The panel featured three young women from Alaska who were current or recently-graduated Dartmouth students: Aaluk Edwardson, an Iñupiaq/Norwegian artist who also teaches creative writing and performance at Ilisaġvik College; Sabena Allen, who is Tlingit from southeastern Alaska, and Raven moiety from the Ganaxteidi clan (Tlingit name: Andaxjoon), and Maleah Wenzel, an Alaska Native student from Wrangell, Alaska, who is Kiks.ádi yádi from the Tlingit and Sámi nations.
The panel was organized by Aaluk Edwardson and NAP Assistant Director Shelbi Fitzpatrick, a Blackfeet woman from Browning, Montana, USA. Melody Brown Burkins, born in Alaska and a Senior Fellow in the UArctic Institute of Arctic Policy, helped moderate.
What does climate change mean to you?
Climate change threatens the loss of my culture and primary cultural food source. My people are ice people – we have been playing, fishing and hunting on the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years. The loss of sea ice has affected our ability to hunt and catch the bowhead whale in the spring, which is an activity that we rely on for food throughout the year and that defines us as Alaskan Iñupiat. We are whalers. We also hunt walrus and seal, which have been seriously impacted by climate change too. The erosion of the coastline due to sea level rise has meant the loss of millennia-old traditional homes and the remains of our ancient ancestors, and countless artifacts have washed out to the sea. Climate change has also opened up the Northwest Passage, bringing new security challenges, entrepreneurial opportunities, development interests and more marine research activities.
Climate change means not being able to rely on the old stories. We used to say, “salmonberries mean spring,” or use fireweed to keep track of summer. Dozens of plants would tell us how to know what was coming throughout the year. Now we cannot do that. For those for whom harvesting these plants is the only way of feeding themselves during poverty, climate change is yet another step in our genocide.
In my current research, I define climate change as a “breaking of ties.” This encapsulates many different aspects of culture, such as relationships to land, subsistence, language, and material culture. As a result of colonialism, these respectful relations have been replaced by capitalist extraction, forcing indigenous people into complicity.
How has climate change directly affected your home communities?
Climate change in my community is a myth. But the river ice that breaks earlier and earlier every year, the snow that never comes, and the heat that kills our salmon – they are very real. Climate change and ocean acidification is killing our salmon and our shellfish, and with them, everything that relies on them. That is almost every living thing. Our bears are starving because of lack of fish, our blueberries aren’t getting as fertilized by the salmon bodies left by spawning, and our otters will soon start dying as the shellfish die. Traditional living and commercial ventures have butt heads as resources have become more scarce. Climate change is taking away our food, and it is making my community choose between our native way of life and the economy which has been supporting us for decades.
It is important to remember that the effects and impacts of climate change are not isolated to issues of pollution and warming temperatures, though both have impacted my community in southeast Alaska. We also need to think about the connections between climate change and the increased loss of resilience in fish stocks due to overfishing – an issue that has been detrimental to subsistence in my community. Climate change exacerbates issues caused by resource extraction, and both have their roots in colonialism. For example, there is currently a lawsuit against the State of Alaska, brought forward by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, over the management of herring stocks. The tribe claims that the State is not managing the fish stocks, which may be impacted by a changing climate and ocean ecosystem, so that there are enough herring left for subsistence use. The lack of state protections and lack of mind paid to indigenous knowledge creates climate change and worsens the damage already done.
Growing up, climate change was never talked about. It wasn’t until I went to Dartmouth College that I even learned about climate change. Today, everyone knows about it. The shoreline in my community has changed drastically. In my grandfather’s time, the shoreline was huge, and by my time it was moderately wide, maybe thirty feet. Now, we have a shoreline of less than ten feet – it is no longer there. We have also seen whaling seasons with no whales because the sea ice was too thin, or because the whales no longer migrate near our shore. People are getting more skin diseases, which some attribute to changing air conditions due to shifts in climate. As our shorelines and lands erode, our ancient archeology sites and remains are lost to the sea. Our community ice cellars, dug into the permafrost, are also being affected, and whaling crews have nowhere to store the hundreds of pounds of whale, caribou, seal, walrus and other food we accrue throughout the year to enjoy during the winter. Climate change is having a massive impact in my community, Utqiagvik, which is probably why some have dubbed it “ground zero” for climate change.
How can someone take action to mitigate the effect of climate change in their communities and around the world?
We as humans need to rethink our relationships with the non-human world. The podcast All My Relations demonstrates this very well in an exploration of how the American Dream is actually extremely human-centric, ignoring all non-human relations, and losing our human connection to non-human landscapes and beings. We must all challenge the hierarchical nature of this world view, and always remember how we stand in relation to and as a part of the Earth.
There are many ways we can adapt and take action. We can live more sustainably within the complex web of life of which we are only a part. This means looking at what we eat, what we wear, how we travel, what we use, what we throw away and what we kill in order to live in the homes, drive the cars, eat the food and live the lives we are living.
I am an artist, and I think art has a unique place in helping us adapt to our ever-evolving “normal.” Art allows people to experience, interpret, and grapple with life’s greatest challenges – including climate change – in a deeply individual way. Art can influence a person’s understanding or perspective on something just by experiencing it. We need to talk about climate change and how to mitigate its impacts. We also need to do things that help people see, feel and experience its effects and impacts so they too feel motivated. Art can do that. The creation of art, the experience of engaging with art and the discussion of art creates space for people to wrestle with and make sense of challenges in life. It’s not just for entertainment or beauty. The creation, experience and discussion of art is a tool for character-building, self-reflection, community engagement and personal transformation.
Everyone creates and experiences art differently. This gives people an opportunity to separate their own understanding and perspective from that of the others. Collaborative community art, such as theater, has the ability to transform the understandings and perspectives of the community of people working on the art project as well as the community of people who witness and engage with it. This allows for more civil conversations about shared challenges that can lead to shared community action. We need art more than ever right now, for climate change and for our society.
Learn who your indigenous people are and listen to them; bring them into the conversation. We are not always right, but we have thousands of years of memories with the land that others do not. When we say something is wrong, like the changing climate, it is because we remember how things are supposed to be: lands and plants, water and ice, all that sustained us. And when we ask for people to live more sustainably, it is not because we hate the economy – it is because we want the global economy to be strong for years to come. We appreciate a good economy too! And when we say it is not too late to act on climate, it’s because we have lived through significant changes to our lands before. Our Alaskan communities have lived off the land for over 10,000 years, and we want to live off of those lands for 10,000 more. I ask that the world guide their actions with this logic. And I ask that you get involved in local politics and make change – even when you are scared your next door neighbor might yell at you. This is the action you should take.