Alaska native sees culture, heritage endangered through climate change

Global warming is squeezing the life out of Oscar Kawagley’s culture.

“It is scary,” he said. “Cold is what makes my language, my culture, my identity. What am I going to do without cold?”

Kawagley, 71, grew up in Bethel, Alaska, a Yupiaq village where, he said, “as a boy, we depended on seal for meat, for seal oil and for clothing.”

Nowadays, he said, seals are scarce.

“They are getting harder and harder to find because the ice is getting farther and farther out, and it’s not as thick,” Kawagley said. “Seals have to have ice for their pups – so do walrus – but it is disappearing.”

Kawagley spoke Monday at “Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Peoples,” a three-day symposium at Haskell Indian Nations University, which is a first of its type for the school.

Other consequences of global warming:

Oscar Kawagley, of Fairbanks, Alaska, discusses global warming Monday at Haskell Indian Nations University. Kawagley, an Alaskan native, warned about the impact of climate change on indigenous cultures.

¢ Undeterred by the cold, bark beetles and budworms are wiping out thousands of acres of white and black spruce.

¢ The number of forest fires is increasing.

¢ Several fish species are disappearing.

¢ The region’s permafrost is melting.

¢ Coastal ice sheets are melting, exposing villages to the ocean’s waters.

“It is a shame to see the pictures of the waves lapping against villagers’ homes,” said Kawagley, an associate professor of education at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “But it is a reality.”

¢ Polar bears are drowning because they must swim up to 60 miles in open sea to find food. Some have turned to cannibalism.

¢ As food supplies dwindle, black, brown and grizzly bears are becoming more aggressive.

“In Denali National Park today, they will not let you put up a tent because of the bears,” Kawagley said.

Kawagley said his Yupiaq culture is reeling from the changes.

“I feel afraid for my grandchildren,” he said. “Already, they are in a state of confusion.”

Kawagley’s comments struck a chord with Dan Wildcat, a Haskell instructor and the symposium’s coordinator.

“These are major issues to face that are very disruptive to native people – indigenous people who still take their identities, their lifeways and their cultures from the landscapes they live on,” Wildcat said.

“For people who are maintaining those traditions, these changes are going to be very challenging.”

The symposium ends Thursday morning. About 30 people attended Monday’s sessions.