearing an earthquake (happened further south)." 

Across the water in Hawaii, former Kotzebue resident Janet Williams-Downing and her son, Triton, 6, watched mighty Kilauea volcano erupt. The eruption led to fissures opening in nearby neighborhoods. 

"I knew that I would have to deal with the volcanoes and the earthquakes (when I moved here)," she said. "I just didn't think it would be so close to my house." 

In August, a pair of record-breaking earthquakes hit the North Slope. The first quake, and its aftershocks, were felt from Kaktovik to Prudhoe and south. 

"I was just about to wake up. Then, I started to really feel my bed move," said Kaktovik resident Amanda Kaleak. "It was really quiet in my house and you could hear the rumble and the pilings creaking." 

The first earthquake was the largest ever recorded north of the Brooks Range. Registering at magnitude 6.4, its epicenter was about 52 miles southwest of Kaktovik. It hit just before 7 a.m. 

"I was working in between customers and sitting on an office chair that had wheels. I started to move a little. As I looked around, I saw a rack that holds Gatorade and water moving. When I looked up to the clothes hanging, they were moving, as well," said Alisha Savok, who was already at work at a commissary in Prudhoe Bay when it struck. 

Before then, the most significant Slope quake was a magnitude 5.2 that happened in 1995, according to state seismologists. 

"Just looking at the location and the magnitude, we knew that it was a significant earthquake because we'd never seen a magnitude 6 earthquake north of the Brooks Range in the North Slope region," said Alaska Earthquake Center seismologist Natalia Ruppert. "It was Sunday morning, but we still had a few people who came into the lab just to gather more information about tectonic of the region, faults, to answer phone calls, to put some messages on Twitter and Facebook. So, we were in response mode right away." 

The region was rocked by serious aftershocks, including one that hit just hours after the first. It was a magnitude 6, centered about 20 miles east of the first. It's size made it the second largest the region had ever seen and it happened on the same day. 

Then, at 8:29 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 30, Alaska's most significant quake since the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 shook Anchorage and the surrounding area. It lasted for about a minute and was a magnitude 7. 

"The fridge door kept swinging open and food fell out and the cupboards opened with dishes, pots and pans falling out and pictures falling from the walls. It was like a nightmare and I held my father until it finally stopped," said Tillie Ticket of Selawik, who was in the area when it struck. 

Other residents found themselves in the path of the quake, as well. 

"It started off like any other day," said Meghan Sigvanna Topkok, of Nome. "At the end of the day, I'm grateful everyone seems to be OK." 

It was a day that won't be soon forgotten by those who felt it firsthand. 

A time of change

Finally, the community of Kotzebue found itself pulling together in the wake of tragedy in September. After 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr went missing in the hub community on Sept. 6, residents rallied to find her. 

"Businesses closed to allow employees to help, people took leave to help, food poured in," said local resident Maija Katak Lukin. "Searchers swept the town on foot, from end to end, walking through willows, knocking on doors, looking under buildings. New community members, old community members, every denomination, race and political party came together to help search for our little girl." 

During the massive search, which involved countless local residents, regional, state and federal agencies, Alaska as a whole pulled together in Johnson-Barr's name. People held candlelight vigils and walks from Chevak to Sitka. 

On social media, pictures popped up of groups wearing purple — Ashley's favorite color — alongside posts bearing the hashtag #bringashleyhome.

"We just wanted to show the family that we were thinking about them, supporting them, even though we didn't personally know Ashley," said Kristen Mashiana, of Unalakleet. 

The exhaustive search heeded results days later, when her body was found just outside town. 

Fellow local resident Peter Wilson was charged with nine counts for her murder, including kidnapping and sexual assault. 

After she was found, the outpouring of support grew from people around the state and country. When a call for help went out, purple roses came in from Florida, leis arrived from Hawaii, bouquets poured in from florists across the state, flowers showed up from Minnesota and Colorado. People sewed purple atikluks for Johnson-Barr's family, made food, and came together to prepare her gravesite. 

When her casket returned to Kotzebue, airport employees lined the walkway to pay tribute to her as she passed, shaking hands with her father, Scotty Barr, who had traveled south to bring his daughter home. 

Hundreds attended her funeral in Kotzebue, including state representatives, many of whom wore purple in her honor. 

"Please help us remember her smile," her obituary read. "When you wear purple, remember her smile. When you pass Rainbow park, remember her smile. When you watch kids play basketball, remember her smile. When you're out berry picking, remember her smile. We will never forget you Ashley." 

The little girl with a big smile, as many remember her now, inspired countless around the state. In response to her death, many have called for more attention to the epidemic of violence against Native women and girls. 

"The Native women of Alaska have been calling out to you. We've been asking for reformation in our laws, in our policies, in our system of justice," wrote Vera Starbard, following a different assault case in the state. 

A sobering report showed Alaska ranks fourth in the nation for missing and murdered indigenous women. 

"The law has a history of treating women as an expendable resource," said Sarah Ayaqi Whalen-Lunn. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski picked up the call for accountability and co-sponsored a bill addressing the issue at the national level. Called Savanna's Act, it passed the Senate but was stalled in the House. Murkowski has said she plans to re-introduce it in the next session.

"Violence against Native American and Alaska Native women is a dire issue, with murder being the third-leading cause of death of indigenous women, and the Savanna's Act is an essential first step in addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls," Murkowski wrote after it passed the U.S. Senate. "We have a duty of moral trust toward our nation's first people and must be part of the solution."

This year has seen many speak out about important issues such as these, including former Kotzebue resident Tia Wakole, who published a memoir documenting years of sexual abuse.

"We need to give our youth back their voices by finding our own and leading by example," she said. "We need to show them it's OK to speak open and honestly. It is our responsibility as mothers and fathers, aanas and taatas, aunts and uncles, to stand up and protect our children from harm."

The story about Wakole's book was one of the most-read on the Sounder's Facebook page this year, along with those about Johnson-Barr and missing women, showing the region's investment in the issue.

Looking ahead to 2019

This past year was a time of change and upheaval in the Arctic. Some of the change came at great cost, but all of it showed the strength of spirit and perseverance that is so common north of the Arctic Circle. 

2018 was a year in which everyone came together for common causes, despite uncertainty. It was a year individuals stood out for strength of character. People and the ground they walk upon were at the heart of news this year.

As we look ahead to 2019, we say thank you, taikuu, quyanaqpak for sharing your stories with us this year and we look forward to doing the same in the years to come.

By:  Shady Grove Oliver
Source: Arctic Sounder