Below are reflections on the piece written more than a year ago and recently shared at the Expert Seminar on Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries in the Arctic Region held by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy.
I write about indigenous life in our communities in Alaska. Too often our stories are told by colonizers. Settlers. From their perspective. It’s my work and passion to share stories of our lifestyles as Inuit from our perspective and voice.
The piece noted in my title for this forum was published in the New York Times last fall. I wrote it to bring attention to changes we are seeing in our ocean. But my main reason was to give a glimpse of our way of life in relation to the ocean. In relation to the ice. And in relation to the animals that depend on it. The animals we depend on.
Today I am 41 years old with three children. I recently shared with my children these words and I share them with you today. I realize it’s what was said between the lines of the story written more than a year ago.
Colonization has caused the most disruption to the Inuit way of life. There has been forced relocation. Forced assimilation. Eradication of language, custom and traditional education. We have worked so tremendously hard to reclaim our identity. To decolonize. To raise you to be proud to be Inuit and present yourselves unapologetically as Inuk to the world.
Yet today, your generation, will face the greatest threat from the “developed world.”
The northeastern Bering Sea, the waters surrounding our homelands, are two degrees warmer than normal. This means warm water species like cod and pollock have moved into our waters in very large numbers. The cold water fishes our ecosystem historically depends on – like saffron cod and smelt – have moved north to colder waters.
The disappearance of the cold water fishes means the sea birds die of starvation in mass. Cliffs once thickly populated are empty. When I was young the sea ice generally formed in October and didn’t melt until May or June. Last year we had a winter of no sea ice. This means the ugruk, or bearded seal, will soon not likely inhabit our waters.
You have inherited a warming ocean. The rapidly changing ecosystem will force you to adapt and create new cultural practices.
Knowing this change is happening, I wonder what it is I teach you.
Values. Our values as indigenous people do not change amidst changes to our ecosystem. We are fortunate to have spirituality built into our ways of harvesting and managing resources we depend on. This spirituality creates a relationship of respect with the earth, the water, and all living things. We are not dominant to the ecosystem, but a part of it.
The ancient way of relating to the earth is progressive, despite what you will hear of western ideals and the undeserved pride that comes with sheer dominance. Policy holders will not speak of spirituality, yet the relationship of respect is the very component missing from western management.
With colonization there is the exhausting and continued need for indigenous to educate settlers on relationships of respect. While you inherit the effects of a warming ocean and climate, you also inherit the urgency to educate western management to create a paradigm shift in our relation as human beings to the earth too many disrespect.