SEASON TWO | EPISODE TWO
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Krista Sinook So imagine that your hometown just suddenly washes away, all the grave sites, your childhood house, your school, and everybody that you know has to move somewhere else.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m walking through the town of Shishmaref, Alaska with Krista Sinook.
Krista Sinook And that threat’s really real. And even the little kids are aware of it.
Amy Martin Krista teaches third grade here in this town of around 600 people, on a small barrier island off the north-west coast of Alaska. This island is going through an erosion process put on steroids by climate change. Loss of the sea ice and permafrost mean the coastline is being worn away, bringing the cold, Arctic water closer and closer each year, circling this village in an ever-tighter noose.
Krista Sinook The waves in the winter will come up and wash pretty far up. You get spray on your windows.
Amy Martin Wait a minute, you get spray on your house windows?
Krista Sinook Yeah. So, we used to live in a house that faces towards the sea and as the storm would happen in the fall, you’d get some spray on the windows, but, ...
Amy Martin Whoa.
Krista Sinook Yeah, so it’s still happening, it’s happening all the time.
Amy Martin Krista and I are walking out to the airport, which is really just a short landing strip on the edge of town. It’s a great place to come ride your bike if you’re a kid here. It’s also a good place to feel how narrow this island has become. Right where we’re standing, it’s about a quarter-mile wide. That’s less than the width of the National Mall in Washington D.C. We can see water just a few hundred yards away from us on either side. Picture yourself standing on an island that thin during a raging Arctic storm, with no way to get out.
Amy Martin The town has voted to relocate to the mainland, but they need around $180 million to make the move. And so far, they’ve had a really hard time getting their needs heard in Washington. And Shishmaref isn’t alone: at least 30 other communities in coastal Alaska are in similar situations.
Krista Sinook If you were watching somebody drowning in the ocean, would you just boat by and say, oh somebody else will save them. You wouldn’t do that, so why are you doing it right now with all of these places?
Amy Martin I ask Krista if she thinks it is going to take a catastrophe – a storm where water washes over the island, and people lose their lives – before the outside world decides to care about Shishmaref.
Krista Sinook I think that sometimes.
Krista Sinook But honestly, I’m hoping that they’re not waiting just to see something big to happen, and realize that, like, we’re in trouble right now. Kivalina is in trouble right now. And the longer we wait to do something, the more likely it is that we will have that catastrophe.
Amy Martin Krista moved to Shishmaref in 2012, and a few years later she met a man who grew up here, named Skip. They got married, and so she kind of has a foot in two worlds. She says sometimes her friends outside of Shishmaref ask her, why don’t people there just move to some other town – Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle? Why are they insisting on relocating the whole village? But Krista says in Shishmaref, that’s basically like telling the community to let their culture go extinct. It’s something she had to learn as a white person who grew up in the lower 48.
Krista Sinook Yeah, it would be like saying, oh sure, just abandon America and go to Argentina. That would be great, right? And you would be like, it kind of looks the same and it really doesn’t feel the same. And that you would lose very quickly what makes your culture yours. It would be very easily absorbed into something else. And it’s really easy for some people to forget because our culture is prominent. Like, my culture is everywhere in America, so it’s easy for me to forget that it could be taken apart. And this is a very small specific culture. Iñupiaq to Shishmaref is only existing here. Iñupiaq is big, but Shishmaref Iñupiaq is only existing right here. And if we take it out of Shishmaref, it has the ability to just break apart.
Amy Martin If you look Shishmaref up online, you’ll find pictures of houses falling into the sea, and stories referring to the people here as climate change refugees. And it’s true that climate change is a real threat here. But it’s not the only one.
Krista Sinook I mean, we’re talking about climate erosion, eroding away the land. It happens to people’s cultures, too.
Amy Martin And that cultural erosion isn’t just a sidebar to the climate change story – it’s totally intertwined with it. In other words, there are several inconvenient truths playing out in Shishmaref, and they’re all interconnected. That’s what we’re going to explore on this episode of Threshold.
Nora Kuzuguk Us kids would be out, you know, out and about, and then one of us would say, “Let’s go listen to someone tell stories.” Yeah.
Amy Martin That’s so sweet!
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah.
Amy Martin It’s almost like kids saying – let’s go watch TV now, huh?
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah.
Amy Martin This is Nora Kuzuguk. She’s 70 years old, and she’s lived her whole life in Shishmaref. She was sitting outside of her house when I walked by one day, and we ended up talking for hours. She moves slowly, but she has bright eyes and a warm smile, and lots of memories from her childhood on the island. She says of some of the best ones were these times when the kids would go visit elders, and listen to stories.
Nora Kuzuguk Silly stories, good stories, some of them very interesting. They were mostly to teach us not to be, ah, mean or not to be lazy. What happens to people when they’re lazy.
Amy Martin What happened to people when they were lazy?
Nora Kuzuguk They’re single.
Amy Martin They’re single.
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah.
Amy Martin Nobody wants to marry them.
Nora Kuzuguk No. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin People have been living in this part of the world for a really long time. In fact, some of the first humans to cross into North America most likely spent time in the place where Shishmaref is now, but it wasn’t a coastal island then. It was part of a huge plain called Beringia, the land that connected Asia to the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age. Ever since, people have been figuring out how to survive here: honing the best methods for finding food, making clothing and shelter, and building healthy families and communities. Nora herself has raised 10 children here, and the amount of change she’s lived through is pretty extraordinary.
Nora Kuzuguk I remember a little bit going in a sod house.
Amy Martin Sod houses are an ingenious way of using the insulating power of the Earth to stay warm in the winter, especially in a place like this, where trees are really hard to come by. Nora says most people had transitioned to frame houses when she was small, but she does remember visiting a few people who still lived the old way.
Nora Kuzuguk You go in from, like, the top through a hole, and then down, and then a long hallway, and then finally the door. Then we go inside, we open their door. We never knock. We never hear about knocking. But once we go in, we stay by the door.
Amy Martin Why was that?
Nora Kuzuguk That’s respect for the family.
Amy Martin I see. Like it would have not been polite to go all the way in.
Nora Kuzuguk Yes, they would say, [IN IÑUPIAQ], what is it? Then they tell you to go sit down, [IN IÑUPIAQ]. Then we will go sit down.
Amy Martin I see. So you waited until you had the invitation.
Nora Kuzuguk Yes.
Amy Martin The process of making a sod house began with digging a shallow hole in the summer, when the active layer of soil above the permafrost could be removed. Then, a main room was built out of driftwood and sod. The long hallway Nora mentioned was typically built below the level of this room. Since cold air sinks and warm air rises, this design concentrated the warmth in the living space, which was lit and heated by seal oil lamps. This was mostly a winter home. In the summer, Nora says, people used tents, teepees, and other movable dwellings.
Amy Martin And what about your grandparents, would they have been in the time of sod houses?
Nora Kuzuguk Yes.
Amy Martin So you’ve got deep roots here.
Nora Kuzuguk Yes.
Amy Martin At the same time Nora was learning the ancient etiquette for entering a sod house, she was also being introduced to something brand new: commercial airplanes. When she was a child, there was a flight about once a month, and she says mothers would pack up their babies for the event.
Nora Kuzuguk Yes.
Amy Martin And what would they get from the plane then?
Nora Kuzuguk Nothing. Just to watch what’s going on.
Nora Kuzuguk When the plane comes we would be in the classroom, the teacher would be talking to us, but as soon as we hear the plane we run to our parkys.
Amy Martin And that was OK, it was OK to go out and watch?
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah, we’d all take off. But we all return.
Amy Martin So are some of your friends that you went to school with, are they still here in Shishmaref?
Nora Kuzuguk Yes.
Amy Martin So you share these memories.
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah?
Amy Martin Most of those memories are happy. But not all of them.
Nora Kuzuguk Yes, I grew up speaking Iñupiaq. I went to school, I didn’t understand the teacher. I would say the teachers were, some of them were cruel.
Amy Martin In what way?
Nora Kuzuguk Like, if we say an Eskimo word and she hears that, you have to put your hand out so the teacher can hit you with the ruler.
Amy Martin How old were you when that was happening?
Nora Kuzuguk I was still little, very little.
Amy Martin So that made you really scared to speak Iñupiaq.
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah, yeah. So we never speak, us children never speak Iñupiaq. I think we were the quietest students.
Kelly Eningowuk I’ve heard something to the effect of, “These dumb Eskimos, why did they, why did they build their community on a barrier island?” The fact of the matter is because the church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built. So I think that’s a major misconception.
Amy Martin This is Kelly Eningowuk. She grew up in Shishmaref, but she lives in Anchorage now. She’s the executive director of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska, an organization that works to promote and protect indigenous rights in the Arctic. They participate in the United Nations and the Arctic Council, among many other activities. And for Kelly, this international career has a lot to do with her hometown of Shishmaref.
Kelly Eningowuk Yeah, it’s my connection back home. The work that I do, I feel I’m contributing in some way back to my community of Shishmaref, which is nice because Anchorage is, it’s so far away from home.
Amy Martin One of the ways Kelly tries to contribute is just educating people about Shishmaref because a lot of people don’t understand how this community ended up in its current predicament. To begin with, she says, you have to understand that one of the best survival tools for Iñupiaq people has always been movement. Seasonal migration. So Kelly’s ancestors used Sarichef Island, where Shishmaref is located now, but they didn’t live there year-round.
Kelly Eningowuk And that’s the thing they were kind of semi-nomadic. We didn’t have permanent settlements and that sort of thing.
Amy Martin But in the early 1900s, that began to change. The Lutheran church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs arrived, and told people that a church and a school, and the ideologies contained within them, were moving in, to stay. The only question was where to put the buildings. Sarichef Island was a centrally located spot. It was accessible to the barges that would be needed to bring in the lumber to build these new, permanent structures. And it was a place where the community could access the seals and other sea mammals that they depended on. So, why is Shishmaref located where it is?
Kelly Eningowuk It was because the school was built and a church was built. And so the community was established and became a permanent village in that way.
Amy Martin Like many colonization processes, this one advanced through a combination of carrots and sticks. It’s a much longer and more complex story than we’re able to do justice to here, but a key point is that the U.S. government threatened to take Iñupiaq children away from their parents if they didn’t attend school, and then, as Nora described, those children were punished for speaking Iñupiaq when they got there. But, despite all the ways they were pressured to change, Kelly says the community has kept many aspects of Iñupiaq culture strong. Including – and especially – the food.
Kelly Eningowuk The community becomes alive during the times in which you’re harvesting different foods. You just have this feeling that you, I guess, are participating in something that’s important. That you’re gathering for the year, that you’re gathering not only for your family, but for the community in some ways.
Amy Martin In Shishmaref, people eat a lot of local food: seals, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, several kinds of fish and berries. Berry picking is actually huge deal all around the Arctic. And that makes sense, when you think about trying to survive this far north, where sources of vitamin C are scarce.
Kelly Eningowuk A bit traditional food is obutuk, which is reindeer fat or caribou fat, grated and whipped with seal oil and a little bit of water. It’s whipped just like heavy whipping cream, and you mix it with the berries. It’s a traditional food. It’s high in fat, and then you have the berries that are high in vitamin C and other nutrients, so it’s kind of a nice balanced treat. It’s really good.
Amy Martin There are two stores in Shishmaref, where you can buy things like Spaghetti-o’s, Pepsi, and potatoes, but all that stuff has to be shipped or flown in, so it’s extremely expensive. Most people rely heavily on what they call subsistence, which basically means wild food that’s hunted or gathered, not purchased in a store. Alaska has a lot of people who provide for themselves this way, and in the Alaskan Arctic, the per-capita amount of wild food harvested is higher than in any other region in the state: an average of 405 pounds per person each year. That’s according to a 2014 report by Alaska Fish and Game.
The specialized knowledge required to collect this much of your own food in this harsh environment was built up over thousands of years, passed on person by person, season by season. And Kelly says one of the most painful aspects of the colonization process is the way it taught her community to de-value this expertise and the whole worldview behind it. She grew up with her grandparents, and considers her grandfather one of her primary teachers, but–
Kelly Eningowuk He said himself he was dumb because he only went to junior high. He didn’t go to high school. And I mean, gosh you know, that really kind of hurt inside for me to hear him say that. And it kind of blew me away. Like, you know, he should have had a Ph.D. and everything about life.
Kelly Eningowuk So, it also gave me some insight into kind of the you know the impact the colonization and assimilation that had on his generation, and how it brought shame and, you know, just this level of insecurity, I think, like in themselves. And the pride in being Iñupiaq was kind of lesser, or I don’t know how to explain it, like it was, it was that generation that really got hit hard. They’re the ones that were hit, you know, for speaking Iñupiaq.
Amy Martin Truly hit hard.
Kelly Eningowuk Yeah, yeah.
Amy Martin Like Nora said, the children of Shishmaref were being taught to be very, very quiet. And they were also being taught to hold still. Anthropologist Elizabeth Marino describes this in her book about Shishmaref, called Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground. She says that this push to fix a community to one spot on the map has been, “A strategy of the United States since the American Indian reservation project began and... a goal of nation states all over the world.” It’s called “sedentarization,” and she says it has made the people of Shishmaref less able to respond to environmental change.
This thing called “development,” which was supposed to help Iñupiaq people, actually silenced their voices, and committed them to a location, which turns out to be directly in harm’s way.
The United States government was very effective when it wanted to make people settle in this particular place. But it’s so far proven completely ineffective in helping them to get out, now that it’s clear they need to relocate. So, what has really put the people of Shishmaref at risk? Climate change, or colonization?
We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin What would you define as some of the biggest threats to people in the Arctic right now?
Carolina Behe Ahhm, colonization. Yeah, I really think so. It’s still this oppression.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and this is Carolina Behe, she’s the indigenous knowledge and science advisor at the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska. She works with Kelly Eningowuk in Anchorage, but I’m actually talking to her in Sweden, where she gave a presentation at an Arctic conference. And one of her main points was that it doesn’t make sense to talk about conservation, or climate change, or anything in the Arctic without thinking about culture.
Carolina Behe There’s a lot of burden of conservation that we see occurring within the Arctic.
Amy Martin You know, when you said that phrase in your presentation, I wrote it down and highlighted it because I wanted you to explain what you mean by burden of conservation.
Carolina Behe Yeah, well the sea ice is a really good example. Sea ice is melting. A lot of animals rely on sea ice, such as walrus. With sea ice thinning, then walrus have to change their behavior. But the response is to then say Inuit are maybe going to need to adjust their hunting activities as a result of that.
Amy Martin What Carolina’s pointing to here is actually one of the central questions of climate change: who gets asked, or told, to sacrifice in a warming world? For instance, when we hear about Arctic animals under threat, do we respond by driving less, or demanding higher fuel efficiency standards? Or do we tell indigenous people, who depend on these animals for food, to limit their hunting?
Carolina Behe So, for example, there’s not laws going out that you have to shut your air conditioner off so that you’re polluting less of the atmosphere. But yet Inuit are at threat of being told you need to decrease your hunting activity. You need to decrease where you’re getting your food from.
Amy Martin The issue is not that the hunters are unwilling to make changes, Carolina says. In fact, the ability to adapt is a major value and a source of pride in Inuit culture. The frustration is the colonial mindset that imposes change in only one direction: colonizer to colonized.
Carolina Behe People are willing to do things as long as it’s someone else that has to do them, right?
Amy Martin Before the break, I posed the question of whether it was climate change or colonization that put the people of Shishmaref at risk. Maybe the answer is, yes. Maybe it’s not climate change, or colonization, but the worldview that produced them both, and the way they are interacting with each other.
Carolina Behe The biggest part is understanding how all of this is interconnected. That you can’t just say we’re going to have conservation for a polar bear. That doesn’t make any sense. You have to address all of these issues that are connected to each other and that includes culture that is part of that environment.
Amy Martin This is something I heard again and again from people in the far north. They’re very tired of outsiders talking about the Arctic as a barren land, as if no one lives there. It is a wild region in many ways, but it’s also a human region. And it has been for a very long time. And more to this point, many Arctic people don’t divide the world into the human and the “natural.”
Carolina Behe I think people need to remember that they’re part of ecosystems, they’re not separated out from them, they’re part of their environment.
Carolina Behe The ability to adapt is because of the ability to understand that these things are all interconnected.
Stanley Tocktoo We had lots of room to play out in the beach, play baseball or tag or whatever. We had beach way out there, you know. We had big sand dunes that we’d play on there, jump around.
Amy Martin This is Stanley Tocktoo, the vice-mayor of Shishmaref.
Stanley Tocktoo Tocktoo. T-O-C-K-T-O-O, I was born in Shishmaref, 1961, July 24.
Amy Martin Stanley’s on the search and rescue team here, and he exudes the calm confidence of a natural leader. He says decades ago, when he was a kid, the island was twice as wide as it is now.
Stanley Tocktoo We’d go way the hell down there, park our boats on the beach, put tents out there once in a while. Yep, but now it’s submerged under the water, so, yeah.
Stanley Tocktoo This island’s only three miles by a quarter mile wide. Maybe, maybe a little narrower now. Climate change is real, you know.
Amy Martin If you ask people in Shishmaref if the Arctic is warming, they look at you like: duh. It’s a weird question, kind of like standing on the deck of the Titanic arguing about whether or not there really is a hole in the ship. That debate is utterly detached from the reality of life here, and it wastes time, when time is of the essence.
Stanley Tocktoo Yeah, yeah, I can’t believe that our president don’t believe in climate change, you know. Look at our lifestyle, look at our erosion problems. We’re Americans too, you know, we don’t have to be treated like a third world country.
Amy Martin This is exactly the same point that Joel Clement risked his job to try to make – he’s the whistleblower from the Department of the Interior that we met in our last episode. He says the U.S. government is disregarding its basic responsibility to keep its citizens safe. And as Kelly Eningowuk and others explained, this isn’t a new phenomenon in Shishmaref. Ignoring the voices of Iñupiaq people in this growing climate change crisis is just one more example of the way they’ve been treated more like colonial subjects than true citizens.
Stanley Tocktoo We’re gonna lose our island. We got no place to go. There’s no road to go to the mainland over here, you know?
Amy Martin Stanley knows as well as anyone just how bad things could get here when that next big storm hits. And he could move out of Shishmaref, get a job in another town, and just leave all of this behind. But he doesn’t want to do that.
Stanley Tocktoo Lot of us like to take care of our community first and then ourself last, you know. That’s the way I feel.
Amy Martin That ethic of taking care of the community first, where do you think that comes from?
Stanley Tocktoo Our elders I guess, and just the way our community is. This community’s like a real big family. Don’t matter if you got the same last name or a different last name, or...how do you take care of a community I guess. Each community’s different.
Amy Martin And they won’t have a community anymore if everyone just scatters to other towns. He points out the window to the kids playing outside.
Stanley Tocktoo We’re not trying to make a new home for myself, we’re trying to build these things for them, so they could have a home and do the subsistence lifestyle we have, you know.
[MUSIC: Choir singing “Invisible Hands”]
Amy Martin I went to church services when I was in Shishmaref, and the choir sang this song, called “Invisible Hands.” The lyrics go: Invisible hands will keep you from danger / Invisible hands will keep you from harm. And I had two completely opposite reactions to the song, simultaneously. One part of me was thinking – yeah. The hands that this community needs to keep them from harm sure are invisible. And so is the $180 million they need to relocate.
[MUSIC: Choir singing “Invisible Hands”]
But, at the same time, I was thinking about how this community embodies the kind of protection and comfort they were singing about. I could feel it in how people greeted each other, and in how they passed fussy children up and down the rows, everyone taking a turn in helping to keep the kids calm and entertained. None of the people I met in Shishmaref described themselves as victims or refugees. They see themselves as survivors. As strong people, with a lot of expertise in one of the main skills we&’re all going to need in a warming world. Sometimes it’;s referred to as climate change resilience. They just call it taking care of each other.
Nora Kuzuguk You kinda help others that can’t go anywhere.
Amy Martin Nora Kuzuguk.
Nora Kuzuguk And you share your food with others.
Amy Martin That’s what the stories would teach, is you have to help people?
Nora Kuzuguk Yeah. Yes.
Amy Martin The gospel reading that day was Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on the water. I’ve never been in a place where the ability to walk on water would be more useful. But the people of Shishmaref don’t need miracles, or pity, and they don’t need anyone to tell them what to do. They know what to do. It’s what they’ve always done. Stick together.
[MUSIC: Choir singing “Invisible Hands”]
Nick Mott This season of Threshold was produced in partnership with Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World and with support the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation and you, our listeners. You can find pictures from our reporting trip to Shishmaref and a whole lot more at thresholdpodcast.org.
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Nora Saks, Rosie Costain, Maxine Speier and Michael Connor. Special thanks to Deidre McMullin, Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zach Wilson and Zoë Rom. Our music is by Travis Yost.
And in our next episode, we are going to science you up! We’re hopping continents to go hang out with some permafrost scientists in northern Sweden.
Mathilda Nyzell Gotta watch out here ‘cause there’s so much science in the lake.
Amy Martin There is, there’s science there. There’s science here.
Amy Martin That’s next time on Threshold.