The Arctic Dilemma: A Perfect Storm of Environmental Changes Is Transforming Native Alaskan Food Gathering and Culture

By Rosen, Yereth | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Arctic Dilemma: A Perfect Storm of Environmental Changes Is Transforming Native Alaskan Food Gathering and Culture


Rosen, Yereth, Colorlines Magazine


When crude oil flowed from the punctured Exxon Valdez supertanker in 1989, residents of the Native Alaskan villages in the spill's path halted their harvests of local foods like salmon, herring, shellfish and seals. It was supposed to have been temporary.

But 16 years later, what Alaskans refer to as "subsistence" activities--the traditional gathering of fish, game and plants for personal and cultural use--remain diminished in the mostly Alutiiq Eskimo villages affected by the oil disaster.

There is an explanation for the downbeat trend, said Patty Brown-Schwalenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Chugach Regional Resources Commission. "During the oil spill and the years following the oil spill, the parents were out cleaning the oil. The kids were left behind," Brown-Schwalenberg said. While food was still collected by veteran fishermen and hunters--experts who could work under difficult circumstances--the generation that is today's young adults was left with a dearth of skills, she said.

In Prince William Sound, as in other parts of Alaska and the circumpolar north, a combination of environmental and social changes is threatening the traditional harvests of wild foods that form the backbone of Native society.

Global warming, long-range transport of contaminants, individual pollution events and other factors are making big changes in the natural world upon which Alaska Native culture depends. The changes are complicated; some are very subtle. But the end result is potentially devastating to cultures that are strongly linked to the sea and the land.

Threats to Traditional Foods

Much is at stake, say the region's indigenous leaders. "The nutritional value of our food is so much superior to anything else," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit from northern Quebec who chairs the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an umbrella group that serves aboriginal people in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. "It is not just about eating. It's also the entire culture of getting out on the land and teaching the young, all of that. And we don't want to give that up."

Global warming, which has been affecting the far north much more dramatically than more temperate latitudes, is a region-wide concern. No place on earth is warming faster than Alaska, where winter temperatures have risen an average eight degrees Fahrenheit over the last 30 years, according to Alaska Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Projections are for warming to be up to ten times as fast in the Arctic over the next century as in the world as a whole.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Shrinking sea ice makes it more difficult and dangerous to hunt marine mammals that typically live at the ice edge. Thin river ice and melting permafrost cut off areas that have long been used as transportation corridors. Beaver dams are appearing far north of where they used to be seen. Rising water temperatures in the Yukon River seem to be encouraging growth of a parasite that turns salmon meat to an unpalatable mush. Hot, dry summers have thawed permafrost layers and shriveled berry crops. Elders' advice about weather patterns, which is based on past history, is proving invalid in many cases. Entire villages, starting with the Inupiat Eskimo community of Shishmaref on the northwestern coastline, are facing the prospect of relocation because of severe erosion triggered by a rapidly warming climate.

"This is the most significant environmental and subsistence issue facing Alaska, period," Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, said about global warming.

At the same time the climate is heating up, a noxious brew of contaminants--PCBs, DDT and other chemicals and pesticides--is being transported from southern latitudes to the far north. Many of the pollutants have long been banned in the United States, and few are emitted anywhere near Alaska. …

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