The Yup’ik people of Alaska are used to the tough demands that Mother Nature throws at them. As far back as 10,000 B.C., these people migrated herds of animals over land from Siberia to Alaska when Asia and North America were connected; they have become masters at adapting and living off the land.
Even today in the 21st century, with all its technology, they live a subsistence lifestyle of hunting, fishing and berry-gathering.
But now, the 350 or so Yup’ik people who live in Newtok, Alaska, on the far western coast of the state on the Bering Sea, have a new challenge. They have watched as higher temperatures and erosion have eaten away their land.
Thanks to aerial photographs, they know that their village lost 68 feet per year between 1954 and 2003. Water from the Ninglick River that surrounds the town is expected to reach the school by the end of 2017.
Lands’ End became aware of Newtok’s plight when we attended The Women in The World Summit and heard Patricia Cochran, Executive Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, speak about Alaska’s environmental challenges. We decided to travel to Newtok because of our increasing concern for the environment.
Getting to Newtok is not easy, and we needed permission from the tribal elders to visit there. This is an area known as ‘remote rural Alaska’, and it stretches from the north slope oil fields in the north all the way down to Bristol Bay and as far west as the Bering Sea. It covers some 395,000 square miles – large enough to hold Japan, Germany and Great Britain.
We took a three-hour flight from Seattle to Anchorage, and then another one-hour jet ride to the small town of Bethel, located some 397 miles to the west. From there, we took a small bush plane 45 minutes to Newtok. Our first approach to a neighbouring village on our way to Newtok was aborted because of bad weather. We also aborted our first attempted landing on Newtok’s small gravel airstrip because another plane taxied onto the runway; reminding us just how dangerous it is to fly in such a remote area.
The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the plane was the vast landscape. It is completely treeless and the mossy green tundra stretches out forever. The town itself is a collection of haphazardly placed buildings. Most are made out of plywood and have plastic sheeting for doors and windows. A decrepit maze of cracked, waterlogged boardwalks snakes through town.
There is mud everywhere. Rusting water tanks sit like giant boulders in the distance and children play with bows and arrows – their target is an old seat cushion. Freshly caught salmon dries under a tarp outside one of the houses. There is also garbage everywhere – rusted bicycles and cans, and even a dead muskox head rests in a pile of debris in front of one person’s house.
Throughout the town you can see evidence of them trying to deal with the problem of rising water levels. There are abandoned bulldozers and backhoes. Metal grates used to drive over the mud are scattered about the town.
While there are two small stores in Newtok, there is not much to choose from on the shelves. We saw row after row of canned goods and candy. There are no bars: alcohol is strictly forbidden anywhere in this region of Alaska.
During our visit, we lived off of bottled water, almonds and smoked sausages that we bought at the Anchorage airport and we slept on a wrestling mat on the floor of a school classroom in sleeping bags that were kindly lent to us. We met people who were open and friendly. The town elders played bingo in one of the small plywood buildings, while kids in the school gym played some of the best high school basketball we had ever seen. Their coach, as he watches them play, says “It keeps them out of trouble”.
But beyond the smiling faces, we saw a lot to be worried about, including pools of water surrounding the school. Crumbling riverbanks are encroaching on the decrepit plywood houses. Raw sewage has contaminated the groundwater because the sewage system no longer works. Erosion ruined the old landfill in 1996. Garbage now goes to a new landfill site across the river and is stacked up while villagers wait for high tide.
“I’m ready to move out of this place where there is too much water”, says a young villager named Bosco as he sits inside a hallway in the school. “The roads are underwater. We got used to it”, he says, “but it’s still hard”.
If this were 100 years ago, they would simply pack up and move to a more suitable location like they had done for hundreds of years. But these are modern times and moving is complicated because of the infrastructure – water tanks, electric generators, school, and so on. After completing a land exchange with the Department of the Interior, Newtok gained possession of a site called Metarvik, which in Yup’ik means ‘getting water from the spring’, located about nine miles away on a piece of high ground.
“Our federal government really sort of demands that a lot of steps happen before you can move”, Patricia Cochran told the audience at the Women in the World Summit. “You can’t move before you have an airstrip. You can’t move before you have a post office. There are a million things you have to go through before you can move this small community of people.”
Robin Bronen, the executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, which is dedicated to protecting the human rights of immigrants and refugees believes the time to act is now: “The residents of Newtok are in the middle of an urgent humanitarian crisis”, he says. “We are talking about preserving a culture.”