Kivalina is one of six villages that have been identified by the US Federal Government and the State of Alaska as threatened by natural hazards. Eventually, the village of Kivalina will have to be partially or fully relocated from the island where it is currently located.
Since the 1990s federal and state agencies have increasingly developed a presence in the relocation process of the village. Local leaders have concurrently been involved in discussion with federal and states representatives. However, collaboration has not been always easy. Only responsible personal involvements from the village leaders and agency workers have led to some constructive meetings and negotiations that have furthered the relocation planning process. Nevertheless, this process is slow and each time a new agency becomes involved, the whole situation is reassessed. Therefore, many villagers of Kivalina feel a certain “fatigue”, seeing that nothing has changed for years.
Many factors could explain the actual situation such as the recent colonization period, the increasing number of agencies involved, or the lack of local inputs in the relocation process during the past decades. Nevertheless, one explanation in particular seems crucial to explore here: the collaboration and communication between the various parties involved in the relocation. On one hand, learning the administrative procedure has been and still is a demanding and time consuming enterprise for a generation of individuals that was raised in a subsistence lifestyle. On the other hand, the agency workers do not have enough resources (i.e. time, money, and leadership) to try to understand local Iñupiaq culture and worldview, all of which is of fundamental importance in dealing with a life changing process such as relocation. However, one must not be misled. There is a great tendency to look at local problems and challenges through the lens of culture—in other words, to “culturalize” problems that are mainly political or economical issues. “Let us deal with our culture” is a phrase that came out often during the recent fieldwork in Kivalina. Therefore, there is an increasing demand on the side of the local leaders to be considered as full-fledged partners, underlining the political and administrative issue of self-governance.
The involvement of local leaders in the government planning procedures—along with the building of an accurate knowledge base from every party involved—is a first step to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings that have been creating setbacks in the process. Furthermore, we could notice during the recent fieldwork that local involvement in these procedures is not considered to be enough. What seems to appear is the local leaders’ will to control entirely the process of relocation, with the help of the agencies. From a partial involvement in the planning process to a fully controlled operation, local leaders have increased their will to control the decisions that involve directly their future. Concretely, the creation of open discussion space and communication opportunities between the different parties (for example, in the government building in Kivalina) including all agencies and local leaders and village representative have been ways to provide discussion and collaboration opportunities.
The fieldwork recently undertaken in Kivalina shows that there are gaps of knowledge between parties that must be bridged. It has also shown that the relocation planning is highly dependent on the involvement of individuals that dedicate a tremendous amount of time to the cause. Until recently, the tendency was to consider the relocation of Kivalina only from the perspective of an entire relocation. Recent events and fieldwork have shown that the idea of an expansion of the village to a new site seems to be currently more ideal than an entire relocation, especially from the villagers’ perspective. What is also important to underline here is that indigenous communities have often be seen as being under pressure from the State (the State of Alaska and the U.S. Government in this case). Although this appears in some ways entirely true, it is also important to mention that local inhabitants have developed resistance strategies and tried to influence decision processes. In Kivalina, the involvement in several legal actions, the participation in several documentaries and in other media coverage, the creation of a website for the “outsiders”, as well as the publication of slides and text documents, are ways to show that if the villagers and their leaders need the help of federal and/or state agencies, they simultaneously want to be able to decide for themselves what is best for their future.
The forthcoming challenges that most communities in the Arctic have to face—such as global climate change, self governance, and social and economical issues—have one aspect in common: they need collaboration between all political and administrative parties. The understanding of Kivalina’s relocation provides a useful insight in this area.