Time to face the change
by Jessica Miller
July 26, 2006
The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…
Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island
Yesterday was a really full day, which is why I’m a little late in writing. We woke up to clear skies and calm waters in a tiny bay off the village of Savoonga, about 30 miles east of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. After days of fog and rock, the neat houses set against rolling green hills were a welcome, and welcoming, sight. For a long time, we all just stood there, taking in the sunshine and the view.
Around noon, a skiff arrived to ferry us to the island. One of the skiff drivers described a bird—black with orange legs—that his wife had photographed a few days ago, and asked if I knew what it was. They had never seen one before. Later in the day, as I walked up the gravel road to the meeting hall, another man showed me a songbird nest, complete with chicks, a strange bird had built in his eaves. “The mother is a very little bird,” he said, “with a red head. Do you know that one?”
We spent the afternoon, and late into the night, talking with tribal elders, council members and people from the village. Savoonga was founded in the early 1930s, when a handful of Yup’ik families from Gambell moved here to be closer to the reindeer herd that ranges the eastern half of the island. Everyone we met had grown up here. A few of the elders had been in the village almost since it began, making their living by understanding the reindeer, and the weather, and the sea.
Like those in Gambell, the Yup’ik of Savoonga told us about the changes in the ice. And how they sometimes have to travel 100 miles or more to hunt animals they once hunted in the bay where the ship sat. They told us that the currents have changed, making the ice move more quickly and carry game away before they can reach it. For the first time, we heard that there’s been less snow lately, and that for the first time ever they’ve had summer days reaching 80 and 90 degrees.
They feel that the waters are rising and the waves are worse. As a result, their land is eroding, or simply sinking beneath the advancing sea, and camps and houses have been moved back from the water’s edge for fear of being lost. They showed us photos of a wide, sloping beach in front of the village from the 1960s, and photos of the same beach taken yesterday—or rather, the sliver of it that remains. They had photos from the same era that showed a long spit of land running out into the bay. Today most of it is gone.
We talked not just about global warming, but about traditional ways of knowing and how they’d been ignored for so long. They told us that scientists, and western people, rarely listened to them and rarely understood. I agreed with them, and confessed that environmentalists, too, had been slow to recognize the value of traditional knowledge. Slow to recognize that long memory and experience can sometimes give us a far deeper understanding of the world than numbers on a page. But this is changing, I told them. And our presence here is evidence of that.
The Yup’ik had questions of their own—not just about global warming, but about the industrial pollution that works its way into northern waters, to end up in their sea, and in their fish, and in themselves. They asked why the waters around their island were being polluted; and what was being done about it; and why it was taking so long.
They asked the same thing about global warming. To the people of Savoonga, global warming has been real for years, and they wanted to know why our government, all governments, haven’t done more to stop it—to stop their beaches from disappearing; their game from moving away; their houses from slipping into the sea. I offered what answers I could, about treaties, and politics, and signs of hope. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t enough. Not here. Not for them. For the Yup’ik, global warming is not just tomorrow’s problem, but today’s problem, and yesterday’s problem, and last year’s problem. They see their own lives changing rapidly and worry about the prospects for their children. Worry whether their children will be able to maintain the old ways in a world that’s different every day. I wanted to tell them that everything will be alright; that we’ll find a way. But the best I could say, with a clear conscience, is that more and more people understand now, and more and more people are trying. Making little changes that, one by one, add up to bigger changes. And hopefully, before it’s too late, it will be enough.
It isn’t yet. Not by far. They know that better than I do.
We left Savoonga on Tuesday morning with new friends, a deeper understanding, and a pledge to return. As we sailed around the east end of St. Lawrence on the way to our next leg, we encountered a group of gray whales feeding near the coast. Right where the Yup’ik said they would be.