Kotzebue and Nome: Two Very Different Towns

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8/22/19.  Back at Home, Questa, NM

Much to our surprise, and with the luck of good weather, we managed to complete our ‘flightsee’ of the three Arctic Circle parks (Cape Krusenstern, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic) within six hours of arriving in Kotzebue.  We were then left with the problem of how to fill in the next three days and four nights.  As we strolled through a town that was windy with the cold air from the Bering Sea, we realized a couple of things – the town seemed empty in a lot of respects and there just wasn’t a whole lot to do.

Kotzebue, with a population of about 3000 people,  serves as a local hub for both the Northwest Arctic borough and the North Slope borough which covers most of northern Alaska, west and north of the Brooks Range.  Kotzebue is 72% Native Alaskan and almost all of that is Inupiat, the branch of eskimos that occupy most of northwestern Alaska.  Because of its somewhat protected location – in Kotzebue sound, off the Bering Sea and near the mouths of three rivers, it has long been a central trading location for subsistence exchange.  It continues in that role today and is also the transportation and medical service hub for most of the region.

Kotzebue is a ‘native’ town, organized and managed under the auspices of a Native American corporation called NANA (formerly the Northwest Arctic Native Association).  NANA is one of thirteen regional corporations created by legislation in the 1970s to insure that native Alaskans were well represented in the political distribution of land and wealth that was to follow as Alaska entered the oil boom era.  NANA controls the land in and around Kotzebue Sound, including the town of Kotzebue.  

The Nullagvik Hotel in Kotzebue

The National Park Service maintains the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center here which serves as the ‘visitor center’ for all the NPS units north of the arctic circle.  And there is a medical center, an elementary and a high school.

But there isn’t much else here.  There is a single hotel, the Nullagvik, which is run by NANA and, knowing that it pretty much has a monopoly and because expenses are very high, charges more than $300/night.  There is a restaurant inside the hotel that actually serves pretty good food.  And we found another restaurant, next door, – the Bayside – that serves an eclectic menu including Chinese and Korean food.  

But don’t expect to find any wine or beer in those restaurants.  Alcohol, unfortunately, is a known problem among the Inupiat.  NANA has taken one approach to the problem which is to exert a very high degree of control.  Alcohol is sold in a NANA-run spot, right next to the police station, but it requires purchase of a license in order to actually buy any alcoholic beverage.  Buying it though, won’t get you very far because it is illegal to drink it in public and, as posted throughout the hotel, there is a $2000 penalty for consuming alcohol even in your room inside the hotel!  Kotzebue is, at least for tourists, serious about its alcohol control.  

The result, though, is that while we never saw any public drunkenness, rowdy behavior, or anything suggesting a ‘nightlife’ in Kotzebue, there also wasn’t  anything for us to do.  Although I am willing to believe that if you knew someone in town that there might be additional opportunities, for us, once we had visited the NPS visitor center, there was simply nothing else to see or do in the town of Kotzebue.  Given the chilling wind, there was also not a very good reason to stay outside.  In short, we found Kotzebue kind of sterile. And that’s why we abandoned our stay there, made hasty arrangements and flew to Nome – a town that wasn’t even on our travel list until we decided we just couldn’t stay any longer in Kotzebue.

The Golden Nugget Inn in Nome

Nome is about the same size as Kotzebue, and is also majority native-Inupiat (52%).  It is also a center for a native regional corporation, the Bering Straits Native Corporation.  This corporation, though, has taken a different approach from NANA.  Instead of trying to strictly regulate alcohol, the town of Nome has taken a completely hands off approach.  Probably owing to its history as a gold rush town – in 1900 it was the largest city in Alaska with 12,000 people – Nome has a number of bars dotting  Front Street.  And they seem to have enough customers, both tourists and locals, to keep them busy at nearly any time of the day.  

The Nome Visitor Center

Now, I’m not suggesting that the vibrancy of a city is measured by how many drunks you have on the street.  But generally speaking, Nome seemed more active and alive than Kotzebue and with a higher level of average prosperity.  There were many more restaurants, more traffic on the streets, more shops offering items for sale.  Nome is also the ending point for the Iditarod every year. (Unfortunately, I also saw alleys in Nome that seemed to be congregation places for homeless people and people with drug addiction problems.  So is there a trade off here that Native American towns have to face?)

The Iditarod ends here!

An interesting piece of information would be not just the difference in substance abuse issues between the two cities, but also the distribution of income.  Are native Americans reaping the benefits of Nome’s higher economic activity, or is it mostly going to the 40% white population?

Alaska has a rich cultural heritage.  One of the best parts about visiting Alaska is to understand and appreciate the diverse cultures of Alaska’s native populations.  Over 100,000 of Alaska’s 740,000 people are considered Native American, one of the highest percentages of any state.  An amazingly high percentage of them are still living in a subsistence economy, and, because of Alaska’s size, location, and transportation network, will likely continue to do so.  As a result, the National Park Service has had to redefine access to their park units to include subsistence hunting and gathering as an explicit exception to their normal park and wilderness rules.  As climate change results in ecological changes, these subsistence activities may be further threatened. All of which makes understanding the role native Americans play in the Alaskan culture and the problems they face even more important than in other places in the U.S.