Our Yupik people of Sivuqaq (our traditional name for St. Lawrence Island) are witnesses to the massive die-offs of seabirds, seals and whales. We have coexisted with these animals for thousands of years. These massive die-offs are a warning to us all and a threat to our culture and to the very existence of our Sivuqaq Yupik people of Alaska and the Arctic. We are overwhelmed with concern about the health harms associated with climate change, the loss of sea ice and melting permafrost and the mobilization of chemicals and plastics — these are all interconnected.
We are running out of time!
Our children and future generations are depending on our elders to pass on the knowledge and wisdom from our ancestors. We must stand up for them and speak up. It is disheartening to witness the foretelling of my Apa — my grandfather — Tamlu, who warned us decades ago. I was a young boy listening to Apa’s prediction of what would happen if we didn’t protect what is sacred to us: the lands, waters, marine mammals and other wildlife that have sustained us for generations, as well as the air which gives us life. Apa shared his wisdom along with our other elders who already knew in the 1950s what was coming because of the changes they were already witnessing. They warned us that we risked the devastation of our world if we did not protect what we have.
Our circle of life is threatened, as is our existence as Sivuqaq Yupik people. Climate warming, chemicals and plastics in our oceans threaten our traditional ways of life and the harvesting of the fish and marine mammals from the oceans that sustain us physically, spiritually and culturally. The ocean sustained our ancestors during my Apa’s lifetime and our people to this present day. Our elders call the ocean our farm because it has sustained our people from time immemorial.
As a citizen and Tribal President of the Native Village of Savoonga on Sivuqaq located in the northern Bering Sea, the changes we are witnessing are devastating for my people. We have been caretakers and guardians of our lands and waters, as the creator has intended for our Mother Earth.
As Arctic indigenous peoples, we are exposed to global contaminants without our consent. These harmful industrial chemicals and pesticides arrive in the Arctic through air and ocean currents from lower latitudes. The Arctic has become a hemispheric sink for these chemicals, also known as persistent organic pollutants, harming our environment, traditional foods and our health. As Arctic indigenous peoples, we are among the most highly contaminated people on earth.
Climate warming is intensifying the transport of chemicals into the Arctic and releasing legacy chemicals from sea ice and permafrost that have been sequestered for decades. It is extremely disturbing to learn that we also breathe in and eat tens of thousands of microplastic fibers. Recently, I have learned that since the 1950s, humans have produced more than eight billion tons of plastic with less than 10% recycled. Much of the plastic is broken down into tiny particles called microplastics that end up in our lakes, rivers and oceans, resulting in food and water contamination. When we ingest our food and drink our water, we are exposed to the chemicals found in these plastics, chemicals that are proven harmful to our health.
You can understand my alarm and sadness from a recent study that I read reporting that the Arctic Ocean contains more plastic waste than any other ocean with approximately 300 billion pieces of plastic. We call on our congressional leaders Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Rep. Don Young, to act with urgency for our health and justice. Alaskans, and especially the indigenous peoples of Alaska, must have a seat at the table to find meaningful solutions to this climate change and chemicals crisis that our elders warned us about decades ago.
There is no time to waste! We are in a climate emergency and Alaskans are the canaries in the coal mine. The relationship between climate change, toxic chemical exposures, leaching and breakdown of plastics, and our health and well-being for our children and future generations must be addressed immediately. Qerngughulluta Iknaqataghaghtuukut; together we are stronger!
Delbert Pungowiyi serves as president of the Native Village of Savoonga.
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