The Shishmaref community is located in the northwest corner of Alaska, on a small barrier island no wider than 400 meters and 5 kilometers in length. Shishmaref is a modern Inupiaq Eskimo community that has found itself in the path of climate change. The island lies in the Chukchi Sea that stretches from Alaska to Siberia. The island is threatened by erosion, storms and inclement weather, as well as by the thawing of permafrost, which lies below a thin layer of soil.
A couple of years ago, Shishmaref became the focal point of global media attention with the publication of photos of storms, erosion and houses sinking into the sea. It has made a public impression as a concrete example of the dramatic effects of climate change. Al Gore referred to the people of Shishmaref as the first climate refugees and asked how the community of 650 would survive the following years.
I had been in Shishmaref for almost a month, working on an assignment from the Geo Germany magazine together with journalist Michael Stührenberg. Our goal was to see what has become of the media attention and hordes of journalists 10 years ago. The photo series documents the daily life in the community as it is today and the disappearing traditional ways in a village facing an uncertain future.
The great challenge we faced in the first few days was how to gain the people’s trust, as many had negative experience with journalists and thus shut their doors on us and didn’t want to talk. As the island’s inhabitants voted in a referendum in 2002 to relocate the village to the nearby continent, the media termed them the first climate change refugees. However, nothing much has happened since then. People are waiting and waiting. The government has yet to provide the funds necessary to move the village.
Life in Shishmaref is not easy at all, and there is a deep divide between old hunters and fishermen who live in accordance with their centuries-old traditions on the one hand and young people on the other, who play videogames on their iPads and Playstations and dream about leaving the island where there are no jobs and little to look forward to.
Harvey “Morshik” Tocktoo throwing an Inuit harpoon at the traditional wellness picnic held by the town council to help against suicides among the youth. The sun provides a pleasant atmosphere, and the youngsters enjoy competing against each other in various disciplines.
Vic Olsen Weyiouanna trying to avoid a kiss from Ardith Weyiouanna as they are watching the documentary “Last days of Shismaref” in which Ardith plays a major role explaining the customs of the Inuit. Shishmaref has strong familiar ties, and one can trust on the whole community to help them, should need arise.
Basketball is the most popular sport in Shishmaref, their high school team being considered among the best in Nome district. David Jungers plays with his son, Rjay Nayokpuk. David is one of the few whites in the community and himself a child of a mixed relationship. Unemployment is high on the island, and David is happy to do whatever odd jobs that may come up.
Clifford Weyiouanna, 70, sitting in his bedroom with one of his 16 hunting rifles. The bedroom is full of his wife Shirley’s stuff. She’d died of cancer a few years ago, and Clifford still misses her a lot. He is a former pilot and now an avid hunter. Every now and then he takes off for one of his cabins and stays there for days. Clifford is one of the community’s most popular members, known for his outstanding hospitality: he invites every visitor to the island to sourdough hotcakes and coffee and fries them a dozen eggs.
Getting around on the island is accomplished either on foot or using 4-wheelers. The island is criss-crossed with sandy paths, which some elders consider dangerous, as they supposedly accelerate the island's sinking. There are many broken down 4-wheelers all over the island, as there's usually no money to repair them. Looking through the window is Kirsten Davis, listening to one of the iPads her father bought.
Kirsty Mildred babysitting her cousin Sonny and little sister Claire. She had come back to Shishmaref about a year ago, from Mexico where she was taken by her father after divorcing her mother years ago. The Mexico experience was painful, and Inez was at first very grateful to be back. Her feelings have changed somehow: she says she cannot see any future to her life, and wonders what it would be like on the other side of the World.
One of the moved houses that were put on the former airstrip that ceased to be usable due to the cracks in its asphalt. The strip, however, remains a good surface for children to bike and play on.
Lena Weyiouanna has three children, one in Nome and one in Anchorage, but lives here with a single granddaughter. She is Clifford’s sister, and used to be work for local airlines as secretary. She loves to watch TV and lives in a house built by her father Alex.
Emily and Ray Charles Weyiouanna, shooting zombies in one of their Playstation 3 games. Videogames are a favorite pastime for many children and young people. Emily is employed by the local dog mushers’ council where she takes care of administrative tasks. Her salary allows her to take care of her parents and her son Keith.
Edward Ollana with his daughter Ruth Pianna, looking through the window and reminiscing. Ten years ago, his brother Ray Charles, member of the National Guard, committed suicide in the same house due to problems with alcoholism. Ruth will be his last child, he says, acknowledging that by 58 he is getting old. Unemployed and with six children, he would have a difficult time making it through the month, if it weren’t for the community. Because they hadn’t been paying the bills, their electricity had been cut off six months ago.
Dennis Davis with sons Dallas and Seth playing with one of the iPads that are still working. Dennis has seven children and is currently unemployed, a former police officer. The family survives on the salary of his wife Gwen, who works as a nurse at the local clinic. Dennis is an amateur film author and is currently trying to make a documentary on the disappearing of Shishmaref. He loves gadgets and dreams of a new reflex camera that could make good HD recordings.
Living room of Deniss Sinnok, widely considered the best hunter in the locale. He shot the polar bear a few years ago, on a walrus hunt. Sleeping on the couch in front of the TV is his daughter Hillary.
Shelton Kokeok looking through the window at the much-eroded shore. It all began 20 years ago, he says, when they still had a mile more of the shore. Shelton’s home is the last one in this part of the island still resisting the erosion thanks to a seawall. He doesn’t have the resources to move, as his house is among the biggest one the island. Nine years ago, they had already moved house for 100 feet, but the erosion has progressed greatly since then.
The point where the old and the new part of the seawall meet. The newer part is painted with mineral oil, which is supposed to help preserve it. The Army helped bring the stones from a quarry 1500 km away.
Percy Nayokpuk taking care of his Huskies that he bought from the famous Shishmaref dog musher Herbie Nayokpuk, also known as the “Shishmaref Cannonball”. After he finishes up at his store, Percy goes on every day to take care of his dogsled Huskies. He is one of the few remaining dog mushers who can still afford to take care of sled dogs.
Delano Barr and Warren Ningeulook cleaning salmon. Grandson Raymond is helping carry over the salmon. The haul from the Chukchi sea was good. The sea is full of fish and an important source of subsistence in the summer.
All over the island sick seals get beached occasionally. Notices on the doors to the store and the community center warn of a dangerous virus that is decimating the seal population. Residents rely heavily on a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and gathering much of their food. Primary food sources include sea mammals such as oogruk (bearded seal), other seals and walrus, fish, birds, caribou and moose.
– Nora Iyatunguk explaining to her sons Kenny and Corben where to look for animals during a boat-ride up the Serpentine River. Hunting requires great focus and a good eye, as the wildlife in the tundra knows how to hide from hunters.
During a break in the hunt atop one of the hills in the Serpentines, Timothy Nayokpuk is playing with caribou antlers with his son Kenny Iyatunguk. The hood over one’s head protects against the mosquitoes that swarm around everywhere.
Lutheran church and cemetery at 1:30 AM, soon after sunset. The polar day in the summer changes the biorhythms of the people: they go to sleep very late and sometimes don’t wake up until early afternoon. Shishmaref is a reasonably safe town with almost no criminality, thanks in part to an alcohol ban, decided on by the inhabitants in 1983.