Alaskans See Lands Beneath Their Feet Disappearing: First Stewards Bear Witness

Written by Guest Blogger on . Posted in Learn, Your Climate Stories

Editor’s Note: Today, Planet Change features a second post from the First Stewards symposium in Washington, D.C. Bloggers attending the symposium, Debbie Preston of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state, share more stories from people who are coping with a changing planet.

Mike Williams is an Iditarod racer, a subsistence hunter, a veteran of the U.S. Army and chief of the Yupiit Nation. He’s also a wellness counselor in the rural village of Akiak, where he lives. The village, like many in Alaska, is losing ground to erosion as the permafrost melts and storms surge due to climate change.

Williams moderated a panel of Alaskans who came to testify at the First Stewards climate symposium being held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ending today. The panelists represented rural villages from the coasts and interior of Alaska, all of which are under threat from climate change.

Akiak has lost the regional hospital and staff housing that dates back to the 1900s, Williams said. Even more devastating was the loss of the cemetery.

Workers from the village spent a whole summer relocating the remains of ancestors to higher aground. Williams said he spent a lot of time talking with people from his village about their anxiety and grief as they worked with the remains.

The Washington, D.C. symposium is bringing together indigenous leaders with scientists and policy makers to share knowledge and ideas about climate change impacts to coastal communities around the United States and Pacific Islands.

Ed Johnstone, Quinault Indian Nation tribal member and fisheries policy spokesperson, addressed the gathering and explained that a run of spring Chinook salmon has dwindled as the Anderson glacier that feeds the Quinault River has retreated. The Quinault people worry the waters will warm and the freshets that are important to young sockeye salmon to take them to sea will also dwindle and warm too much to allow for survival.

“The blueback, or sockeye salmon, is an iconic run of salmon for us,” Johnstone said. “We are undertaking a monumental restoration effort in the upper Quinault River, but now the glacier retreat adds to the problems for the fish.”

“What’s going to happen to the eagle who needs the salmon, to the chitwin, the bear, who forages on the water’s edge?” asked Johnstone.

Symposium attendees also heard from Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who said he has first-hand experience with climate change. He told about a photo of himself as a child, sitting in front of a big glacier calving behind him. Recently he took his young son to the same place, and took the same picture – but there was no glacier, only snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Other members of the Alaska panel were:  Erin Dougherty, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund; Stanley Tom, from Newtok, a village that is in the process of relocating to higher ground; Stanley Tocktoo, from Shishmare; Pat Plentikoff, from St. George; and Caroline Cannon, from Point Hope.

You can read more about their stories, and also see a webcast of the panel by visiting the First Stewards site.

Debbie Preston is Coastal Information Officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; Robin Stanton is Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state.

Featured photo by Debbie Preston, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (Vi Riebe (left), Hoh tribal member, talks to Lillian Rivas’ mother off camera while the 10-year-old weaves a cedar bracelet as demonstrated by Riebe and her daughter, Judy Cathers at the First Stewards symposium inWashington, D.C. this week.)

Top photo by Debbie Preston, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (Ed Johnstone, Quinault Indian Nation tribal member, addresses the First Stewards symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian this week.)

Glacier image courtesy of Olympic National Park (Anderson Glacier is shown in 1936 and in 2004 with arrows for reference. A later picture by Larry Workman, Quinault Indian Nation publications director, showed the glacier essentially gone.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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