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In Noorvik, a Governor’s Swearing-In Is an Opportunity to Be ‘Put on the Map’ (Updated)

Large gymnasium with people setting up chairs for an audience; in the background is a sign that reads "Noorvik."

Update, Monday afternoon: Due to weather, Governor Dunleavy was unable to be sworn in in Noorvik today. His plane landed in Kotzebue, where the community put together an impromptu ceremony at the high school. The ceremony went on as planned in Noorvik, with Dunleavy and Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer being sworn in virtually in front of the crowd.

Spirits in the community were still high: while it didn’t go as planned, Noorvik was happy to share the ceremony with their neighbor, Kotzebue. The governor plans to spend time today in Noorvik at the community feast.

(original story)

Mike Dunleavy will be sworn into office today as Alaska’s next governor. He chose to hold his inauguration in his wife’s hometown, Noorvik. The event is no small deal in the rural community, as its planning includes a community effort, with the help of around 100 volunteers. KNOM’s Katie Kazmierski reports in Noorvik on the energy previewing today’s ceremony.

Walking the streets of Noorvik, I hear what I imagine the town typically sounds like on any given winter Sunday morning: snowmachines rounding corners and kids laughing and playing outside.

The sun rises in Noorvik, Alaska just before noon on December 2, 2018. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

But step inside the Aqqaluk Noorvik School on Sunday afternoon, and the excitement is tangible.

Volunteers in the kitchen work busily to prepare 13,000 pounds of food, flown in from Kotzebue, for a giant celebration: an unprecedented one for the 700-person village. Mike Dunleavy is being sworn in as governor this afternoon, and he chose to host his ceremony right here in Noorvik.

This makes Dunleavy the first governor to be sworn in above the Arctic Circle.

Dunleavy’s wife, Rose, is from Noorvik. Community members are excited to welcome Rose home, including volunteer cook Molly Sheldon:

“Welcome home to his wife Rose, welcome home. And we’re happy. The whole village is happy.”

A handwritten sign in a school reads "welcome home, First Lady Rose!"
A sign in the Noorvik school cafeteria welcomes Rose Dunleavy, now first lady of Alaska, back to her home village.

Rhoda Johnson, busy chopping pineapple for Monday’s fruit salad, shares a memory of Rose Dunleavy’s kindness:

“I wanted my permanent fund, and they were stuck in Kotzebue… and she called Kotzebue and my PFDs got in that evening. I sure thanked her, I think I got her a box of strawberries if I remember right. She was helpful. I’m glad she’s coming home finally.”

Rhoda and Molly are two of just under 100 community members volunteering their time and efforts to organize the swearing-in ceremony and celebration.

Other volunteers signed up to shuttle reporters and other visitors to and from the airport. Many helped to set up the school gymnasium for the big event, arranging chairs and decorating with flowers.

Gia Hanna, the event’s head organizer, pays close attention to detail as she directs the rehearsal of the event Sunday afternoon. She informs those involved in the ceremony that no matter where they’re at in the agenda, the State constitution says that the governor must be sworn in before 12 noon, and so it’s vital that they remain on schedule.

woman speaks in front of group of people sitting on bleachers in gymnasium
Gia Hanna leads volunteers on December 2nd in rehearsal for the swearing in ceremony of Governor Mike Dunleavy. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

According to Hanna, when the governor-elect asked her to organize the event, he stressed the importance of the event’s accessibility to Noorvik community members first, and visitors second. She told me, “the most important thing to him was that everyone in Noorvik who wants to come, can come.”

Because of space and resources, though, the event is capped at 750 attendees. Community volunteer Sophie Cleveland has been distributing tickets to interested community members.

“I was given 400 tickets to hand out to the residents of Noorvik 18 and older. I’ve been announcing on the VHF and, you know, spreading the word in town to say, ‘I have tickets if you want to attend the governor inauguration.’”

For many, it’s exciting to not only host the inauguration in town, but also to witness firsthand as someone they know closely becomes the state’s governor. Noorvik school principal Faith Jurs shares memories of working with Dunleavy back when he worked in education.

“When I first came to Alaska, Mike Dunleavy was a 4th grade teacher in Kotzebue. I did the gifted program there, and we worked together my very first year. He was also the superintendent here when I was a teacher. So I know Mike well, and Rose through him.”

As far as the unprecedented event’s impact and legacy for remote, northwest Alaska:

“It kind of puts Noorvik on the map. And I hope that kids in the region feel like anyone can become the governor. That a fourth grade teacher can become the governor of our state. And I really hope that everyone feels welcome here and loves our school and our town as much as we do.”

Mayor Verne Cleveland echoed how the high-profile event will surely bring attention to the small town.

“As soon as it happens, I bet people are googling ‘where’s Noorvik at?’ It’s gonna put us on the map. And I’m glad the governor’s coming up to Noorvik to look at how we live and what kind of situation we’re in in rural areas. And that’ll help us a lot in the long run.”

The ceremony in Noorvik is scheduled to start around 10:45 a.m., with Dunleavy and Lieutenant Governor-elect Kevin Meyer being sworn in around noon. Afterwards, the entire town will share in a community celebration feast.

Image at top: Prep for Gov. Dunleavy’s inauguration in Noorvik. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

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