Often, the government ignores a seemingly small issue because there is a bigger picture they are trying to ignore. The people of Newtok, Alaska, may seem like a small, remote group of people, but they are people nonetheless, and also part of a much bigger Native American controversy that has been the pattern in the United States for the past 150 years.
Newtok, Alaska, is a small village of Yup’ik Eskimos that live on the western coast of Alaska, just 300 miles from Russia’s coast. Newtok sits atop melting permafrost on the Ninglick River. But the causes of the melting are not climate change, as many scientists, media outlets and government officials have claimed; the melting is due to seasonal natural gas reservoirs underneath the land. Because of the melting, the Ninglick River is rapidly changing its course, eroding at a rate of 70 feet per year. Estimates project the village to be completely flooded in five to seven years. The Yup’iks recognize the urgency of their situation.
I had the wonderful opportunity be with the Imperial film crew when they visited Newtok in June. Immediately upon arriving in the village, I was shocked. I didn’t know Americans still lived this way—no running water, no organized waste system, no medical care available within two hundred miles. The houses in the village aren’t fit for any climate, let alone an artic Alaskan climate where the temperature reaches forty below zero in the coldest months. The smell of fish drying for the hard winter ahead inundates every crack of the village and instantly, you understand that life is much more difficult there.
The combination of the two natural ecological phenomena is creating a huge problem for the 350-member village; the closest civilization is Bethel, a ten square-mile town that requires an hour-and-a-half plane ride. Connective infrastructure from town to town in this region of Alaska is nearly impossible, due to the massive quantities of rivers and lakes. Nonetheless, the people of Newtok survive as they always have. They are resourceful, grateful, and determined, but they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Alaska became part of the United States in 1959, and since then, the natives have received similar treatment from the government that other indigenous tribes have received in the lower 48. Alaskans still retain some sovereignty over their land, but it still belongs to the federal government—a difficult concept to understand, and much more difficult to put into practice.
In 1966, the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed in response to statehood, and the AFN filed claims for land all over the state. Shortly after oil was discovered in Alaska, the United States established the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which established corporations all over the state to preside over the traditional native governments. The corporations gave small shares to the villages in exchange for more control over the land, less weight to the aboriginal title, and no subsistence hunting rights protection.
Part of the deal the U.S. government made with the natives in the Native Claims Settlement Act was that the natives would receive a percentage of natural resource revenues in the state. But under the Obama administration, drilling has been all but banned in the state, meaning that the revenues meant to sustain the needs of the natives and improve their standard of living has been reduced to as little as $878 per person per year (insert 2012 estimates photo) for the rich resources found in the land that natives have inhabited for hundreds of years. Just take a moment to compare that amount to the poverty level in the United States, which is $27,000 per year for a family of four.
Native Americans have been bullied, ignored, and thwarted in this country since its inception. As a result of today’s government regulation, the natives experience a government-subsidized aspect to their traditional ways, which means poor living standards and low-quality housing that isn’t fit for the harsh Alaskan climate.
The more people I talked to in the village, the more I started to hate what the American government has done. Those on the Tribal Council expressed that their interactions with government agencies officials were slow and unproductive. In order to use government money to fund their move, they could only buy resources from government-approved contracts instead of using the free market, making the move infinitely more expensive and much harder to accomplish. The people of Newtok don’t have time to wait around for the government to make decisions for them. They are sinking.
The government’s food stamp program allows for two small grocery stores within the village that contain a small variety of food with heavily inflated prices due to the costs of shipping. When you’re on food stamps and a container of peanut butter is over ten dollars, it makes life much more difficult.
While the natives desire to preserve their traditions, the Yup’ik Eskimos recognize the importance of a free economic structure for their ambitions of not only building sufficient structures on the new site at the lowest possible cost, but also creating a proper sewage system, cultivating a clean water source, and building sturdy roads. They want to be able to afford better technology for the safety and health of their people. They are tired of the red tape associated with government grants, and frustrated with agencies that break promises and neglect their needs.
I was so struck by the beauty and resourcefulness of the people. The Yup’ik people live according to their cultural traditions. They live a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and fishing to divide the catch amongst the villagers. They practice Eskimo traditions like steam bathing, eat Eskimo foods like salmon and dried goose with seal oil. They still speak Yup’ik (with English) to their children. The people of Newtok want to work. The people don’t want to use your tax dollars to fix their problems. Entitlement doesn’t run in the fiber of their culture.
American conservatives are often criticized for picking and choosing which parts of our history to believe– only seeing America’s exceptionalism and failing to recognize errors, let alone learning from them. The United States of America is a great country with ample opportunity for all of its citizens, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have mistakes on record. As it pertains to Native Americans, we have disregarded their cultures, rights, and futures in the past. Let’s see Newtok’s case as a precedent in this area and break that cycle by helping them maintain their traditions while improving quality of life—without relying on the government for money, resources, or personnel.
Imperial Independent Media and Nine Line Productions teamed up to bring this story to light. Watch the 23- minute documentary here:
The Yup’ik Eskimos of Newtok are creating five local businesses to stimulate their economy, create jobs, and fund their move.