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Changing Arctic

Utqiagvik/Barrow hosts ‘Historic U.S. Senate Debate’ – First Held North of Arctic Circle

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Debating Arctic issues in the Arctic ...

“It’s really exciting to be here for this historic U.S. Senate debate,” moderator Rhonda McBride said last week as she opened a debate last week between candidates for one of Alaska’s U.S. Senate seats. McBride, an Alaskan broadcast journalist, pointed out it was the first time such a high-profile political event has been held in the Alaskan Arctic – in this case, the city of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow.

“It was a good place to hold it,” said Sherry McKenzie, principal of Barrow High School, which hosted the debate. “Y’know, we’re the northernmost part of the United States.”

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Credit KTVA
Moderator Rhonda McBride, in foreground at left, seated next to debate organizer Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, address Alaska U.S. Senate candidates, from left: Ray Metcalf, Democrat; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican; and Breck Craig and Margaret Stock, both independents. Libertarian Joe Miller did not attend theOct. 26 debate, held at Barrow High School.

McKenzie she says her students, most of which are Inupiaq, appreciated the significance of the event.

“The students were part of the first time in history that this has ever happened – above the Arctic Circle,” she said.

University of Alaska-Anchorage history professor Stephen Haycox agrees it was an historic event. He says in an e-mail that setting the debate in Utqiagvik acknowledges the growing importance of the Arctic and the challenges it faces – and the people most affected by those issues: Alaska Natives.

The debate organizer says that’s pretty much why she chose that venue for the event.

“If you’re going to run for statewide office, it’s not only imperative that you understand what’s happening in the Arctic but that you understand the people that live there and our relationship with the federal government,” said Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle.

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Credit Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
Megan Alvanna-Stimple, executive director of the Inuit Arctic Business Alliance, delivers a keynote address on Oct. 20, the first day of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks.

Alvanna-Stimpfle is an Inupiaq and executive director of the Inuit Arctic Business Alliance, an organization formed by three Alaska Native corporations: Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Bering Straits Native Corp. and NANA Regional Corp.  She says much of the debate centered on the slumping North Slope oil and gas industry and federal limits to offshore exploration and production. She says the candidates also weighed in on economic development, national security and subsistence hunting rights.

“We were honored to host candidates running for U.S. Senate, and we hope it becomes a normal thing – and, frankly, a requirement to know who we are – to represent us in Washington,” she said.

Alvanna-Stimpfle predicts more candidates will campaign in Alaska’s Arctic in future election years, because greater access to broadband and increased media interest in the region will help spread their messages far beyond communities like Utqiagvik.