Boreas: MOVE

Moving an Iñupiaq Village: Negotiating Relocation and Socio-environmental Changes in Kivalina, Arctic Alaska

Construction of the new Seawall September 2009 © TERRAS 2009 - Patrick Durrer

Master’s Thesis Project - Affiliated with MOVE Alaska and Chukotka IP 

Patrick Durrer
University of Neuchâtel (Advisor Prof. Marion Fresia) - Anthropology Institute, Switzerland
University of Alaska Fairbanks (Advisor Prof. Patrick Plattet) - Department of Anthropology, USA

The research is financed by personal resources and funding from University of Neuchâtel.

Patrick Durrer is currently spending ten months in Alaska to research the relocation process of Kivalina in the Northwest Arctic Borough of the state. Through collaborations with University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) researchers, an international exchange semester at UAF focused on relocation and migration issues in the North, and three to four fieldwork trips, lasting from one week to two months, this research intends to provide an ethnographic description of the relocation process and the social changes that the residents of Kivalina and their leaders are facing nowadays. By combining a historical approach, an actor-oriented theoretical framework and the epistemological tools created for the anthropology of development as developed by the Euro-African Association for the Anthropology of Social Change and Development, and the Wageningen School, this research aims to provide a better understanding of the actual relocation process.

Kivalina is an Iñupiaq village located on the Chukchi Sea coast of Alaska. Its establishment as a permanent settlement dates back to 1905 when a school was built and parents were forced to bring their children to school. The Iñupiaq residents of Kivalina have always considered the natural environment as fundamental to their livelihood. However, they now also consider it as a threat. For the last decade, the residents have been enduring severe erosion, flooding, and high waves hitting the island on which the village is located, due to late formation of fall ice. These environmental hazards are not new, but their frequency is increasing. Therefore, the residents of Kivalina have been talking about relocating for almost a century. The first known document that provides historical evidence of such intentions is Kivalina Annual Report of the U.S. Public School for the Natives of Kivalina, written by the teacher Clinton S. Replogle, on June 30, 1911. Then from 1950 to 2000, several attempts to decide whether the community should relocate or not (and where to) have experienced setbacks, resulting in status quo. As of 2009, no site has gained the support of all the different parties involved in the project, such as federal and state agencies, residents willing to move and those who want to stay, local and regional authorities, as well as the NANA corporation which owns most of the land surrounding Kivalina. In the near future, the efforts will be focused on a possible evacuation road, but the direction of this road has yet to be chosen.  

This case study underlines the role of the state in the creation and forced settlement of Kivalina, and its increasing role in the contemporary relocation process. In the meantime, focusing on individuals enables also to rebalance the role of each stakeholder in this process. Neither are the agencies devils forcing residents to move, nor are the Kivalina residents victims who cannot determine their own future. Giving a detailed ethnographic description of the changes that are taking place in Kivalina also provide an occasion to highlight some complex realities and processes that involve a multitude of actors and a tremendous amount of life changing decisions that have to be taken.  


For more information: Relocation and Participation in Kivalina: Some Preliminary Thoughts