SHISHMAREF — Two skiffs are already anchored off the sandy tip of this arrow-thin island when 27-year-old Curtis Ray Nayokpuk, the last seal hunter to arrive, cuts the outboard on his boat.
“What took you so long?” someone asks. “Traffic, man,” Nayokpuk replies.
As his skiff bobs in the milky green inlet, half a dozen others putter in and out of view.
Life in Shishmaref is slower for Nayokpuk since he stopped working as the village public safety officer. No more midnight calls to referee arguments or rescue missing boaters in this village of 600, perched on the northwestern edge of the Seward Peninsula.
Nayokpuk has no plans to leave.
Drying caribou ribs or herring hang outside nearly every home, and the rhythm of subsistence hunting and gathering are part of his daily life.
Like many of the younger adults living in this ancient culture, however, Nayokpuk has a modern problem.
Sometimes he’d like to have a beer, and that’s not an option in Shishmaref.
As in a hundred other Alaska towns and villages, booze is against the law. If he wanted to order a Budweiser with dinner, Nayokpuk would first have to fly over 126 miles of soppy tundra and low, sharp mountains to Nome. (A more expensive trip than jetting from L.A. to New York.)
The two local grocery stores haven’t stocked alcohol in a generation. A smuggled bottle of R&R Canadian whiskey, purchased in Anchorage for $12, can sell for $250 or more. If you get caught, it means mandatory jail time in Nome. Prohibition nationwide may have ended in failure in 1933, but today nearly 1 in 3 Alaska Natives lives in a village or town that restricts access to alcohol.
Shishmaref, a 400-year-old Inupiat community, is about to reconsider the thorny choice of wet or dry. Voters here will decide in a city election Tuesday whether to lift the ban on alcohol for the first time in 30 years. Nayokpuk, for one, is leaning toward change.
‘A FEW BEERS ON FOOTBALL SUNDAY’
“Every other American has the luxury of having a few beers on football Sunday,” wrote Felicia Nayokpuk, Curtis’ 26-year-old sister, in an email arguing for the vote.
She gathered signatures to place the question on the ballot and dreams of opening the village’s first pizza parlor.
She’d sell beer and wine, she said. The city could tax the $10 drinks to help pay for local government, Curtis said.
Richard Kuzuguk, 51, worked for three years as the village public safety officer here and three more in Golovin, another dry village.
“It pulls me both ways,” he said.
The father of two daughters, he wonders if people who grow up under an alcohol ban are more likely to drink too much, too fast, when they leave the village for a world where alcohol is everywhere.
“We need to train and raise our kids to be responsible because it’s part of society anyway,” he said. “We’re going to have to evolve into Western culture because village life is limited as far as subsistence.”
Others see no need to upset an approach to alcohol — banning both importation and sale — that works for Shishmaref. Elders say the community suffers few of the liquor troubles common to other Alaska villages. Kids get to class at an attendance rate far above those in Anchorage. It’s rare to see someone stumbling drunk in the streets.
Last year, only 1 in 20 Alaska state trooper calls for service here involved alcohol, according to the state. Most communities in the area reported far more.
“I’m afraid to see this happen, if it does pass,” said Donna Barr, a suicide-prevention counselor in the village. “If alcohol is legalized in Shishmaref, binge drinking will occur more often. And the anger and unresolved grief and the hurt and pains, they’re going to come out through the alcohol use.”
Among those autopsied, about half of Alaskans who killed themselves between 2003 and 2008 had been drinking beforehand, according to the state Section of Epidemiology.
Opponents of the push to allow drinking in Shishmaref worry that legalizing alcohol will invite more of the troubles that poison much of rural Alaska: suicide, family violence and sexual assault. Many of the opponents are elders or middle-aged residents. They worry that they are outnumbered by growing ranks of younger voters. Feeling the eyes of the community on them, those voters aren’t always willing to argue their case.
Felicia Nayokpuk declined to discus the issue in person. Tiffany Magby, 22, who operates a pull-tab stand in the community hall, says the issue has been polarizing.
“You can tell by the ones that are so open about voting yes, ” she said. “The people around them give them funny looks.”
Seventy-four-year-old elder Morris Kiyutelluk said he was out of the village, camping and picking berries, when petitioners to lift the alcohol ban came around. While he talked, his wife, Mildred, padded across the scarred linoleum floor and out the door to skin a spotted seal the family had killed earlier that day — their third this fall.
On the couch, a granddaughter listened to gospel music on her iPad. The couple said they hardly see any overt alcohol use in the village. People experiment with home-brew. A trickle of bootlegged bottles arrive, sometimes for a birthday party or New Year’s.
“I’ve got a sneaky feeling (the vote) will pass,” Kiyutelluk said. “You’ve got that many young people.”
The average age in Shishmaref is dropping. The number of children under 5 jumped by 70 percent over the past decade. At the same time, several influential elders died. The village’s population has tripled since Kiyutelluk was a boy, when there were only 20 houses.
Something else is changing too. Kiyutelluk used to live on the other side of the village, before buildings began falling in the ocean. Maybe you’ve heard. Shishmaref is famously endangered, a poster village for the effects of global warming.
About 20 miles below the Arctic Circle, the homes sit at the edge of a barrier island shaped like a butter knife. On the northern side is the pounding Chukchi Sea; to the south, five miles of inlet. Researchers say reductions in shore-fast sea ice, accelerated by climate change, have left villages like Shishmaref, Newtok and Kivalina exposed to violent storms, thawing permafrost and speeding erosion.
Time magazine, CNN and network TV crews have visited for stories about the disappearing coastline that toppled a house into the waves and forced residents to drag 14 others to the other side of the island.
A documentary called “The Last Days of Shishmaref” debuted in 2008. But this fall, the talk of the village wasn’t global warming or the risk of a big winter storm, it was whether to unlock sales and shipments of alcohol.
A VILLAGE DIVIDED
“All of us were freaking out on Facebook,” said Tina Weyiouanna, 42, a cook at the village school.
Raised in Shishmaref, Weyiouanna worked as a bartender for the Board of Trade in Nome, where one night a drunk driver killed the father of her children. Back in the village, she worked at one of the stores. A group of twenty-somethings used to come in one at a time, she said, each buying a different ingredient for home brew. First sugar. Then juice. Then yeast. Long before any public meetings, she said, debate over the alcohol vote erupted online among a group of hundreds of current and former Shishmaref residents.
“I’ve lost friends who committed suicide when alcohol was involved. My grandfather lost his life to a weakened heart and mind due to alcohol,” wrote a young man who left the village to work as an engineer for BP in Anchorage.
The woman who launched the petition, Felicia Nayokpuk, said her efforts had turned family members against her. She hadn’t expected it to create such a stir. Nayokpuk only recently moved back to the village, her home town, after living out of state. She had thought a pizza parlor that serves beer would make for a good business.
“I just wanted to make a restaurant,” she said. “Somewhere to hang. There’s no place to actually go. Just some place to be social.”
The ballot question was planned for an Oct. 1 vote, like local elections across the state. But Shishmaref residents woke on Election Day to find notices saying the vote had been delayed. The official reason: A technicality in city bylaws had been violated.
Sample ballots were supposed to be printed on white paper but hadn’t been, Mayor Stanley Tocktoo said.
The election was postponed until Oct. 22. In an interview, Tocktoo acknowledged that the council had hoped postponing the vote would allow time for a public meeting and more public discussion. With the village divided, some residents said it’s bootleggers who stand to lose the most if the proposal passes.
“It’s not beer that they bring in, it’s hard liquor,” said city bingo coordinator Sharon Nayokpuk. “It costs $250 to $300 a bottle, and it will sell.”
Black market booze isn’t always available in the village, she said.
Some people make pineapple- or grape-flavored homemade alcohol instead.
“Home brew, you’ll get very high on your third cup. You’re drunk on your fourth cup,” she said. Dennis Davis, a former Shishmaref village police officer, said there’s a new trend among illicit brewers.
A Discovery Channel series called “Moonshiners,” about alcohol-makers in the Appalachians, debuted two years ago. It served as a televised class on distilling a stronger, clear liquor. A bottle of moonshine might sell for $150 to $200 in Shishmaref, Davis said. Trooper Capt. Steven Arlow, who oversees the village public safety officer program and ran the Western Alaska trooper detachment for eight years, said he’s not aware of any troopers finding moonshine in a village.
In any decision involving alcohol in Alaska, lives can be at stake.
The state’s rate of alcohol-induced deaths is three times the national average, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and state Bureau of Vital Statistics. That includes people who die from problems like liver disease and alcohol poisoning but not drunken-driving crashes or violent crime. Alcohol or drugs were involved in more than 60 percent of violent crimes investigated by troopers in 2010, the Department of Public Safety reported.
Under state law, Alaska communities can choose to limit the flow of booze. Some, like Shishmaref, outlaw importation or sales. Others ban the possession of alcohol. Seven communities split the difference between wet and dry. They only allow booze to be sold by a city-owned store or shipped to a city-run distribution center. That way they can try to manage alcohol use by funneling it through the local government while taxing sales to pay for services like roads or police.
That approach can lead to fewer problems than an outright ban, said Assistant Attorney General Gustaf Olson. Olson prosecutes bootlegging cases across the state. He recently won the conviction of a man who shot a village public safety officer in Buckland after ferrying liquor, wine and 32 six packs of beer to the village.
“When a village is completely dry, the monetary incentive (for bootlegging) is so high,” Olson said.
Arlow, the trooper captain, said when he learned of the Shishmaref vote a few weeks ago, he recommended to villagers that they talk to village leaders in Kiana, an Inupiat community east of Kotzebue. Kiana voters approved a plan in 2009 that allowed for a city-run liquor store, distribution center and even a restaurant that serves alcohol, residents said. So far, only the distribution center has opened. The taxes pay for village public safety officers, Arlow said.
Despite the increase in legal alcohol flowing to the community in the past four years, troopers have not seen a spike in crime in Kiana, he said. The ballot proposal in Shishmaref is different. As written on sample ballots, it would remove all restrictions, effectively making the village wet. People could ship in as much alcohol as they wanted, but legal sales, including at a restaurant, would require a license approved by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Barr, the suicide-prevention counselor, said villagers expected to talk about other potential options for the city, such as a distribution center, at a meeting this weekend. She was about 10 years old when Shishmaref voted to go dry, Barr said.
Her grandparents raised her and generally didn’t allow alcohol in the house. Later, her own children watched her and her husband struggle with drinking, Barr said.
“I never saw it when I was young, but my kids did see what it could do to their parents,” she said. “They are affected permanently from seeing adults fight when they are drinking. The hangovers the next day. That the parents are not going to cook because they’re sick, or they’re still drinking.”
Barr said she plans to vote against the change. Asked if she thinks Shishmaref should prohibit alcohol forever, she said the village will almost certainly become damp some day. In 10 or 20 years, if not now.
“I feel the vote is going to be close,” she said.
After a three-hour hunt without bagging a seal, Curtis Nayokpuk anchored his boat. The water was too choppy, he said.
By 10 p.m. he joined many of the young men in town in the school gymnasium, sinking three-pointers in a pick-up basketball game. French Montana’s “Aint Worried About Nothing” rattled the bleachers. The Shishmaref school mascot is the Northern Lights. A mural of polar bears under the Aurora Borealis hangs above the court, along with banners proclaiming traditional Inupiaq values.
“Love for children.”
As in every Alaska community, alcohol is often involved when Shishmaref residents get in trouble with the law. Curtis Nayokpuk pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault in January. He had been drinking at the time of the offense, according to a trooper dispatch. Court records show that Kuzuguk, another former VPSO, pleaded guilty to importing alcohol into a dry community in 2008, just before the Legislature toughened bootlegging penalties. Both charges were misdemeanors.
Today, bringing any amount of alcohol to Shishmaref is risky. Anyone convicted faces mandatory jail time. Even for someone smuggling just one bottle. Even for a first offense. The new penalties make sneaking a few bottles into a dry community as serious as drunken driving.
They include three days in jail and a $1,500 fine for first-time offenders, 20 days in jail and $3,000 for a second conviction. The penalties seem extreme compared to the sentences people get for violent crimes, said Clifford Weyiouanna, a 71-year-old former school board member and reindeer herder.
“If you bring in a can of beer, a … trooper is going to go in your house and put you in jail for a couple of weeks,” he said. “You could almost kill a person and not go to jail.”