An Alaskan island village threatened by rising seas is fighting to protect its way of life

Search online for the small town of Shishmaref and you’ll see houses about to fall into the ocean, and headlines warning that this native community on a frontier island in western Alaska – with no access to major roads to the mainland or running water – is on the verge of extinction.

Climate change is partly to blame for rising seas, flooding, erosion and loss of ice and protective land that threaten this Inupiat village of around 600 people near the Bering Strait, a few miles from the Arctic Circle. His situation is dire.

All of this is true. And yet, that’s only part of the story.

The people of Shishmaref “have resources, they are resilient,” said Rich Stasenko, who arrived in Shishmaref to teach at the local school in the mid-1970s and never left. “I don’t see any casualties here.”

Yes, residents voted twice to move (in 2002 and 2016). But they didn’t move. There is not enough money to fund the move. The chosen locations are not optimal. And perhaps, more importantly, there are no places like Shishmaref.

They might be at the end of the world, but elsewhere they would be far from some of the best places for the subsistence hunting of bearded seals and other marine mammals or the fishing and berry picking on the tundra that make up the bulk of their diet.

They would be dispersed from their close-knit community which prides itself on being one of the best arts and crafts creators in the area and which maintains traditions and celebrates birthdays, baptisms and graduations centered on their homes, their local school and one of the northernmost Lutheran churches in the world.

“If they focus too much on [climate change], it will get too heavy, too heavy, because … there are birthday parties, funerals and sporting events,” said Reverend Aaron Silco, co-pastor of Shishmaref Lutheran Church. with his wife Anna. They live next to the church and cemetery with their 2 month old son, Aidan. “There is still life despite all the weight and burden that climate change can place on this community.”

On a recent Sunday, they celebrated Mass with about two dozen parishioners. Reverend Anna Silco asked the children in the group to gather on the steps of the altar, decorated with an ivory cross. She gave them mustard seeds from a small jar to explain the parable about maintaining faith despite difficulties.

“A mustard seed can grow into a huge tree,” she told them. “My faith can be as small as a mustard seed and that will be enough.”

At the end of the service, Ardith Weyiouanna and two of her grandchildren reflected on how the parable related to Shishmaref, to life on an island that may eventually disappear but where they believe is worth being. lived fully.

“To move elsewhere, we would lose part of our identity. It’s hard to see me living anywhere else,” said Weyiouanna, whose family first arrived in Shishmaref with a dog sledding team in 1958.

“My home signifies my way of life, passed down from my ancestors – living off the land, the ocean, the air…the animals that are here. And it’s important to teach that to my kids, to my grandkids,” she said, pointing to Isaac, 10, and Kyle Rose, 6, “so they can get on with the life that we have known in our time and before our time. ”

This traditional way of life that the Inupiat have maintained for thousands of years is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Alaska, the average temperature increased 2.5 degrees since 1992, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic was warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole, but has now jumped three times faster some seasons, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program.

Shishmaref sits on the small island of Sarichef – just a quarter of a mile wide and about three miles long. Only about half is habitable, but hundreds of feet of shoreline have been lost in recent decades. A warmer climate also melts a protective layer of ice faster in the fall, making it more vulnerable to storms. In October 1997, about 30 feet of the north shore eroded after a storm, causing 14 homes to move to another part of the island, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. . Five other houses were moved in 2002.

Today, Shishmaref is one of dozens of Alaska Native villages that face significant environmental threats from erosion, flooding or thawing permafrost, according to a report published in May by the United States Government Accountability Office which states that climate change “is expected to exacerbate” these threats.

“I’m afraid we might have to move eventually,” said Lloyd Kiyutelluk, chairman of the local tribal council. “I don’t want it declared an emergency. But the way things are, you know, we have storms that we’ve never seen before.

Ahead of a powerful storm in mid-September, officials warned that some places in Alaska could experience the worst flooding in 50 years. The storm swept through the Bering Strait, causing widespread flooding in several coastal communities in western Alaska, knocking out power and forcing residents to flee to higher ground.

In Shishmaref, the storm destroyed a road leading to the local landfill and sewage lagoon, creating a health hazard for a town that lacks running water. Molly Snell said she prayed for a miracle that would save the village where she was born and raised from being forced to evacuate.

“The right storm with the right wind could destroy our whole island which is more vulnerable due to climate change,” said Snell, 35, chief executive of Shishmaref Native Corp.

“For someone to say that climate change isn’t real hurts me a bit because we see it firsthand in Shishmaref,” she said. “People who say it’s not real, they don’t know how we live and what we face every day.”

She recently cooked dinner for her partner, Tyler Weyiouanna’s 31st birthday, with her 80-year-old stepfather, Clifford Weyiouanna, a respected village elder and former reindeer herder. Their meal included turkey, a cake with a photo posing next to the last bear Tyler had hunted, and akutuq, an ice cream-like dish traditionally made by Alaska Native cultures from berries, seal oil and fat from caribou and other animals. His 5-year-old son Ryder played with Legos while they cooked and later joined them singing “Happy Birthday” when Tyler returned from a hunting trip.

The hunters – who awoke at dawn to the cold weather to board their boats in the village’s lagoon – returned with a catch of spotted seals which were deposited outside houses ready to be skinned and healed, a traditional week-long process that is usually performed by women. The fur of a dried polar bear in a rack next to the airstrip where small planes carry passengers, frozen food and other cargo.

Residents drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, which have replaced dog sleds for hunting. But there are no other vehicles on the sandy roads where children play after school and late into the evening, and where sometimes the night sky is lit up with spectacular streaks of green and other colors of the northern lights.

“It’s not a community that is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and industrialization to the extent that we know Western Europe and North America have been,” Elizabeth said. Marino, anthropologist and author of “Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground: An ethnography of climate change in Shishmaref, Alaska.

“And so if this community is truly on the front lines of climate change, experiencing these risks first hand and dealing with the loss of their landscape and their cultural traditions, we kind of understand that as a climate injustice,” Marino said.

Some believe that this injustice cost lives.

Ask John Kokeok about the effects of climate change on his village and he’ll tell you that he started paying attention to it 15 years ago, after a personal tragedy. His brother Norman, a skilled hunter, knew the ice and the trails well. However, during a hunting trip in 2007, his snowmobile fell through the ice which melted earlier than usual, and he was killed.

Kokeok blames climate change and has since told his story in hopes of warning younger generations and finding solutions to protect his island community. Like others, he voted to move Shishmaref to safer ground. But he also wants to protect his traditions, his way of life. The only way for him to leave now is if he had to evacuate.

“I know we’re not the only ones affected,” he said in his living room, next to a framed photo of his brother from his last hunting trip. “I’m sure there’s everyone on the coast. But this is home.

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