The fate of one stubborn little village normally wouldn't make much of a splash. But Shishmaref and other Alaskan settlements are attracting national attention because scientists see them as gloomy harbingers. "Shishmaref is the canary in the coal mine — an indicator of what's to come elsewhere," says Gunter Weller, director of the University of Alaska's Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research.
It must be said that if Shishmaref sinks beneath the waves, it won't be much of a loss to global tourism. The village is so remote that no road connects it to the outside world. The occasional barge unloads fuel after the ice breaks up, and when the weather is good, battered bush planes ferry in DVDs and cartons of Cheetos from the Sam's Club in Fairbanks. Visually, this village is nothing like the romantic images of Eskimos in igloos from old National Geographic magazines. Weathered clapboard houses, surrounded by rusty engine parts, sit helter-skelter along muddy paths. Indoor plumbing is rare, and drinking water collects in plastic buckets under rain gutters. Empty Coke cans and cigarette packets litter the streets. In the ramshackle town hall, a sign reads, CITY OF SHISHMAREF BINGO WILL NOT BE ACCEPTING ANY MORE PERSONAL CHECKS. Another warns against siphoning gasoline from the village fire truck.
Sounds like my kind of place. Around here, they keep the fire truck locked up.
Still, like many of Alaska's native villages, Shishmaref clings to its subsistence culture. The town supports 10 dog teams, and a local musher, Herbie Nayokpuk, is known statewide as the Shishmaref Cannonball for his top-place finishes in the Iditarod race. Walrus-tusk carving is taught in school, along with the Inupiaq language. And if the town itself is ugly, it is balanced by the desolate beauty of the slate-colored sea, the ducks flying in formation over the lagoon and the musk ox roaming in emerald meadows dotted with wild cotton. Some two-thirds of the local diet still derives from hunting and fishing. In the diamond light of late summer, whole families forage for salmonberries, which the elders eat mixed with grated caribou fat. ("Eskimo ice cream," they call it.) The kids prefer it with Cool Whip.
"This is our grocery store," says Tony Weyiouanna, pulling shimmering white fish from his gill net.
The prospect of relocating whole Eskimo villages — global warming's first American refugees — is gathering political support. Last January, Shishmaref citizens voted to move to a site called Tin Creek, 12 miles away, across a lagoon. And last June, Alaska's powerful Senator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, convened federal, state and local officials for a two-day hearing in Anchorage to hear impassioned pleas from village leaders who want help repairing their infrastructure or relocating. Among the most eloquent was Eningowuk, 54, a mother of six who heads the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. "Shishmaref is where it is because of what the ocean, rivers, streams and the land provide to us," she testified. "We are hunters, and we are gatherers. We have been here for countless generations. We value our way of life. It provides for our very existence."
Whatever the solution, the Inupiaq are looking for it to be paid for by the folks who sent them global warming in the first place. And who would that be? "The Nalauqmiu — white people," says Eningowuk with a rueful smile.
Sounds about right. The only hunting and gathering likely to produce global warming is hunting for profits and gathering dollars in mass quantities.
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