In debate over Alaska drilling, two indigenous representatives clash

At last week’s Senate hearing on ANWR, the sartorial choices between the Gwich’in (3rd from left) and Iñupiat (fourth from left) witnesses were clear.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a five-hour hearing on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Established in 1960 by President Eisenhower, ANWR has witnessed decades of clashes between environmentalists and industry supporters, Alaskans and non-Alaskans, and Juneau and Washington, D.C over proposals to open the refuge to drilling. The crux of the matter is whether to allow petroleum exploration and production in the non-wilderness Area 1002, the coastal plain situated on Alaska’s North Slope that washes into the Arctic Ocean. This area may hold between 5.7 and 16 billion barrels of oil – about 8.7 percent of the United States’ estimated undiscovered, recoverable oil.

While the Obama administration was a staunch protector of ANWR, the Trump administration has proposed lifting restrictions on energy exploration in Alaska. It also is eyeing a potential $1 billion in revenues from ANWR lease sales to help pay for a $1 trillion tax cut. Since Congress needs to approve any exploration in Area 1002, that’s why the Senate was holding a hearing on Thursday, inviting 12 witnesses to testify.

There’s a lot more than just oil in the tundra. Approximately 241 people, mostly Iñupiat, live in the village of Kaktovik, the only one in ANWR. The nearly 20-million acre refuge is also home to a rich array of wildlife including polar bears, Dall sheep, and, notably, the Porcupine Caribou herd. The Gwich’in people, who reside in 15 small villages stretching from northern Alaska to northwest Canada, rely on the caribou for their subsistence way of life. Many Gwich’in are deeply worried that oil exploration in Area 1002 would irreversibly impact the caribou’s calving grounds, bringing with that the possibility of food insecurity for the Gwich’in. During the hearing, Gwich’in Council International Board of Directors member Samuel Alexander stated, “We as Gwich’in see the desire to open up the refuge as an attack on us, and on the Porcupine Caribou Herd on which we depend.” Alexander provided some of the most eloquent testimony of the morning, in stark contrast to the many politicians who struggled to even pronounce the name of his people.

The more northerly living Iñupiat, who traditionally rely on marine mammals like whales and seals for subsistence rather than caribou, tend to support ANWR drilling. In no small part, that is because their native regional corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is the only one that owns land within ANWR: some 92,000 surface and subsurface acres in the Coastal Plain, in fact. Those oil-rich lands, held in conjunction with the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, surround the village of Kaktovik.

Oilfields and pipelines on Alaska’s vast North Slope. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Since the 1970s, the Iñupiat have profited handsomely from oil and gas development in the North Slope, and their corporations wish to continue expanding their activities into places like ANWR. Matthew Rexford, Tribal Administrator for the Native Village of Kaktovik and president of the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, who testified as a witness during the hearing, explained in his written statement:

“The oil and gas industry supports our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments, has built our schools, hospitals, and has moved our people away from third-world living conditions – we refuse to go backward in time.”

Since its incorporation in 1972, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has become one of America’s 200 biggest private companies and one of Alaska’s largest private landowners. Last year, it generated $2.4 billion in revenues. While ASRC still, in theory, keeps Inupiat interests at the heart of its operations, its size, structure, and activities clearly distinguish it from other indigenous groups. Even though the Gwich’in have a corporation, its operations are nowhere near the level of ASRC, whose subsidiaries won multimillion dollar contracts to support the war in Iraq.

Thus, the clash between the Gwich’in and the Iñupiat over ANWR drilling is more than just a disagreement between two indigenous groups. In a way, it is also about one indigenous non-profit organization versus an indigenous corporation. Alexander, the Gwich’in Council International representative, forcefully argued,

“You’re gonna hear Alaska Native Corporation representatives coming up here and talking about responsible development, and I just want to make it clear while I have the time to do such that Alaska Native Corporations are not tribes. They are not tribes. They do not have a traditional language. Their purpose is profit. Our purpose as Gwich’in is to protect our traditional way of life and live that traditional life in an honorable way. (His testimony starts around 1:06 in the archived webcast).

Even the sartorial choices of Alexander and Rexford, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation president, reflected their individual differences. While the Gwich’in representative wore a traditional vest over a shirt and tie, the Iñupiat representative was dressed in a suit. Alexander was representing Gwich’in Council International, a non-profit established in 1999 to represent the interests of Canadian and American Gwich’in at the Arctic Council. Yet the Canadian Gwich’in, too, have their own development corporation, which the Iñupiat and other Alaska politicians have taken pains to point out over the years. The Gwich’in Development Corporation is the majority owner of an oilfield services company, while other Gwich’in tribal organizations officially support development of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, a proposed $7 billion pipeline that would export gas from the Canadian Northwest.

Perhaps most ironically, in 1984, Alaska Gwich’in offered nearly 2 million acres for lease to oil companies, but no resources were found. The below undated information brief published by Arctic Power, a non-profit that supports ANWR drilling, sheds light on the seeming hypocrisy of the Gwich’in, who are against drilling in ANWR but pro-drilling on their own lands.

What needs to be remembered, however, is that no single indigenous group speaks with a single voice. Just as you would never expect all Californians to be unanimously opposed to oil drilling, the Gwich’in, too, have diverse views, as do the Iñupiat. Caroline Cannon, an Iñupiat leader and former mayor of the village of Point Hope, won a major environmental prize a few years ago for her work in opposing offshore oil drilling. Similarly, some tribal organizations are in favor of the activity while some are against. Alexander clearly opposes ANWR drilling for reasons that may not apply to all Gwich’in, but certainly to some, and which may even hold true for some Iñupiat. Yet both indigenous spokesmen used phrases like “We as Gwich’in” or “our people,” rhetoric which occludes the diversity of views among indigenous communities.

The following statement by Alexander exemplifies this tendency. In contrast to Rexford, who sees a direct link between more oil and better public services, Alexander offered:

“I hear this talk about development all the time. We need to develop this, we need to develop that. What I think we need is a little bit of understanding of the sustainability of the life that we live as Gwich’in, alright? We’re not sitting here asking for anything. We’re not saying we need hospitals, we need schools, we need all these things, we’re not saying, give us money. What we’re saying is, let us live as Gwich’in.”

The real question though is what does it mean to live as Gwich’in, or as Iñupiat, for that matter? It is not simply one thing, nor is it even a simple choice between “traditional” and “modern.” An Inupiat who works in the oil industry, for instance, might use his wages to buy a new motor for his boat to go whaling, or a mother might go to the grocery store to buy eggs and milk to supplement traditional foods.

sealskin boat Barrow Utqiaġvik
Women in Utqiaġvik making the outer skin of a boat by stitching sealskin pieces together with caribou intestine thread. The men are working on the frame of the boat. All of this work is taking place in a very modern cultural center, which was likely funded by oil royalties. Photo: Mia Bennett.
Grocery store in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
A woman dressed in a traditional parka shopping at a grocery store in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

To wit, Rexford, addressing the committee, explained that the Iñupiat see oil and gas as just one of the many resources that they rely on. In this sense, even oil can be reimagined as a subsistence resource.

“The bowhead whale, caribou, Dall sheep, muskoxen and the fish of the region are a vital food source to the Kaktovik-miut (people). Another of those natural resources is oil and gas – and lots of it. We rely on the bounty of the land and find sustenance within ANWR.”

This description of the bounties of the land opens up a philosophical debate into what natural resources are, along with which ones governments should permit indigenous peoples to develop. If indigenous peoples own their land and can, say, hunt caribou or polar bears on it (within certain limits), should they also be allowed to drill for oil?

So far, with ANWR, the U.S. has said no. Rexford lamented,

“Since the mid-1980s, our people have fought unsuccessfully to open our homelands to responsible exploration and development…Kaktovik-miut and the Arctic Iñupiat will not become conservation refugees. We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence, and no hope for the future of our people.”

What this all boils down to is a fight not between two indigenous peoples, but between capitalism and the subsistence economy. I hesitate to even use the phrase “sustainable development” because that concept implies ceaseless growth. Alexander posed a question that illuminates the fundamental debate at the heart of the ANWR clash, which is over whether society needs to keep developing, even if the environment can be somewhat protected. He asked,

“What does economic development actually mean? It’s not a recognition that the subsistence economy is a real thing.”

If we are going to have more and better schools and hospitals and avoid “going backward” or even just remaining in the present, then we do need to keep developing, whether that’s by getting resources out of the ground or generating economic activity in some other way. Even Alexander, who adamantly supports subsistence lifestyles, is a professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Like many Gwich’in, he is also a veteran.

What all of this suggests is that indigenous peoples wear many hats, just like everyone else. People, both native and non-native, feel a need to go back to the land from time to time, too, and they probably don’t want it to be spoiled exactly on the lands that are important for them, whether its for subsistence or recreation. During the hearing, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) waxed poetic about his 70-mile backpacking trip with his wife. While he probably wouldn’t want to see pipelines and oil patches stretching across the Rockies in his home state of Colorado while backpacking, development – and that includes oil extraction – has to happen somewhere if society is going to keep having new and better things. For many Gwich’in, they don’t want development happening on the calving and grazing lands of their caribou, and some, like Alexander, might be ideologically opposed to the idea of development, full stop. But many people probably do still want some form of progress to continue, including the many – but not all – Iñupiat who want drilling on their homeland, and who feel they have a right to develop it as they see fit.

The redrawing of battle lines over ANWR complicates typical notions of fights over development. Armchair readers and activists might think of the fight over ANWR’s future as a black and white debate between environmentalists and Native Americans facing off against profiteering multinational oil companies. As the heated hearing in D.C. elucidated, the story is rather one of Gwich’in traditionalists, who have environmentalists on their side, versus Iñupiat executives and developmentalists, who have Juneau politicians and Texas oilmen on theirs. 

In the Arctic Ocean, an Alaska Native corporation seeks to fill void left by Shell

Deadhorse, Alaska
Drilling on Alaska’s North Slope in Deadhorse. Photo: Mia Bennett

When Shell aborted its $7 billion Arctic drilling efforts in the Beaufort Sea in September 2015, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief. The multinational corporation’s 28-vessel fleet, including its drillship and drill rig, quietly sailed south from Alaska towards warmer waters, avoiding any such catastrophes like the Kulluk’s grounding in 2013. Those opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean felt even more encouraged when the U.S. and Canada jointly banned new leases for Arctic oil and gas drilling in December of last year. Expanded Arctic fossil fuel exploration, it was hoped in some circles, would be postponed indefinitely, at least in North America.

Yet little attention has been paid to what happened to Shell’s leases after the oil company quit Alaska. Just days before the moratorium was announced, 21 leases in a part of the Beaufort Sea Lease Area called Camden Bay were purchased in 2016 by a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the wealthiest Native corporation in Alaska. At about precisely the same time that ASRC was criticizing Obama’s ban on further developments in the Outer Continental Shelf, the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline were exploding. If you thought that all indigenous peoples were uniformly opposed to oil drilling, think again.

According to a list provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, most of the leases purchased by ASRC Exploration are set to expire at the end of this year. Two are valid until summer 2019. In order to prevent the expiration of nearly all of the leases, as Alex DeMarban at Alaska Dispatch News writes, ASRC Exploration requested unitization of the offshore leases from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Unsurprisingly, under an administration that’s more pro-oil than the previous one, BSEE approved the unitization of 20 of the 21 units.

The benefits of unitization are that whatever happens in one lease now applies to all other 20 leases, since they’re now considered part of the same area. Petroleum News explains, “Unitization binds together a group of leases, which often have multiple owners, to encourage orderly and thorough exploration and production with minimal waste of dollars or resources.” For ASRC, this means if they find oil in one lease area, the rest of their leases stay active and exploration can continue.

The next challenge for ASRC will be to successfully obtain an extension of the leases from BSEE. Shell wasn’t able to do this earlier, but that was under the Obama administration. Under Trump, things could be different.

Ty Hardt, Senior Director of Communications at ASRC, wrote over email,

“As we mentioned when we first announced the acquisition of the leases in Camden Bay, while regulatory and permitting uncertainty eventually drove Shell out of Alaska, we know there is still tremendous potential in Alaska’s offshore. We also know responsible resource development translates into economic stability for our region, and every community across the North Slope of Alaska will benefit from responsible development.”=

Since its formation in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ASRC has transformed into a major economic force in Alaska and beyond. In 2010, Forbes ranked it the 190th largest private company in the U.S., just behind Burger King, with revenues of $2.33 billion. The corporation represents the interests of some 13,000 Iñupiat shareholders, most of whom reside in seven villages scattered across Alaska’s North Slope. Every quarter, Iñupiat receive dividends from ASRC, whose value often reflects whether oil has been up or down.

ASRC’s active involvement in Arctic industrial development puts a spin on the usual narrative that’s woven of Arctic indigenous peoples being both victims of outside exploitation and staunch protectors of the environment. The regional corporation’s bread and butter has been oil field services for a long time, but it’s also been involved in mineral exploration for decades. In 1991, for instance, the Alaska legislature awarded $2 million to the company for coal exploration and feasibility studies in northern Alaska. Even back then, potential export markets were Asia and Europe via a “northern Arctic Ocean sea route,” as a 1992 report from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources referred to it. Since the late 2000s, ASRC’s interest in oil exploration has grown.

Apart from natural resource developmente, ASRC, like all Alaska Native corporations, is also able to expand rapidly in government services largely due to the 8(a) Business Development Program. This is intended to help businesses owned by people who have been historically disadvantaged to compete in the marketplace by allowing them to receive government contracts without having to compete with other bids. Unlike other companies classified under the 8(a) program, Alaska Native corporations have no upper limit on the size of government contracts they can receive. This exception has allowed some Native corporations, like ASRC, to grow so big that not only are they attempting to fill the shoes of Shell on the North Slope. They’re also doing things like hiring cyber security engineers in Saudi Arabia.

I asked Hardt, the ASRC communications director, what he would say to those who would argue that ASRC’s oil exploration might exacerbate Arctic climate change and jeopardize the well-being of future generations of Iñupiat shareholders. He responded,

“What jeopardizes future generations of Iñupiat on the North Slope is the threat of a failing economy and a diminishing number of opportunities for our people. We believe offshore exploration and development in the Alaskan Arctic can be done safely and successfully, which has proven to be the case in other regions, such as the Canadian and Russian Arctic.”

His words resonated with a conversation I had in March with Crawford Patkotak, Chairman of ASRC’s Board of Directors, at the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Arctic Business Development Tour in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska last March. Patkotak stressed the need for self-driven development rather than government handouts for Alaska Natives. He noted,

“We had to remind Congress that [the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] wasn’t going to be a welfare bill. It was a rightful claim to not only continuously practice our traditional way of life, but having rights to resources that will improve and enhance the welfare of Iñupiat people. So over the years, seeing environmentalists, animal rights groups, that find ways to systematically strip our rights to develop our own resource – based on that whole theory of climate change…”

Anti-whaling and seal-clubbing protestors aside, one could argue that ASRC is simply a for-profit corporation that doesn’t really have the best interests of all its shareholders in mind. After all, Native corporations have had their fair share of scandals, from fraud and self-dealing within the Cape Fox Corporation to the dissolution of the 13th Regional Corporation after some pretty heinous corporate mismanagement. So maybe ASRC, in exploring for Arctic oil, is really just looking out for its wallet rather than its shareholders.

This is certainly a possibility, but Arctic oil is no easy game to play. Instead, ASRC could just stick to its tried and true practice of winning 8(a) contracts. But that doesn’t necessarily help to build an economic base for the future, which is what ASRC is trying to do in spurring Arctic oil extraction — even if the economics of it seem crazy at the moment. And beyond mere dollars and cents, the story here is also about protecting not only indigenous rights to traditional cultural practices, but protecting indigenous rights to develop. In some cases, the two are even intertwined. Economic development can generate the funds necessary to support traditional cultural practices that, for better or worse, might not be viable on their own anymore in an economy that has both subsistence and market practices. Making a sealskin boat for whaling, for instance, doesn’t come cheap. Sure, the sealskins and caribou intestine thread come from the land, but the wood has to be purchased, and later the motor and fuel, and so on and so forth.

sealskin boat Barrow Utqiaġvik
Women in Utqiaġvik working on the boat’s outer skin by stitching sealskin pieces together with caribou intestine thread. The men are working on the frame of the boat. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The words of an Elder I spoke to in Utqiaġvik reflected the determination of some Iñupiat to move forward with economic development. I asked Wesley Uġiaqtaq Aiken, a former whaling captain and World War II veteran, how he felt about oil and gas exploration. He mentioned the recent discovery of oil at Smith Bay on the North Slope and recalled how in days long past, Iñupiat used to haul seeping oil that had dried up on the bay’s surface to burn on shore. Looking to the future, Aiken remarked,

“I’m glad these young people are willing to go further out on the land – not the ocean. If they open so-called Alaska Native Wildlife Refuge – that one’s got natural gas out there. There must be something out there.”

He was hopeful, but also wary of outside intervention whether it was for or against oil drilling. Underscoring the importance of recognizing and upholding Native rights to the land and sea, the Elder reflected, “The Arctic Ocean is my beautiful garden – nobody messes around with it.”

Looking out over the Arctic Ocean in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Is this the world's northernmost Chinese restaurant?

Sam & Lee’s, a Chinese restaurant in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

The town of Utqiaġvik, Alaska – formerly known as Barrow – sits at 71 degrees north. Located 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the settlement of six or seven thousand residents (though only 4,373 according to Google) is a vibrant and diverse place despite being frozen solid in winter. So frozen, in fact, that you can walk straight from town right out onto the Arctic Ocean. At this time of year, you could try walking all the way to Russia – or Greenland, Norway, or anywhere else with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean – across the ice if you were so inclined. It might come with some risk, however, given that Arctic sea ice this year is “incredibly thin” and covering a smaller extent than usual. If you lucked out with the sea ice and made it to Russia, you could probably continue walking to China for a hot bowl of noodles or a plate of dumplings.

Or you could just stay in Utqiaġvik and visit what might just be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. With whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans, and Samoans, among many other ethnicities, living among the native Inupiat population, there are also several restaurants serving up everything from Mexican to Chinese cuisine. Utqiaġvik is not the northernmost settlement in the world: Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, owns that title. But Longyearbyen does not have a Chinese restaurant. It happens to have a Thai restaurant, which is unsurprising given its sizeable population of Thai ex-pats, along with several Norwegian eateries. But from a glance at TripAdvisor’s list of Longyearbyen’s restaurants, I don’t think you could order a bowl of egg drop soup in a pinch.

Several towns in Russia also lie north of Utqiaġvik, but it’s unclear whether they have Chinese restaurants. TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews are not exactly a dime a dozen for settlements like Tiksi and Khatanga. Qaanaaq, in Greenland, lies at 77 degrees north, but only has one restaurant, located in the town’s sole hotel.

That leaves Sam and Lee’s Restaurant in Utqiaġvik, Alaska as the best contender for the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. The restaurant, which serves Chinese and American cuisine, has become something of a local institution. Mr. and Mrs. Kim, a Korean couple, opened the restaurant some 34 years ago. Sam and Lee’s is one of 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. – a total that surpasses the nation’s number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Wendy’s combined, according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Case in point, Utqiaġvik has a Chinese restaurant but none of those four fast food chains.

I’d heard a lot about Sam and Lee’s during my first couple of days in Barrow, so as someone who seeks out Asian food whenever possible, whether it’s a steaming bowl of spicy Uzbek noodles (lagman) in northeast Siberia, muskox Thai curry in Greenland, or North Korean food in Vladivostok, I had to make it to what just might be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant.

I was in Utqiaġvik for an Arctic business development tour that had us on a tight schedule from 8am-9pm every day. The only time I could really miss any event was at breakfast – and fortunately, Sam and Lee’s opens at 6am every day. (They also don’t shut their doors until 2am). So last Thursday, as fierce winds blasted down the city streets off the surface of the frozen Arctic Ocean, I trudged over to the restaurant around 6:45 am. The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours, but the yellow sodium lamps lining the town’s streets guided the way.

After about fifteen minutes, I arrived at the little red restaurant. Sam and Lee’s sits on the ground floor of a small red house at 1052 Kogiak Street. A welcoming Chinese gate frames the entrance. In a very un-Chinese fashion, the walkway leads through two sets of doors, which are typical of all Arctic abodes in order to keep out the cold.

I entered into the warm and toasty restaurant and took a seat at one of the comfy red booths. Dining here was more like eating in someone’s living room than being in a sit-down restaurant. The walls were decorated with photos of children, presumably the Kims’, doing things like wearing traditional Korean dress and performing at a musical recital. Every table had a bottle of soy sauce on it, along with two jars of white powder – one marked “S” for sugar and the other with “C” for creamer. Palettes of soda cans sat stacked at the back of the restaurant, ready to be popped open to satiate the town’s healthy appetite for Coke, Sprite, root beer, and the like. When dining out in Utqiaġvik, soda appears to fill the gap of alcohol. Utqiaġvik is a “damp” town, meaning you can consume alcohol there, but you can’t purchase it. It’s incredible to think that every single menu item has been brought in by plane or barge since no roads lead to Utqiaġvik. The limited and expensive transportation explains why everything seemed to be in bulk at Sam and Lee’s, from the endless array of take-out boxes to the soy sauce packets and soda cans.

Decorations on the wall at Sam & Lee’s.
Soy sauce, creamer, sugar, salt, pepper, and jam.
Dining at Sam & Lee’s.

As I read through the vast menu, a big television hanging at the front of the restaurant played the morning news from Anchorage. The news anchors were talking about International Women’s Day and the ongoing Iditarod. It all seemed so very far away from Utqiaġvik. A waiter dressed in a black hat and camo came up to take my order.

While I was waiting for my short stack of pancakes ($7) and a cup of coffee, a fellow diner came in from the cold and ordered a Denver omelet directly from the chef, at the window where the food comes out from the kitchen. He sat down at the booth in front of me and said hi.

Some people ordered at the window here.

Ten minutes later, out came my “short stack” of two pancakes. Each was larger than a dinner plate, and an enormous square of margarine was melting lazily on top. As I dug into my breakfast of carbs, sugar, and fat, an Alaska Native couple, the woman dressed in a floral parka (a common traditional design), grabbed a booth and ordered more omelets – served with generous helpings of hash browns and toast.

A short stack of pancakes with the Anchorage morning news on in the background. Still more than enough food for one.

My pancakes were the doughy, stick-to-the-ribs-type, making them perfect for a cold Alaskan morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to try the Chinese food at the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant since the cook, I learned, doesn’t arrive until after 10 am. Locals told me their Chinese food is the best in the state. And it’s not only Chinese food that the serve. Alongside Egg Foo Young and Egg Drop Soup, you can order a “Happy Meal” (shrimp, scallops, and meat sauteed with fresh vegetables), “Steak and King Crab,” “KungPao Chicken Pizza” (every restaurant in Utqiaġvik, I learned, serves pizza), “Jalapeno Poppers,” “Fish &Chips (served with French Fries – DOES NOT include potato, vegetables, and garlic bread)” and a “Reindeer Sausage and Cheese Omelet,” just to name a few of the finest examples of fusion cuisine in the Last Frontier.

Half (!) of the menu.

Though I didn’t get to try the Chinese food, I did enjoy the rare opportunity of eating pancakes cooked by a chef who said he had worked at the IHOP in West Hollywood for twenty years before coming up to Utqiaġvik. I asked him why he moved all the way to this little corner of the world. “Everyone has a purpose,” he said to me. “I wanted to breathe fresh air – and the planet’s air, it starts at the North Pole and comes down from there. The air here is the freshest in the world.”

After I paid my bill and walked back out into the cold, the air did feel pretty fresh. At 15 degrees above zero, it felt downright balmy compared to the previous day’s temperatures, which had sunk to 20 degrees below zero. Walking across Kogiak Street, I looked back on the bright red restaurant. The sky had brightened significantly since I’d arrived an hour before.

One day, I’ll have to go back to try the Korean-Chinese-Alaskan food served up by Sam and Lee’s. It might also be a good idea for Mr. and Mrs. Kim to consider opening a Korean restaurant. One woman from Utqiaġvik told me, “My friends and I love eating muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) with rice and kimchi.” She laughed, “All us young people, we like fusion, you know, like Asian-Eskimo fusion.” Her husband himself was starting to cook Cajun whale steak, inspired by his mixed African-American and Inupiaq heritage. With Nordic cuisine starting to gain more global recognition, it may be only a matter of time before other Arctic cuisines begin making their way onto southern palettes. Rather than a Chinese restaurant opening in the Arctic, perhaps an Arctic restaurant will open in China some day soon.

Walking back through the streets of Utqiagvik after breakfast.