A village of about 600 Native Alaskans near the Arctic Circle refuses to admit defeat to climate change. ‘My home means my way of life’

October 28, 2022, 5:31 PM UTC

Search online for the little town of Shishmaref and you’ll see homes perilously close to falling into the ocean, and headlines that warn that this Native community on a border island in western Alaska — without access to main roads to the mainland or running water — is on the verge of disappearing.

Climate change is partially to blame for the rising seas, flooding, erosion and loss of protective ice and land that are threatening this Inupiat village of about 600 people near the Bering Strait, just a few miles from the Arctic Circle. Its situation is dire.

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

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

Yes, residents have voted twice to relocate (in 2002 and 2016). But they haven’t moved. There’s not enough money to fund the relocation. The places chosen are not optimal. And perhaps, most importantly, there are no places like Shishmaref.

They might be at the edge of the world, but elsewhere they would be far from some of the prime spots for subsistence hunting of bearded seals and other sea mammals or fishing and berry picking in the tundra that make up most of their nutrition. They would be dispersed from their close-knit community that prides itself on being one of the best makers of arts and crafts in the region and that maintains traditions and celebrates birthdays, baptisms and graduations centered around their homes, their local school and one of the world’s northernmost Lutheran churches.

“If they focus too much on that (on climate change), it will become too much of a weight, too much of a burden, because…there are birthday parties and there are funerals and there are sports events,” said the Rev. Aaron Silco, who is co-pastor of the Shishmaref Lutheran Church with his wife, Anna. They live next to the church and cemetery with their two-month-old son, Aidan. “There’s still life happening despite all of the weight and the burden that climate change can cast upon this community.”

On a recent Sunday, they celebrated Mass with about two dozen parishioners. The Rev. 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 keeping faith despite challenges.

“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 living on an island that could eventually vanish but where they have faith that it’s worth living fully.

“To move somewhere else, we’d lose a part of our identity. It’s hard to see myself living elsewhere,” said Weyiouanna, whose family first came to Shishmaref with a dogsled team in 1958.

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

That traditional lifestyle that the Inupiat have maintained for thousands of years is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Alaska, the average temperature has increased 2.5 degrees (1.4 degrees Celsius) since 1992, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic had been warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole, but now has jumped to three times faster in some seasons, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program.

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