A FEW years ago, we went to Alaska. It was partly a long-imagined adventure for us and partly an organised tour with a group of musicians and music lovers. The tour was into the Denali National Park, by coach there, by train back. There were concerts most evenings and some interesting excursions and guided walks in the park. We were very fortunate to see Mt Denali, after which the park is named, the highest mountain in the northern Americas, not once but twice. Most visitors are lucky if it peeps out above the clouds, and a full view of its startling, glittering beauty is a rare treat.
On our own we went to the coast at Seward and took a bird watching sea trip to see the Kenai fjords and glacier. We went to the Alaska State Fair, a colourful celebration of many of the things that make the 49th state special different – giant vegetables, musk oxen (rather than the more familiar cattle) and float planes as well as tractors!
We also went to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre which, as the name suggests, displays the culture, traditions, languages and art of the indigenous peoples of Alaska. There are examples of the many different styles of house and communal building, boats, textiles, basket weaving, fishing and other aspects of life below and above the Arctic Circle.
In the shop, we got talking to a young native woman from Barrow, above the Arctic Circle. A law student in Anchorage, the state capital, she was working at the heritage centre to earn money to support herself. Unless you are able to live entirely self-sufficiently – as some people do in the trackless wilderness – life in Alaska is a lot more expensive than life in the lower 48.
She couldn’t wait to get back to Barrow and her family, but she told a story of a way of life that was rapidly changing. It is a story that is becoming more familiar as governments, business and individuals grapple with the reality of climate change.
As the ice-caps melt, for example, sea levels will rise – no great problem in our northern islands but a devastating threat to many island communities south of the Equator. Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean are all at serious risk from the rising water. Tuvalu is predicted to become uninhabitable within 50 to 100 years.
The threats for the native peoples who live above the Arctic Circle are different, but will cause irreversible and in many cases catastrophic damage to every aspect of their lives, to the animals they depend on and to the ecology of this beautiful and remote region.
The law student from Barrow told us of the changes that were already happening. They include a need for previously unnecessary fridges and freezers, and the possibility of burying their dead during the winter, rather than having to store them. With the melting of the permafrost, due to global warming, it has become possible to dig into the hard-as-iron ground.
The changing climate is affecting the movement of the caribou, the great herds that migrate across northern Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and Russia. The relationship between native peoples and the caribou is ancient, and is now under threat both from falling numbers of caribou, and from changing migration patterns.
The plight of the indigenous people of northern Alaska is poignantly and clearly described in an article in the latest online edition of Emergence*, which addresses issues of culture, the environment, climate, food, language and the interconnected networks of life on the planet. I first discovered the magazine via the nature writer, poet and campaigner Robert Macfarlane. It is rich in articles, artwork, poetry and history by writers I knew, such as the late Roger Deakin, and new names, including the botanist and ecologist Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potowotami Nation (her best known book is Braiding Sweetgrass.)
In this latest edition, the conservation scientist Lauren Oakes has contributed an essay, QIKIQTAĠRUK: Almost an Island, in which she explores the transformations and losses being experienced in the town of Kotzebue, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. She listens to the memories, the experiences and the hopes and fears of three generations of an Iñupiat family. Some of the changes are a result of Covid-19, others are part of the enduring and ongoing impact of climate change.
Kotzebue has no roads connecting it to anywhere. Once self-contained and self-supporting – albeit at risk of the harsh Arctic climate and the feast and famine subsistence of traditional indigenous peoples – the community, like others around the northern polar region, now faces huge challenges to its food security.
Forty three year-old Maija Katak Lukin, who officially welcomed President Obama when he visited Kotzebue, tells Lauren they have to hunt moose, now that the caribou migrations are so unreliable. She foresees that her daughter Kaisa and subsequent generations will never hunt seal because of the hazards of the increasingly thin and receding ice in the traditional hunting time.
Maija is talking about a loss of tradition, says Lauren, “but also a loss of sustenance. Four apples in Kotzebue cost 15 dollars today (nearly £11); a pound of pork is about the same. When goods come only by boat or plane, and intermittently at that; when weather still limits travel; when a virus, layered on top of climate change and relative isolation, further limits the movement of people and products—what happens next? And if food can’t be gathered directly from the land or the sea — then from where?”
In the comfortable West, where some plan meals over a week and some eat our or get a takeaway, and the biggest concern may be whether the supermarket has ripe avocados in February, it is almost impossible to imagine planning your food supplies for the whole long winter. Food security is now one of the great challenges for indigenous Arctic peoples.
Maija’s daughter Kaisa speaks Inupiaq as she records the memories of her grandmother and the elders (“aanas”) of the community, and she sings to her aanas in their language, which previous colonial rulers had tried to eradicate.
Lauren finds hope in this young woman’s commitment to her people, the language and her community: “There are new leaders rising; may their voices be heard.”
Pictured: Kaisa Reese Ahluniq Kotch in 2016 when she was named Miss Teen Arctic Circle.