Itta honored at his last Kivgiq as mayor
February 13th, 2011 | Alex DeMarban
BARROW -- The North Slope Borough Assembly generously praised outgoing Mayor Ed Itta and his wife, Elsie, lavishing them with kind words, an oil painting portrait and traditional dances by the mayor's staff.
The honor, given in front of hundreds at the 2011 Kivgiq festival on Friday, came as a surprise, the mayor said.
"I'm so thankful for this honor, and I'm so thankful that of all the things that we could be, that God made us Inupiaq," he said to cheers as his wife wiped away tears.
This Kivgiq, or Messenger Feast, is the mayor's last, at least for now, because he reaches the end of his two-term limit later this year.
Seven assembly members took turns telling hundreds in English and Inupiaq that Itta's vision, humility and willingness to compromise moved the North Slope forward in vital areas, including tackling drugs and alcohol, improving borough finances, and influencing the national debate on offshore drilling to protect coastal communities.
Assemblyman Dean Olemaun waved the audience to their feet and led a cheer, with one side of the gym shouting U and the other side screaming S.
"What's that spell?"
"Us!" the room roared.
"That is who Mayor Edward was working for: Us," said Olemaun.
He thanked Itta for having the courage to raise awareness about the sensitive topic of drugs and alcohol abuse. Most North Slope residents don't have a chemical problem, but every family is affected by it in the region's small, close-knit communities.
The mayor, working with other Barrow and village leaders, highlighted the problem across the Slope, and, through his Healthy Communities initiatives and his youth advisory council, provided more activities and leadership opportunities for young people, he said.
The honoring ceremony for the mayor included a skit by teens with the youth advisory council. The protagonist considers shooting herself as she wards off temptations from boyfriends and friends. But she's saved by her faith in God.
Assemblyman Rex Rock Sr., president and CEO of ASRC, said in an interview that the mayor had worked hard to improve opportunities for young people.
During the ceremony, Rock thanked Elsie for supporting her husband. He called the mayor "one humble person" who "knows how to reach across the table."
Assemblyman Mike Aamodt said he was initially disappointed when he lost the mayor bid to Itta in 2005. But Itta accomplished what Aamodt had hoped to.
"So I got everything done that I wanted, without the headache," said Aamodt.
Itta takes care to remember all the communities on the North Slope when he governs, said Assemblyman Eugene Brower. He led the effort to reduce the borough's debt and strengthen the economy.
His demands for offshore exploration, which included subsistence protections, better scientific support and enhanced spill prevention and response measures, shaped state and national political debates.
Brower read letters from U.S. Sen Mark Begich and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that praised Itta's visionary leadership. Itta recently negotiated a scientific research program funded by Shell to study the offshore Arctic ecosystem. It will incorporate traditional knowledge and bring together scientists and representatives from North Slope communities.
"Never before has the borough been able to achieve an agreement that gives local people so much influence" in this area, said Brower.
Itta, his hand on his heart, thanked others for their help during his years in office.
The assembly worked together to find common ground, past and current leaders offered advice and helped create Healthy Communities, and young people came up with the idea to create the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council.
He referred to past advice he'd been given.
"If we don't approach our problems with love in our hearts, we're not going to solve anything," he said.
In an interview later, he called the honor a highlight of his life.
"I am at a loss for words. I'm just so honored and humbled. I'm just so fortunate to be where I am, to be Inupiaq and to be honored by my own. That's the highest, that makes me wish to do even more, to do even better."
"I thank the assembly from the bottom of my heart, and the people," he said.
The assembly members presented him with an oil painting by Moses Wassillie, featuring the Itta couple in front of Barrow's bowhead whale arch. Point Hope artist Ken Lisbourne, who paints Arctic scenes such as walrus hunts, donated several prints for the mayor to hang in borough buildings of his choosing.
About a dozen staff members, all wearing matching white atikluks, performed a few dances and joined the mayor in the popular raven dance, strutting and cawing with hands at their hips and bobbing their heads like ravens.
Alex DeMarban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org