Located in the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik, Alaska is the Northernmost town in America. And even though it’s one of the least habitable places in the U.S., there are plenty of folks who call this place home.
Located in the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik, Alaska is the Northernmost town in America. And even though it’s one of the least habitable places in the U.S., there are plenty of folks who call this place home. This week, host Anne Helen Petersen speaks with Kawahine Danner, a local Inupiaq artist about life in the Arctic Circle. Danner explains the misconceptions about growing up in a remote arctic village, as well as some of the more unique challenges – like insanely expensive grocery store runs, or a polar bear walking through your neighborhood.
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Find episode transcripts here: https://townsizing.simplecast.com/episodes/the-unique-challenges-of-living-in-the-arctic-circle
Over the course of this series I’ve told a lot of stories about my home on Lummi Island. And some of them are stories about problems, like the ferry going out. Or the fact that there's not a gas station on the island. Or what do you do when the car ferry goes to get serviced for three weeks every year?
Maybe you found those stories a little… unusual. The point is, I’m no stranger living in a place that is relatively remote.
But there’s Washington state remote…and then there’s Arctic Circle remote.
There are very few places in the Arctic Circle that are liveable.
And yet, there are some small towns up there. Like very small towns. Village is a better descriptor. And they have unique challenges.
Like the fact that the only way in and out — unless you’re a very, very skilled driver — is by air. Or the fact that there are actual polar bears walking through your neighborhood.
So just imagine… going to the grocery store.
AMBI WALKING IN SNOW
It’s 9 degrees below zero out. I mean I don’t even have to be there. I can HEAR the cold. The wind. The crunch of the snow under her boots.
GROCERY STORE AMBI
The doors opening, the warmth of the store, the people.
You can hear Samoan and Tagalog in the background.
It’s welcoming. But the prices… not so much.
KAWAHINE AUDIO: Ooh, there's fruit.
That voice. That’s today’s guest KA-VA-HE-NEY Danner.
Uh, they look, they look like they're going a little bad.
She’s shopping at a supermarket in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Utqiagvik is up there. It’s the northernmost town in the United States. And because of that… stuff is pricey…
KAWAHINE AUDIO: That one looks good though. Yeah. So it's $19 and 10 cents for a fruit bowl.
She ended up spending $273 – and that’s just for a few days worth of food!
But that’s just life in the arctic circle.
This is Townsizing, a podcast from HGTV all about small town living. And I’m your host, Anne Helen Petersen.
Kawahine [Ka-wa-he-ney] is Inupiaq,[In-u-pi-ak] which is one of the main tribes in Utqiagvik [Ut-Key-Ah-Vik], Alaska.
Some people might recognize its previous name, Barrow — but in 2016, the village decided to restore its native name. It’s small, with about 4,000 people. Many are from families, like Kawahine’s, that have been there for centuries. And others have come to work in the oil industry.
Like a lot of small towns, you don’t end up in Utqiagvik by accident.
It’s a place with very little greenery, and for people who don’t live there or haven’t grown up there, it might be generalized as a whole lot of nothing. But not to Kawahine.
[00:02:03] Kawahine: my name is Michele Joy Kawahine Kilomana Naataq Ugruaq Danner and I was born and raised here in Utqiagvik, Alaska. I have a really long name.
[00:02:14] Anne: Who says that name should be short or long? I mean, name length is arbitrary.
[00:02:18] Kawahine: Yeah, So everyone calls me Kava. Which is like a short nickname of one of my middle names. My mom she's an Inupiaq which is an Alaska native tribe here in Alaska and that's where we're based. And my dad, he's Hawaiian but he came up here cuz his parents were educators.
[00:02:40] Anne: So in other parts of the United States. It has only recently started to be cold, or like-- dark. So what's it like outside right now?
[00:02:49] Kawahine: It's really cold right now. It's really windy. Um, We are entering into December, which will be super duper cold. We'll hit the negatives pretty soon. For a lot of people up here, it's not that cold. A lot of people, when they travel for vacation, they'll schedule it November-December. Because in other places it's not very hot, which is perfect for everyone coming out of Utqiagvik.
[00:03:15] Anne: I mean, my friend came to visit from Anchorage in August, came to Seattle and it wasn't that hot. It was like maybe in the high seventies, and she's like, this is too hot for me.
[00:03:25] Kawahine: People don't understand too that we are very used to the climate. we've had about 10,000 years to adjust.
[00:03:33] Kawahine: But we are very used to the cold, and we like the cold.
[00:03:37] Anne: What does a town look like?
[00:03:39] Kawahine: it is mostly residential homes. We have a few stores. We have a very nice hospital here, and a few playgrounds. We don't have trees. We don't have very much greenery. There's a lot of family. There's a lot of friends. It's very vast. So when we go hunting or go out on the nuna, which means tundra, it's very, very vast and there's a lot of wildlife. So it's beautiful to us. it might be very different to someone who's just visiting though, and who's used to seeing trees or greenery or things of that nature.
[00:04:18] Anne: There's so many different definitions, and understandings of beautiful, And if you grow up with it, like of course it's beautiful!
[00:04:28] Kawahine: Yeah. And we are Tagiugmiut, which means we're sea coastal people. And so in the summertime, most of the time spent is on the water, whether it's kayaking or seal hunting. We just spend a lot of time in the ocean, even though it's freezing cold. We have a really deep connection to the ocean. And it's beautiful.
[00:04:52] Anne: everyone knows, like Alaska, there's a lot of wildlife, right? Like they just kind of know this.
[00:04:57] Kawahine: Don’t ask me if I ride polar bears [laughs]. Just kidding!
[00:04:59] Anne: Yeah. I'm not gonna ask you about riding them, but what about the existence of polar bears?
[00:05:03] Kawahine: They are very present here on the North Slope. We have signs everywhere for our wonderful newcomers, in town that they need to be on the lookout and other villages, they are more present. They are not afraid to get into the dumpsters. Here in Utqiagvik, we are no exception. They will come down the street mostly on the other side of town. It's like a two minute drive, 10 minute walk. And what is unfortunate about climate change is it changes the relationship we have with polar bears, meaning they are scavenging more.
Kawahine: And so from what I heard from my grandparents is they act very differently than they did back when they were younger. They're not afraid of people cuz they need to eat. So I think that's what, is so unfortunate about climate change, is it pushes not only danger, but stress on us as –
[00:06:39] Kawahine: And I, and I don't like it when people say, if you've had a relationship with animals for thousands of years, why do you eat them? And that's such a silly comment.
[00:06:51] Anne: mm-hmm.
[00:06:53] Kawahine: Because the biggest threat to sea animals is not what we're doing as a Inupiaq people. It's what we're doing as the so-called, you know, western society. Sometimes I do get frustrated with the comments I get and I put out an art piece about the harm that Western Society has done. I embrace those conversations with nothing that we're doing is harming these animals. It's only climate change and it's only what people who don't live here are doing.
[00:07:37] Anne: I can just see how people could fire off an Instagram message. It's like, how dare you.
[00:07:43] Kawahine: and that's where it's like, a lot of that is born from ignorance
Kawahine: and just not knowing.
Kawahine: or sometimes actually it's even born from, I don't know, choosing not to see what's right in front of you. I just let 'em roll right under the bridge. Keep on keeping on.
[00:08:00] Anne: Yes. What was it like when you were growing up? Did you ever yearn to like, go to the big city or did you really like where you were?
[00:08:07] Kawahine: We traveled a lot and I think that's one of the big misconceptions, when I talk about Utqiagvik, is people think we're here and we all stay here all the time [laughs]
Anne: Mm-hmm. Yep
Kawahine: But like most people. I got homesick every time I traveled when I was a kid. Being in such a small place is kind of like the equivalent of being in like a homemade hut. I don't know if you ever made huts when you were younger. Very comfortable. Feels very safe. That's the feeling I describe to people. Even when I travel now, if I'm two days in a big city, Maybe it's in part that there's a lot of stimulation because it's a bigger city. But I always miss being home like right here in my house and in this small town. cuz it feels very safe and it's very comforting
[00:09:24] Anne: It's like a gravity, right? like, it wants to draw you back in and you can feel when you're far from it.
[00:09:29] Kawahine: Yeah, exactly. For example, I'm working on a tattoo of someone who worked here for a few years. And needs to tattoo himself permanently to stay connected to Utqiagvik. It's that homey feeling that I think is so relevant for small places. And so for Utqiagvik, same effect, like you just have a connection to this place, even though it was small, even though there's not that many people.
[00:10:05] Anne: I mean, I already get that sense from people from Alaska. You know, like the only other place where I've felt as much like intense state loyalty is actually Montana.
[00:10:16] Kawahine: Yeah. It's a really unique place to live. it's obviously we're in the Arctic, not a lot of places that are habitable in the Arctic. But I remember when I was growing up, our native corporation would give the opportunity for kids to go out of state, to look at colleges, interact with other students. And I went to Washington, DC, Baltimore. A lot of the kids didn't know Alaska was a state and maybe it's cuz we were in fifth grade. So it would always confuse me, I would call my dad and be like, people are asking me if I'm foreign. And then my dad, I remember him saying, What are they teaching you over there? I was like, no, no, no. It's the kids, not the teachers.
[00:11:22] Anne: Well, and just that assumption that if you live in a rural place that I don't know that you don't go on planes, right? You're like, No, everyone takes the plane a lot, right?
[00:11:30] Kawahine: It's the only way to get in and out.
[00:11:33] Anne: This is what people don't understand, right? Like in summer there are like, you can take some roads, right? But maybe doesn't connect all the way?
[00:11:39] Kawahine: it connects all the way, But you have to be a very talented driver. It is not a road. There are little hills that you have to drive over. So yes, most of my family and friends are Alaska Airlines MVP members because if we wanna go on vacation, that's our only option. There's no other airlines.
[00:11:58] Anne: You moved to Hawaii in high school?
[00:14:40] Kawahine: So in Hawaii they have what's called The Hawaiian homesteads. So when you're a young native Hawaiian, you can participate in getting your land. And my dad was on that list waiting for his land for 35 years. Wow. And then they called and said, After 35 years you can acquire what you were entitled to, which is a piece of land. And so that's how we ended up making the move to Hawaii based on that long wait for what we were owed. So that's why we moved, because we had an opportunity. Were we ever thinking about moving to Hawaii? Probably not, but when they say, you know, your family's been waiting 35 years, you have this land, you must move to claim it. We moved.
[00:15:43] Anne: Yeah.
[~00:13:02] Kawahine: And eventually I adjusted really well. and I think that's cuz we moved to the homestead where we already had family. Like I already had native Hawaiian aunties that kind of helped me adjust. That's a thing too, we don't get a lot of sun. the Arctic obviously. Yeah. So I was so pale, even though we're native and we're tribal people. We're very, very pale, tribal people cuz we don't get any sun. So the first day I got there, they looked at me and thought, you're haole. Which is a term in Hawaii for white. Yeah. And the first thing I said, No I'm not. I'm like, I'm Native. And they're like, No, you're not. And I'm like, Yes I am actually. Cuz my skin was very, very light. No sunlight for 12 years and then I go to a really, really sunny place. But it became easy. My mom, who only knew for her entire life, moved and she was a trooper for as long as she could be, obviously back in Utqiagvik now –
[00:15:53] Anne: Yeah.
[00:15:54] Kawahine: – because she missed home so,
Kawahine: But yeah, she was great and she moved for our family, , she moved for us so that we might be able to secure what we were owed as a family,
[00:16:08] Anne: what year did you move back to Alaska?
[00:16:09] Kawahine: I moved back in 2015. So I had just graduated high school like five days. and I got an internship at the mayor's office, I was really stoked about that. And so my mom called her brother Quincy and said, I know I haven't talked to you in a long time, but I'm sending my daughter there whether you like it or not. I'm pretty sure that's, I don't know what the conversation was, but that's what happened.
[00:16:34] Anne: Mm-hmm.
[00:16:35] Kawahine: And I moved in with my uncle who, his family is very culturally involved. They're a whaling family. We're one of the last tribes that can participate in traditional whaling. And so I moved in with him and his family for the summer. And that's when I decided to stay, cuz I had such a great experience moving back home.
[00:16:58] Anne: Do you participate in whaling… now?
[00:17:23] Kawahine: Whaling is a dangerous activity. The process of learning that starts at a very young age with the weaponry. And of course, you know, in the seventies, eighties, young knowledgeable men were teaching young men. And so that way of learning, it started a long time ago, but, that process of learning comes from the sixties, seventies, eighties. Now you'll find that there's more young ladies that are hunters, whalers. the whaling crew I'm a part of female whaling captain, so it's, Yeah. So we're changing.
Anne: It takes time though.
Kawahine: It takes time. Cuz again, it's a dangerous activity when you go out and, hunt these whales uh [00:18:23] It's very different than in America we have the meat industry where conveniently animals can be raised for butchering. But what we participate in is subsistence, which is, You know, not only allowing the animal to live freely in, in a wild state, but then taking those chances, to acquire that animal. And it's a wild animal. So again, the knowledge it takes starts from when you're very, very, very young. And because I moved to Hawaii when I was 12, I missed a lot. So for. and you'll hear this from other, native people who are reconnecting with culture. there's a lot we just can't do, not cuz we don't want to, but because there's a teaching process that I've missed. like for example, if you miss third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade,
[00:19:20] Anne: Do long division right now.
[00:19:22] Kawahine: yeah, You can't learn seventh grade without going back and learning the basics. Yeah. So my time in whaling is serving tea with the kids, serving coffee and just doing whatever I'm told with the kids, and –
[00:19:36] Anne: Yeah.
[00:19:36] Kawahine: I don’t mind that at all.
[00:19:37] Anne: Yeah. can you explain subsistence hunting? like the posture towards acquiring food, because I think sometimes people hear the word, but they don't really understand what it means.
[00:19:47] Kawahine: I know that there's a lot of conversations about whether or not that's ethical, whether or not hunting seals and whales is ethical. They don't take into consideration why we do it. A part of my life, I grew up in Hawaii where it's a very vegan state. So every time I tried to talk about why we hunt for food, it's shut down. You know, we do it to not only to survive, but to exercise our rights. Sometimes it is, I would rather eat traditionally made seal oil, than ketchup.
[00:21:12] Anne: And it's also like enshrined in treaties too…? Like that right is enshrined, like it's not something that's debatable.
[00:21:18] Kawahine: Yes. So now that we have those rights restored, you'd think people would say, you know, that's a great idea. you should be able to eat what you traditionally eat. So again, for subsistence people, it's only about feeding ourselves and feeding our elders. If we entertain those conversations of that's not ethical, that's not the way we do things here in America, we would not even have the time to get to the feeding part, so we focus a lot on the safety, the tradition, the hunting, and we just execute it because that’s
[00:22:18] Anne: Yeah.
[00:22:19] Kawahine: who we are and that's what we do.
[00:22:20] Anne: Just because of the distance, cuz things have to be flown in. Like what are some things that are harder for you to get?
[00:22:24] Kawahine: Holy cow.
Anne: That people might not… Yeah.
Kawahine: Everything. So in Utqiagvik there are eight villages on the north slope.
[00:22:32] Anne: Mmhm.
[00:22:32] Kawahine: Utqiagvik is the largest. There are some villages that only have one store. And for Utqiagvik we're lucky enough to have post office, they have the manpower to process bigger boxes. So some things on Amazon we can get. A lot of the times though, the companies they catch on and they see that they're paying 60 bucks for this $12 item and then they cancel it. so we do not have a Walmart, a Michael's, fast food chain restaurants. We have four stores now. And everything is very expensive because we're so isolated.
[00:23:13] Anne: Yep.
[00:23:14] Kawahine: So everything’s flown in. So a grocery trip for the day, easily spending 300 to 500 bucks maybe not even a week's worth of food.
Anne: So, you are an artist, can you tell me about your business? Like how would you describe your art?
[00:25:29] Kawahine: I would describe my art as being very honest and kind of like if my diary was made up of pictures because I have these phases of being kind of angry with the state and the treatment of native people. And I use that to reflect in my art. And then other times I'm very gracious. I'm feeling very happy of where we're at, not only politically, but economically what I see. So it, my art becomes very hopeful. So I have a lot of really loyal followers and that has been the key to my business. Cause I'm definitely an artist who moves with whatever climate we're in and that can be very difficult. When I told my parents I'm gonna be an artist, Every parent when they hear that, they're like it's a difficult industry to get into.
[00:23:29] Kawahine: So from a very young age I was very artsy and very quiet. So I did a lot of art. And then when I moved here, got my first job, I left the nest and realized, wow, I really need money to live. My aunt asked, can I buy that? It was something I drew and I was like, you want to buy this? She's like, yeah, I want to buy it so I can hang it up in my home. So I sold it to her and I thought, oh my gosh, I have so many drawings and paintings and ideas in my tote. I started my business when the pandemic started, I organized my ideas and my thoughts and just started selling my art and it totally took off, , which I was very grateful for. I already had Instagram and I saw other indigenous artists selling their moccasins and their beaded earrings, and I thought, Okay, I can do that. And so I started making earrings and finalizing a lot of pieces that I had already previously painted and started from there. So the more interest I got it really pushed me to make a website because I thought, this is crazy. I have 40 messages from 40 different people, and I'm handwriting my shipping labels. Some indigenous artists, they live a hundred percent on their designs, and they offered advice, They sent me supplies. It was really cool.
[00:26:31] Anne: But you know, social media makes it so much more possible for you to have this business where your art is available to people all over the world.
[00:26:37] Kawahine: You can do a whole business from your phone now.
[00:26:40] Anne: You’re marketing! So. Okay. I think that there's an understanding now that if you're not native, you should not buy native inspired things from like Urban Outfitters that are like clearly ripoffs of actual native artists. Right?
[00:26:54] Kawahine: I know exactly what you're talking about. You'd be surprised about people who are not Native straight up just taking designs and putting 'em for sale.
[00:27:10] Anne: 100%.
[00:27:11] Kawahine: I've definitely had some moments where I was very frustrated with non-native people doing that. And what I accepted, probably like only a year ago, was I can't do anything about it other than push out authentic designs, uplift native artists. you can't stop someone from doing something, they'll do it, but you can change what you do to kind of combat that. And so, all the time, I'm sharing, re-sharing other native artists who, part of their tribe, and uplift their art. That's what we do for each other. Native art is its own community and so the more in agreement we are, the stronger we are.
[00:28:16] Anne: Well, and then having so many artists too cuz I think sometimes people are like, they think that, all native artists are creating the same design. Like there's one native design, right? But, there's so many unique ways and having so many more artists just underlines that like, there isn't one native art, right?
[00:28:34] Kawahine: Yeah, there's hundreds of tribes. I think people also forget that too. And what is really difficult about that is, knowing as an artist where my lines are, if that makes sense. Cuz I've gotten requests from people to do, “Hi, can you please draw up this really sacred whaling flag from your community cuz I help them on one day” and those moments, I take a step back and I say, Absolutely not. I will not do that. (laughs)
[00:29:04] Anne: Right.
[00:29:06] Kawahine: But also take the time to inform them why it's not appropriate.
[00:29:09] Anne: do that
[00:29:10] Kawahine: So, you know, that's why it's important to support native artists, whether it's something for your home or something you wear. It really ties into our existence in our society. Anything. As native people, we have been carving, we have been earring making for thousands of years, art in archeological sites. It's something so embedded in us. We just want to be able to do and feed ourselves –
[00:29:53] Anne: yep.
[00:29:54] Kawahine: …how other people can.
[00:29:55] Anne: What is one of your absolute favorite things about your town?
[00:30:05] Kawahine: One of my favorite things about my town are the youth, In today's climate, there's some assumptions about Gen Z. They're not proud of where they come from. They're not proud of where they live. They're not proud of this or that. What I really admire is that the youth here are really proud to be from Utquiagvik and I think that says a lot about our town. Our people and the way we do things here, because if you have that many kids being proud of where they come from. it just says a lot about how we operate here.
Next week, we'll be speaking with Bobby Finger, who you might know is the cohost of the truly amazing podcast Who Weekly. He's also the author of The Old Place, and he's going to tell us about growing up in a very small town in Texas.
Plus, what’s it like to grow up in a small town now? We’ll talk to Lily, a teen from Pittsboro, North Carolina, whose family has lived in the same tiny town for generations.
Townsizing is produced by Neon Hum Media for HGTV. You can follow our show wherever you get your podcasts. If you like the show, we'd love it if you could take a second to leave us a review on Apple podcasts. It helps other folks find the show. I’m Anne Helen Petersen and if you see me online or in real life, be sure to give me that small town wave.