In Alaska, Qiviters Never Win

By William L. Iggiargruk Hensley
Anchorage, Alaska 8-09

Ten thousand summers have come and gone here in Alaska and the village people are already preparing for another cold winter by drying and smoking salmon, rendering seal oil and drying the meat and hoping for a bountiful berry season. In the meantime, our governor has called it quits 18 months before the end of her four-year term. She leaves tomorrow, to be replaced by her lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell.

The Inuit have a word, “qivit,” that you do not want to have applied to you. It means to quit or give up when the going gets rough. In traditional times, and that was very recent, if you gave up as a leader you were jeopardizing yourself and everyone around you. It takes a lot of effort to maintain life in the bitter cold of the Arctic.

Things weren’t much different when Alaska became a state 50 years ago. It was you and your family out there, hewing a living from the land and what little cash economy that existed.

In fact, Alaska’s prospects looked dim just a couple of years after statehood in 1959. With a tiny population, inadequate tax receipts, almost no private property of any consequence and only a few thousand barrels of oil a day produced on the Kenai Peninsula, the state’s first governor, Bill Egan, was presiding over what increasingly looked like a failed state.


Three weeks into his first term, Governor Egan, humble and effective, was stricken with an infection after gall bladder surgery and hovered near death. After three difficult months of recuperation, he returned to lead Alaska through the early years of state building that the voters elected him to accomplish. He didn’t have enough revenue to pay for what little government we had, let alone do anything to meet the tremendous needs of its citizens for schools, health care, water and sewer lines, roads and electricity. All that changed in 1968 with the discovery of huge oil deposits at Prudhoe Bay in the northernmost part of the state.

We have had other governors resign, but that is not the same as “qivit.” When President Richard Nixon tapped Gov. Walter J. Hickel to be secretary of interior, he stepped down with the full support of Alaskans to help solve two of the state’s biggest problems – Alaska Native land claims and the construction of the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. In time, the issue was resolved by Congress with 44 million acres and $1 billion for the Alaska Natives, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was constructed by the oil companies for $8 billion. With these problems behind him, Mr. Hickel ran for governor again in 1990, and won.

Finally, crude gold began to flow in 1977 and Alaska was on its way to becoming a full-fledged state, with up to two million barrels of oil a day flowing through the pipeline. Now, that oil is flowing at only 700,000 barrels a day and declining at six percent or seven percent a year. Without oil it is unclear what Alaska will look like in the next 50 years.

The great hope during the Palin administration was that a natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the Lower 48 would be built, creating tens of thousands of jobs and providing revenue to help fill the fiscal gap that will come sooner than later. In spite of much political motion, years have gone by with no commitment to build a pipeline. In the meantime, the global economy has soured and other parts of the world are filling the energy gap. The window of opportunity may have closed.

Just like other states, Alaska is faced with many problems that the governor was expected to resolve. But unlike chief executives of some other states, our governor is powerful and can appoint all judges and department commissioners and university regents, and can control the budget. With state revenues subject to the whims of the oil market and appropriations from Congress now uncertain as the country struggles with the recession, Alaska has serious, immediate challenges.

We have high suicide and school dropout rates, and problems of poverty and alcohol and drug abuse. The Anchorage area faces an energy shortage due to declining gas fields and the villages face almost insurmountable energy costs; key resource development projects are languishing, and there is no revenue sharing for Alaska for offshore oil development even though we have 33,000 miles of coastline.

In short, Alaska had a governor who had the stature within the state, nationally and internationally, to deal with our problems. She could have used her position to find solutions to the high costs and financial insecurities of our far-northern state. Instead, she abandoned her role as the state’s leader in midstream, making her the only governor in our state’s history to “qivit” in the true sense of the word, at a time when we need strong leadership. Good luck, Governor Parnell — may the great Arctic spirits be with you.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, an Alaskan Native is the author of “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People” and former Democratic state senator.