Climate migration: Alaskan village fights back despite threats – WDIO | Wonder Mind Kids

SHISHMAREF, Alaska (AP) — Search online for the small town of Shishmaref and you’ll see homes perilously close to plunging into the ocean and headlines warning that this Native American community on a western Alaskan frontier island is living — without access to main roads to the mainland or running water – is on the verge of disappearing.

Climate change is partly responsible for rising seas, flooding, erosion and loss of protective ice and land threatening this Inupiat village of about 600 people near the Bering Strait, just a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle. His situation is bad.

All of this is true. And yet it is only part of the story.

The people of Shishmaref “are resourceful, they’re resilient,” said Rich Stasenko, who came to Shishmaref to teach at the local school in the mid-’70s and never left. “I don’t see any victims here.”

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

They may be on the edge of the world, but anywhere else they would be a far cry from some of the best spots for hunting bearded seals and other marine mammals, or for fishing and berry-picking on the tundra, which make up most of their diet. They would be separated from their close-knit community, which prides itself on being one of the finest producers of crafts in the area, and who upholds traditions and celebrates birthdays, baptisms and graduations around their home, local school and one of the schools northernmost Lutheran churches in the world.

“If they focus too much on it[on climate change]it becomes too much of a weight, too much of a burden, because … there are birthday parties, funerals, and sporting events,” said Rev. Aaron Silco, who with his wife Anna Co-Pastor of the Shishmaref Lutheran Church. They live next to the church and cemetery with their two-month-old son Aidan. “Despite all the burden and burden that climate change can impose on this community, life is still happening.”

On a recent Sunday, they celebrated Mass with about two dozen parishioners. Rev. Anna Silco asked the children of the group to gather on the steps of the altar, which is decorated with an ivory cross. She gave them mustard seeds from a small jar to teach the parable of keeping faith in the face of challenges.

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

At the end of the service, Ardith Weyiouanna and two of her grandchildren reflected on how the parable relates to Shishmaref, life on an island that may eventually disappear but where they believe living to the fullest is worthwhile.

“If we moved somewhere else, we would lose part of our identity. It’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else,” said Weyiouanna, whose family first came to Shishmaref in 1958 on a dog sled team.

“My home means my way of life, handed down to me by my ancestors—living on the land, the ocean, the air… we live on the animals that live here. And it’s important to teach my kids and grandkids,” she said, pointing to Isaac, 10, and Kyle Rose, 6, “so they can continue the lives that we have known in our time and before our time.”

This traditional lifestyle, which the Inupiat have maintained for thousands of years, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Alaska, the average temperature has risen 2.5 degrees (1.4 degrees Celsius) since 1992, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the entire globe, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, but has now gotten three times faster in some seasons.


EDITORS’ NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series examining the lives of people around the world who have been forced by rising sea levels, drought, scorching temperatures, and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change to move.


Shishmaref is on the small island of Sarichef – only a quarter of a mile wide and about three miles long. Only about half of that is habitable, but hundreds of feet of shoreline have been lost over the past several decades. A warmer climate also melts a protective layer of ice faster in the fall, making it more vulnerable to storms. In October 1997, a storm eroded about 30 feet of the north shore, resulting in the relocation of 14 homes to another part of the island, according to a report by the Alaska Department of Commerce. In 2002, five more apartments were moved.

Today, Shishmaref is one of dozens of Alaskan Native villages facing significant environmental threats from erosion, flooding, or thawing permafrost.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to move at some point,” said Lloyd Kiyutelluk, president of the local tribal council. “I don’t want it declared an emergency. But as things are, you know we’re getting storms we’ve never seen before.”

Ahead of a violent storm in mid-September, officials warned some places in Alaska could experience the worst flooding in 50 years. The storm swept through the Bering Strait and caused widespread flooding in several coastal communities in western Alaska, causing power outages and residents fleeing to higher ground.

In Shishmaref, the storm obliterated a road leading to the local landfill and sewage lagoon and posed 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 eviction.

“The right storm, with the right wind, could destroy our entire island, which is made more vulnerable by climate change,” said Snell, 35, general manager of Shishmaref Native Corporation.

“When someone says climate change isn’t real, it hurts 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 deal with every day.”

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

Hunters – who awoke at dawn to the chilly weather to board their boats in the village’s lagoon – returned with a catch of spotted seals, which were laid out in front of houses to be skinned and cured, a traditional week-long process that takes place is usually performed by women. A polar bear’s fur was drying on a shelf next to the runway, where small planes carry passengers, frozen food and other goods.

Residents drive snow machines and ATVs that have replaced dog sleds for hunting. But there are no other vehicles on the sandy roads where children play after school late into the evening and where the night sky is sometimes lit up with the spectacular green and other colors of the Northern Lights.

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

“So if this community is truly on the front lines of climate change, experiencing these risks firsthand and facing the loss of their landscape and their cultural traditions, in a way we understand that as climate injustice,” Marino said.

Some believe this injustice has claimed lives.

Ask John Kokeok about the impact of climate change on his village and he will tell you he started paying attention 15 years ago after a personal tragedy. His brother Norman, an experienced hunter, knew the ice and the trails well. But during a 2007 hunting trip, his snow machine fell through ice that was melting earlier than usual, and he was killed.

Blaming climate change, John has continued to tell his story ever since, hoping to warn younger generations and find 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. Now he would only leave if he had to evacuate.

“I know we’re not the only ones affected,” he said in his living room, next to a framed picture of his brother on his recent hunting trip.

“I’m sure there are everyone else on the coast. But this is home.”


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.


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