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More than global warming afflicts endangered Shishmaref

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: July 8, 2016
  • Published March 27, 2016

Fierce Climate Sacred Ground

By Elizabeth Marino; University of Alaska Press; 2015; 136 pages; $24.95

The village of Shishmaref is as much a global symbol as an Alaska town. Located on Sarichef Island off the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula, the tiny community is remote even by Alaska standards. The population, which hovers around 560 residents, is almost entirely Inupiat and the economy primarily built around subsistence rather than cash.

What brought Shishmaref international renown is its precarious state. Sarichef is eroding in no small part due to the pernicious effects of climate change. There's no question that the village will be abandoned at some point in the relatively near future. This impending fate has brought researchers and reporters from all over the world into town, and their consensus is that the residents of Shishmaref will soon be among the world's first people to become climate refugees in the truest sense of the term.

The reality is somewhat more complicated.

"Fierce Climate Sacred Ground" is a brief book by Oregon State University-Cascades anthropology professor Elizabeth Marino. Based on her ethnographic studies of the people of Shishmaref, it places their plight in a broader context than just global warming. Drawn from her doctoral dissertation, written while she was a graduate student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, it's a somewhat academically oriented work, but one that remains accessible. It is essential reading for the heightened perspective it offers on a situation too often simplified for the purposes of those with differing political objectives.

The popular version of the story, Marino explains, is that Shishmaref is a small village of people living a deeply traditional lifestyle who are in danger of losing everything to forces far away and beyond their control. This understanding is true to an extent, but it overlooks the history of the community.

Government role

What has caused Shishmaref to stand out for many is the somewhat mistaken belief that unlike climate refugees elsewhere on the planet, residents of this village are losing their homes entirely to climate change. This differs from climate crises in developing nations, where a combination of political ineptitude, economic failures and environmental challenges created vulnerable populations and where rising temperatures are simply the final blow to fragile communities.

As Marino explains, in America we like to think that our own government didn't play a role in creating problems like the one in Shishmaref. She doesn't explicitly say it, but this view is useful to both environmentalists and economic conservatives. For environmentalists it means the entirety of the situation can be blamed on human carbon emissions, while conservatives can insist that since the government didn't place the village on Sarichef, it shouldn't be responsible for relocating it.

In truth, the government did play an important role in locating the town. Shishmaref has on one level existed hundreds of years, but historically it was a seasonally occupied settlement used by people who migrated across the landscape seeking the best places to gather food.

Early in the 20th century the U.S. government pursued a deliberate policy of ending all nomadic lifestyles among Native Americans. The people of Shishmaref weren't forcibly collectivized in the way that Natives were elsewhere in the country in the 19th century, but the government's opening of a school in Shishmaref, coupled with the onset of compulsory education, had the same effect.

For the traditionally mobile Inupiat who settled there, Shishmaref made a certain amount of sense. It's ideally located for winter hunting on sea ice and close enough to the mainland to access traditional subsistence grounds in summer. It was, however, always tenuous ground to build on.

Desperate situation

Erosion has been impacting Sarichef for a very long time, and as early as the 1970s there was already talk of moving Shishmaref to the mainland.

The problem is that the village itself lacks the resources to do so, while neither the state of Alaska nor the federal government is eager to pick up the tab, and the bureaucratic hurdles are enormous.

Compounding residents' woes, since it is considered temporary even by some of the people who live there, the village has not seen the sort of upgrades other rural communities in Alaska have received. Instead a series of mostly failed stopgap measures have been taken to try to ward off erosion while the decision of where and when to move the town keeps getting studied and discussed into oblivion. Meanwhile, the steadily lengthening ice-free season has left shorelines exposed to storms that themselves are aggravated by climate change, speeding the pace of erosion and consistently thwarting efforts at maintaining the ground beneath the town.

For residents of Shishmaref, it's a desperate situation. As a people they have lived in the region for centuries, and they see remaining there as integral to their cultural identity. If, as many have suggested, they simply integrate into other towns, they lose their sense of who they are. For the people of Shishmaref, Marino explains, this would be cultural genocide. Their lands and subsistence lifestyle define them. Everything else about their culture has already been taken away. That they live in a town rather than nomadically was entirely due to decisions made in Washington, D.C., and Juneau. Their present dilemma springs from a history over which they were often deprived of a say. What they want most this time is a voice in their own fate.

Midway through her book, Marino asks, "Is the risk posed to Shishmaref the product of climate change or the product of a history of development that ignored local knowledge and removed local adaptation strategies?" While much of the reporting on Shishmaref has focused on the former cause, Marino's important book shows us that, in her own words, "the simple equation that anthropogenic climate change = erosion = relocation is not an accurate analysis of this complex sociological system."

History, she demonstrates, shows us why this is.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.

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