Marie Adams Carroll became a ‘folk hero’ fighting for Iñupiat whaling rights. Now she’s in the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

Marie Adams Carroll has worked in various leadership roles in her 40-year career on the North Slope. She was recently inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

On Tuesday, 10 women were inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

One of them was Marie Adams Carroll from Utqiaġvik. She stepped into a leadership role as a young woman on the North Slope during a time of crisis — when subsistence activities were threatened — and has been involved in public life ever since.

She’s been called a folk hero. And people who have worked with her over her 40-year career — or have seen the fruits of her labor — consistently praise her leadership.

On a recent evening in Utqiaġvik, Carroll sat at her sister’s kitchen table and pulled out silky, crimson-red cuts of fabric for her sister Diana Martin to look at.

“This is real pretty!” Martin exclaimed, “My favorite color.”

Carroll and Martin were working on an atikluk — a traditional Iñupiaq formal shirt that Carroll planned to wear to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Marie Adams Carroll and her sister Diana Martin work on an atikluk. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

This house is where the two women grew up, along with nine brothers and sisters. And — you could say — where Carroll’s role as a leader began.

“We’d get all these chairs together and form a train, and play and play,” she remembered, “and about half-hour before mom would come home, I would become a queen.”

“I remember that!” said Martin, and the two women burst into laughter, reminiscing about how Carroll would command her siblings to do various cleanup activities.

Her leadership inclinations may have been sharpened in the clamor of sibling games. But she traces her interest in finding meaningful work back to a serious moment in her childhood: an illness she had when she was 6 or 7 years old.

“I felt like I was in and out of my body,” she said. “As I saw my body drifting away, I thought, ‘But God, I haven’t done anything with my life. I need to do something.'”

She recovered from that illness. But the feeling of needing to make her life mean something — that didn’t go away.

She saw education as a path to that, and she became the first person in her family to go to college.

But in 1977 — before she’d finished her bachelor’s degree — the North Slope was hit by some seismic news: The International Whaling Commission was concerned that the population of bowhead whales was too low to support a subsistence hunt, and had put a moratorium on it. That kicked off a huge fight in northern Alaska for the right to whale.

It was this moment that marked the real start of Carroll’s public career.

Her brother Jacob Adams was serving as chairman of the organization that formed to advocate for the whalers — the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission — and he and her and cousin Oliver Leavitt recruited her to work for the organization. A few years after she started, Adams and Leavitt proposed that she lead AEWC, and she became executive director.

At first, some whaling captains didn’t think a woman should be their representative. But that changed before too long, according to Leavitt.

“Marie became central around our life, because she represented us for the whale, and the ability to whale,” he said. “She was kind of the folk hero around here.”

Leavitt said that Carroll led with integrity and intelligence, and was instrumental in preserving the rights of northern Alaska communities to keep whaling.

Eventually, things settled down enough that Carroll felt she could leave whaling issues to try her hand at other things.

She worked in local government for a while — as the city manager for Utqiaġvik, and later as a top deputy for the mayor of the North Slope Borough.

And then another colossal task came her way. The tribal nonprofit health organization on the North Slope — Arctic Slope Native Association, or ASNA — wanted to build the region’s first modern hospital, and they asked Carroll to come on board as health director and lead that project. 

At the time, she said, the only medical facility in Utqiaġvik was run down and way too small to serve the needs of the community.

“There were only six exam rooms serving about 5,000 people,” she said. “We had outdated equipment. … When I first started they had duct tape on the nurse’s station.”

It took about a decade to get the new hospital funded, and another few years to build it.

Today, the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital is a large, sleek building in Utqiaġvik, with light filtering into a high-ceiling lobby, and art by Iñupiaq artists decorating the walls.

The lobby of the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It offers a much better-equipped emergency room than the old facility and a whole list of services that people once had to fly to Anchorage for.

And Carroll is responsible for making that happen. She’s now been with ASNA for 20 years, over a decade of those as president and CEO.

The exterior of the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Richard Hall — the hospital administrator — said her leadership has had a distinct vision.

“She’s always wanted everyone in this community to have the same type of health opportunities that you have in the big cities,” he said.

Carroll is in her 60s now. She said this is the job she’ll retire from.

But asking around about her in Utqiaġvik — where people speak with pride about her accomplishments and with deep respect for her as a person — it’s clear that the things she’s done on the North Slope will be remembered long after she stops clocking in.

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