Alaska Natives Watch Traditions Melting Away


Tools of the ivory carver’s trade

Hunting walrus is an age-old tradition for the Inupiat Eskimo Native people of King Island, a tiny rugged piece of land jutting out of the Bering Sea off Alaska. The walrus provides meat for the long, dark, frigid winters, and its tusks, skin, blubber, intestines and other body parts serve other crucial functions, including making watertight parkas and "pokes" to store berries. They say the walruses turn a pink color when they are ready to "haul out" onto the sea ice where they can be hunted. Watching the sky and sea for signs of the coming walrus migration is an art still passed on from elders to the young generation.

But the effects of climate change have wreaked havoc with Arctic weather conditions that while always extreme and highly changeable, could be read like a book by Natives with centuries of experience and highly detailed language to describe different types of ice, wind and other climate conditions. Now, indigenous people across the Arctic region say, they can no longer predict important climactic changes and events like they used to, leading some to freeze to death caught in storms or stranded on ice; or face privation as their traditional hunts are interrupted.

Around the 1960s most King Islanders left their homes built on spindly stilts on the steep, rocky, windswept side of the island, and migrated to the famous coastal Gold Rush town of Nome about 90 miles away. They still return to the waters off King Island to hunt walrus in the spring. But this past year, the Nome King Islander community did not get a single walrus. They blame global warming, and specifically the fact that the sea ice which the walrus follow north is receding much faster than in the past, giving them only a narrow window of time to hunt.

"All living things are going to be affected by global warming, I don’t see it getting any better in our lifetime," said long-time hunter Sylvester Ayek as he cleaned salmon in his home on a recent morning – fish that normally would be "put up" for the coming winter along with dried walrus meat. "We’ve got to stop this fossil fuel burning frenzy, instead of going to war for it."

ImageEven more critical than the shortage of nutritious and traditional walrus meat, the failed walrus hunt of last spring means no new ivory tusks, which many King Islanders carve into sculptures, jewelry and trinkets to sell as their main form of income. Native Alaskans are allowed to hunt walrus, bearded seal, whales and other marine mammals in keeping with subsistence rights granted by the federal government. But people will often say "subsistence is an expensive lifestyle" – life has been inexorably altered so that even with subsistence hunting and gathering, heating oil to warm homes in winter and gasoline for boats and snow mobiles are crucial for survival. (Rifles and power boats have also largely supplanted the subsistence hunting methods of yore.)

And in remote villages and towns in Alaska, energy prices that are stressing families throughout the country are devastating – from $5 all the way to $8 or more for a gallon of gas; and prices of food, clothing and other goods delivered by plane or barge are equally expensive.

Elder King Islanders who spend their days in Nome carving ivory now have to buy it at expensive prices on the market, along with getting more frugal and creative in how they use ivory scraps and supplies left over from past years.

Thinner and more quickly receding sea ice, which are widely attributed to the effects of climate change, mean there is a smaller window in which to hunt walrus. The hunters can’t leave Nome until the shore ice breaks up, and in recent years by the time that happens the sea ice the walrus follow is already quickly receding. The shorter possible hunting time means King Islanders must also travel farther on rough seas in small aluminum boats; and are more likely to risk dangerous weather conditions to do so.

"Now we have to go out so far to get walrus, the ice is melting, it’s not like it used to be," said walrus hunter and ivory carver Hubert Kokuluk, squinting to see a pair of birds emerging in a rough core of yellowed ivory from the center of a tusk. "The ice used to be six or seven feet thick, now it’s only three feet, that’s not enough for them to haul out on. I don’t know what I’m going to do if we don’t hunt walrus next year, I don’t know what I’m going to carve."

He might look for whale bones on the beach to carve. But he loves to hunt walrus, reminiscing about close calls like the time rough seas forced them to throw all their walrus meat overboard just to make it home, except for one carcass that was shared with the whole community.

"That’s the way Eskimos do it, we give to people who don’t have anything," Kokuluk said. "No matter what, if someone needs food we’ll help feed them. When you get used to Native Eskimo food you’ve got to have it. Like my sister, no matter what she’s got to have seal oil."

The World’s Icebox is Melting

Global warming can be a contentious topic in Alaska, where the state’s wealth has depended largely on the fossil fuels which are a major culprit of warming. Global warming is also a harder sell in a land which is still frigid and frozen most of the year, and when this past winter and summer have actually been exceptionally cold, receding sea ice notwithstanding.

Arctic temperatures have always been highly variable and cyclical, among other thing heavily affected by El Nino and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. But most climate scientists studying the region now agree there is a directional warming trend in the Arctic caused at least in part by human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels.

In fact, climate change is affecting the Arctic and Antarctica at a much quicker rate than the rest of the world, and the melting of ice and snow at the poles creates a feedback loop "engine" that drives warming worldwide. White ice and snow reflects most heat from the sun, but once it melts, the dark ocean absorbs that heat.

Image[Photo: Inupiat Eskimo Sylvester Ayek, cleaning salmon in his Nome home, fears global warming will destroy Arctic wildlife.]

"We’ve lost our air conditioner in the north, because we don’t have all that white ice," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a geochemist studying climate with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She noted that in March 1987 sea ice was three meters thick over most of the Arctic, whereas in March 2007 only a quarter of the ice was that thick.

Widely used models predict Arctic temperatures could rise 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, and summer sea ice reached record lows this year, with predictions the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice within a decade or less. Data released by NASA this spring showed that while in the past more than half the ice in the Arctic had survived multiple years, this spring more than 70 percent of Arctic sea ice was "young" ice less than a year old.

As in the rest of the world, this warming has had complicated and interrelated effects on various species and human cultures. Birds and mammals are migrating earlier and taking different routes because of earlier springs and changes in sea ice. Species of fish, whales and insects are being found much farther north than ever before, impacting local species in both "negative" and "positive" ways, providing a new food source for some humans and animals.

Like polar bears, walrus populations are at risk because of the melting sea ice and other effects of global warming. They need the sea ice as a platform to breed and feed from. With melting ice, walrus herds are squeezing onto land, where last year about 4,000 young walrus were crushed to death by huge males in crowded, stressful conditions.

Another situation which could decimate walrus is just one example of the domino effects of climate change on the food web. Earlier melting of sea ice means earlier spring blooms of phytoplankton. But since the sun isn’t as strong early in the spring, the blooms won’t be as copious, and hence not as much phytoplankton will sink to the bottom to nourish the benthic layer of crustaceans – including crabs and clams — which are food for walrus. Also, the increasing acidification of the ocean with increased dissolved carbon makes it harder for benthic calcium carbonate creatures to build their shells. Hard times for these crustaceans means hard times for the walrus and other creatures up the food chain which depend on them.

This Time is Different

"The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Climate Change," published by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, notes that Native Alaskans and Canadian First Nations people in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions aren’t especially alarmed by major changes and extremes in a region where climactic regime shifts and extreme weather events have been the norm for centuries. But over the past decade they have indeed observed an overall trend of warming and decreasing sea ice; and they have found their traditional ways of predicting weather patterns are no longer as reliable.

A Native whaler quoted in "The Earth is Faster Now" said he used to always give dependable advice to young whalers about the meaning of weather signs. But since the mid-1970s, things got trickier and his life-long store of knowledge suddenly didn’t pass muster. "After the rules changed, I tried, but I was often wrong. Pretty soon younger whalers stopped listening to me. I tell you, that made me very sad."

In a worst case scenario, the receding and thinning sea ice and other effects of climate change in the Arctic could mean an eventual end to traditional subsistence hunting and traditional ways of life in general for many Alaska Natives. In remote, frozen villages, which will be hit hardest by the rising price of gas and other goods, the inability to depend on subsistence hunting could force – in fact has already forced – people to leave their villages for cities and towns. But in most cases there will not be jobs waiting for Alaska Natives if they migrate to more urban areas, and the family and social networks that are such an important part of their lives could be torn apart.

Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

Meanwhile climate change isn’t the only thing making it harder for Alaska Natives to continue practicing their traditions and living in their villages. Along Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989, communities have continued to feel the effects of that environmental disaster even as the U.S. Supreme Court recently reduced Exxon Mobil’s punitive damages ten-fold to $507 million; and the company is resisting paying interest on that amount.

The Alutiiq Alaska Natives of the region say subsistence fishing and commercial fishing carried out by the locals has been severely affected by oil and residue that still lingers in the waters and beaches. Birds, shellfish and other marine life have never recovered from the spill and the cleaning techniques used in the aftermath – scouring the area with high pressure, hot water.

"It decimated the subsistence lifestyle and the social structure that goes with it," said Travis Lee Vlasoff, project analyst for the Tatitlek Corporation, which represents shareholders from the Alutiiq village of Tatitlek just south of the oil port of Valdez. "We used to have peak times when the whole community came together. Now we’re seeing the impacts of a divided community, people don’t rely on each other the way they used to."

Residents still afraid of contamination in the fish and shellfish have turned to more expensive processed food, like the store-bought meat Exxon donated to the town in the wake of the spill. "Shellfish was traditionally a huge portion of our diet, now it’s been almost entirely removed," said Vlasoff, 32, who grew up in Tatitlek until leaving for college. "Same with ducks and waterfowl. Even seals are not in the numbers they used to be."

Only four of the 12 subsistence-related species harmed by the spill are now considered "recovered," according to government designations.

[Photo: Since sea ice is retreating so much more quickly through the Bering Sea — here, off Cape Nome — Inupiat Eskimo King Islanders have only a brief time for their spring walrus hunt.]

The Tatitlek Corporation tries to compensate for the wane of subsistence activities and commercial fishing with social services and assistance to community members trying to start businesses. The corporation’s nationwide investments include real estate and running a program for the US Marines Corps at its base in Twentynine Palms, California, where the corporation hires Iraqis and Afghanis as actors in mock villages complete with sheiks, insurgents and wounded civilians, to prepare US troops for deployment.

"Most employment generated by the corporation is not in the home community, so it adds to the out-migration," said Vlasoff.

Tatitlek Corporation chairman Lloyd Allen, 61, still misses the village he left in 1986, eventually ending up in Anchorage.

"I miss the quietness of it," he says. "I was brought up that way, since I was nine years old" – fishing chum and sockeye salmon with his family. Vlasoff likewise remembers the village as an idyllic childhood, which fewer and fewer Alaska Native kids now enjoy, where he had "more freedom than any other child could ever know, out in a 15-foot fishing boat with a rifle and a box of traps, the only rule to be back by dark."

The state has strict commercial fishing regulations which are credited with preventing over-fishing and keeping fish populations relatively stable and renewable. Limited entry commercial fishing permits are hence expensive, as is the equipment, so after the Exxon-related downturn many Tatitlek residents sold their permits and boats. Now the younger generation has grown up with little experience with fishing, and locals who have sold their permits have little chance of stockpiling the capital to re-enter the business. Vlasoff said during peak fishing years there were 140 people in the village, but now there are only 80 or 90, disproportionately children since adults have left to get jobs elsewhere.

Bristol Bay on the Brink

Meanwhile Native Yu’pik Eskimos in the Bristol Bay area in southwest Alaska face a different challenge to their fisheries. The multinational mining giant Anglo-American and a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., want to build North America’s largest open pit gold mine straddling two rivers that feed the bay and serve as spawning grounds for the Bristol Bay salmon which make it one of the world’s largest and most lucrative salmon fisheries. The proposed Pebble Mine would extract gold, copper and molybdenum from sulfide ore, which produces sulfuric acid and other toxic byproducts when disturbed. The companies maintain they will store the waste products safely with relatively minor impact on water quality, but Native and environmental groups say it is virtually guaranteed the mine would seriously contaminate the streams and kill salmon. During Alaska’s primary elections on Aug. 26, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have prohibited the contamination of salmon or drinking water streams by large metal mines. Opponents of the measure threatened it would cause a statewide "mining shutdown" and wreck the economy.

"You’ve got a renewable resource that has sustained people for time immemorial, how do you balance that against a non-renewable resource?" asked Bristol Bay Yu’pik Native Eric Olson, of the salmon fishery versus the gold mine. "I don’t know how you could guarantee there would not be an effect on the salmon resources. As a commercial fisherman, with my parents who still live there, that really concerns me."

The Bristol Bay fishery took a serious downturn in the 1980s, mostly due to competition from fish farms in Chile, Norway and other countries, and Japanese buyers deserting Bristol Bay to buy farmed fish. In the past few years Bristol Bay has enjoyed a resurgence because of the growing market for wild salmon, which tastes distinctly different than farmed salmon. But it is still an uncertain livelihood, with many Yu’pik Eskimos struggling to survive and often leaving the area in search of other opportunities.

Olson, who now serves as chair of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council concentrating on the Yukon River area, noted that commercial fishing is often crucial for Natives to fund their subsistence activities.

"You need to buy gas and (gun) shells to hunt moose and birds," he said. "If there’s no opportunity to do commercial fishing how are you going to earn that money?"

Because of rising gas prices and cost of living in general, he noted, many Yukon fishermen have given up the life and migrated to cities or other regions. So far salmon fishing on the Yukon has not been obviously affected by warming. Salmon runs go up and down year by year, and commercial fishermen are impacted by limits set by the state to protect sustainability, catch rights for upriver fishermen and the capability of canneries. But people still worry that in the future warming streams and increasingly acid ocean water could stress and kill salmon, making them more vulnerable to parasites like Ichthyophonus which infected many Yukon River salmon in the early 2000s.

Swimming Upstream in a Changing World

Larry Merculieff, an Aleut Alaska Native who is one of the state’s foremost leaders of indigenous rights and environmental movements, said many Native elders predict salmon could disappear completely in a decade. This would just be one in a number of traumas suffered by Alaska Natives trying to deal with a natural world they had known so intimately suddenly becoming out of whack. Merculieff, co-founder of the International Bering Sea Forum and the Alaskan Indigenous Council on Marine Mammals, said immediate and dramatic action is needed to prevent whole ways of life from disappearing.

"When I hear ‘sustainability’ I hear, ‘We want to maintain our current lifestyle, with hybrid cars and new light bulbs,’" he said. "But this current society is the root of so many evils…Where is this fever grasping the world coming from? We’re like the proverbial frog in the frying pan. And once it hits the tipping point it will come faster and faster."

Ultimately, since likely crossing the Bering land bridge millennia ago and through various cycles of warming and cooling and shifting of herds and migrations, indigenous people of the far north have always used their collective knowledge and intimate connection with the earth to adapt and survive.

Today Native Alaskans express concern that since global warming is driven by humans, and since its effects are characterized by wild and unpredictable change so much more rapid than in the past, this time will be different. And instead of complete freedom and self-sufficiency of the past, they are already living in an often uneasy mesh of modern and traditional ways of life, limited and defined by development, resource exploitation, and government designations of their rights and land holdings.

In "The Earth is Faster Now," Arctic researcher David Norton says Native whalers seem less concerned with placing blame or proving global warming, and more concerned with simply dealing with its effects. King Islanders in Nome are already taking such steps. Some hunters are planning to leave a boat at King Island this fall so they can helicopter there in the early spring to wait for the walrus migration – rather than trying to catch up to it in the narrow time frame after shore ice breaks. Likewise elder Norbert Thomas, 57, one of the town’s foremost artists, isn’t letting the ivory shortage get him down. Sitting on rocks by the ocean on a crystal clear summer morning in Nome, he is deftly carving a face out of a small chunk of flaky driftwood, which he will later adorn with a fur hood.

"I used to burn wood while I was camping on the beach," said Thomas. "Then I realized I was burning carving material. People complain there is no ivory. But if there is no ivory I’ll just carve something else. You do what you can. I’m my own boss."

Advocates of the soon-to-open Nome Native Arts Center and its parent organization, the Native Arts Foundation based in Anchorage, hope that by promoting Native artwork as fine art to a wider range of buyers, bypassing gift shops that take a hefty cut, Natives can earn more profit from a lesser amount of ivory. In September the Native Arts Foundation will open a gallery in the SoHo district in New York City. Sylvester Ayek is planning to do some large sculptures to exhibit and hopefully sell there. But he’d rather be out hunting off the shores of King Island.

"I’m not looking forward to going to the big city where there’s so much air pollution everywhere," he said. "I don’t want to be in the big city where there’s no hunting or fishing. Those of us who were born on King Island just love it. No matter how many times you see the same rocks over and over, you never get tired of it."

Photos by Kari Lydersen.