Alaska, United States

A small village on the Bering Sea coast is flooding, eroding, and sinking. The village of Niugtaq (Newtok) sits atop six-meter pilings, scattered in the gutters of marshland in the mudflats of the Ningliq River. Each pile drives fragmented infrastructure skyward, further away from the land. Elevated buildings are connected by raised boardwalks, bedecking villagers across the variably hard and frozen or soggy and muddy conditions. Associations are linked by this hard geometry, as daily life is traced in the patterns that lead from the front door to the school, the drying racks, the airstrip, the clinic, and back home again. If you leave the path, your boots get sucked in by the tundra.

Northern Seasons

There are two seasons in the Arctic tundra: each one begins with an equinox and has a solstice at the center. In physical terms, the seasons alternate between summer warms of flood, erode, sink, and winter colds of freeze, frost and ice. In practical terms, the freeze-thaw engenders rituals tied to life with permafrost, from hunting and foraging to ice fishing and smoking. The practical and material are lodged in these quotidian adaptations, patching infrastructure, replacing slats along damaged boardwalks and mending bends, twists, and heaves that animate human artifacts. The freeze and thaw cycles do not simply interlace boardwalks, they bind the community to cycles of communal repair.

In southwestern Alaska, where permafrost coincides with coastal marshes and bogs, thawing is usually confined to the thin mantle of surface soil aptly named the “active layer.” Life mingles in the active layer, disregarding any theoretical differences between nature and culture, as it imposes unbiased change onto concrete structures and river basins alike. As the layer activates, it forces widespread deviations that range from suspending stream flow channels, to upending miles of telephone poles that come to rest at more suitable angles. The force of the active layer is anticipated by communities in the tundra, a predictable flip that unfolds between winter and non-winter months. Less anticipated is the duration of seasonal thaw and the undeniable tendency for melt to last longer and longer—and longer. It is not news that the tundra is warming, as the steady rise of average temperatures are registered from Siberia to Alaska. What might be noteworthy is not that the tundra is somehow “disappearing” or “melting” but that it is migrating north with the freeze. Permafrost is chasing cold to survive.

“From the air I could see a string of houses, an airstrip, a haphazard scattering of boats, seal drying racks, and abandoned machinery. In the relative absence of other signs of human life, these human artefacts took on animated qualities. The houses dug into the tundra and clung to the shore. The boats crept to the water’s edge. The seal racks grew from the ground. Flying into a rural Arctic village felt like flying into a more focused, less abstract world, something I still feel today. Everything in the landscape—human, animal, plant and plastic—has sharp lines and exists in its own right, with some history.”

          — Elizabeth Marino, Fierce Climate,
          Sacred Ground

It is not a stretch to say that permafrost is retreating. The im- pulse to find colder temperatures is adaptive, enabling permafrost to creep across national borders, snubbing the hard lines of raised infrastructure and the divisions of census districting. Permafrost cannot be tied down because it is an earthly, natural force. Despite the obvious nature of this statement, the cultural consequences of permafrost retreat are manifold for those who live with the active layer, for the thousands of tundra villagers tied to federal policies that do not acknowledge the changeability of the active layer, or the freedom embedded in retreat.

Newtok—Niugtaq in the native Yup’ik language—is one such vil- lage. The residents of Niugtaq felt the retreat of permafrost decades ago. Escalating change motivated residents to first appeal to the fed- eral government in 1997, and almost every year since. The residents recognized that longer warms, and shorter colds suggested that the land was subsiding, they were attuned to the signals of change as an earthly force sped up by circumstances far beyond their control, their lands or their laws. The village would soon be part of the widening Nigliq River and retreating with the permafrost was a practical decision reached as a community. But the story is not so simple.

The story of Niugtaq is not an easy one to tell because it does
not grant access to the land that is left behind. The Yup’ik nation considers the land sacred, even if it is disappearing. There is no word for the not-so-permafrost that is failing to uphold elevated infrastructure, stream channels, and the lives that depend on the fact that winter follows summer. The far-reaching shifts in temperature are bewildering life in more ways than can ever be named, designated, or recorded.

Instead, the story of Niugtaq yields to climate history, a point in time where the propensity for detached survey no longer justifies our existence, where evaluation and classification are now extinct. Niugtaq has already been studied, photographed, reviewed, critiqued, funded, de-funded, evaluated, shared, and trafficked. It is “tweeted” and “liked” across the world, accumulating more news coverage than any physical or material support, as swarms of journalists and buzzing professors mix with the grit of everyday life. Newtok, Kivalina, and Shishmaref are three distinct villages similarly constrained by policy that appealed to migration; the ensuing rush of media is lengthy. There are too many news headlines, all spectacular: search the internet for “Newtok, Alaska,” and you will find stories of “victims,” “abandonment,” and the “Anthropocene.” In 2010, 350 people called Niugtaq home. Currently, the census claims that the population is zero. Policy faltered in these decades, leaving behind another layer of the past whereby regulatory and environmental friction engenders violence. This is history on repeat, an account of Indigenous life that extracts to advance. An account that has no place in the present and might only have a future if the narrative is radicalized.

Species Vulnerability

In 1996, anthropologist Ruth Behar wrote about the depersonalizing trend of humans observing other humans, not as a historic tendency in anthropology, but as an enduring trait of fieldwork in general, due to the “greater taboo of self-revelation.” Her suggestion explores the enduring convention that to progress as a scholar, all emotional response in the observer must be omitted. Behar prompts the disparity of privilege found in conducting research by explaining that the observer has a responsibility to their own emotions. Picking up on a lineage of voices from the interpretive influence of Clifford Geertz to the feminist studies of Donna J. Haraway, Behar finds the confidence to merge her own experience as a Jewish-Cuban immigrant into her work, through values of reciprocity rather than master ideology. She seeks an anthropology that breaks your heart in order to view people and their customs “from the perspective of an anthropologist who has come to know herself by knowing others.” What moves
me about Behar’s fieldwork is that she makes the most out of her own experience in order to respond and relate to the world around her. Acknowledging personal emotions offers a clue to naming the losses we share in the twenty-first century, a different kind of guide that avoids the false objectivity of earlier epochs. Is it possible to study permafrost without experiencing the thaw? Can unfamiliar landscapes engender suprapersonal observation? Embracing species vulnerability reveals that climate action is emotionally inclusive. Only the personal can guide compassion and care.

A rare glimpse of a home typical of village life in
1974. Niugtaq was documented by the US Geologic Survey in 1949. By 1958, the first BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school was built onsite because the village was the farthest point upriver that their barge could reach to offload materials, an investment that began to reassure more fixed settlement. Studies of perma- frost vulnerability, and undeviating erosion began in 1983 and concluded that the village would
have to relocate.

A rupture twenty-five kilometers deep beneath the Nazca plate, produced the earthquake, triggering a tsunami that traveled along the fault at tectonic junctions. The magnitudinous waves spread beneath the coast until making landfall along the shores between Constitución and Concepción. Magnitude is relative power, and its measurement takes into account the energy released at the source. By comparison, intensity is the strength of the shaking produced by the magnitude.

“To seek knowledge is to seek truth. And truth seekers have always had a rough go of it in this world. Those who see life as something to be solved, put in order and contained are constantly bending truth to their own demands.”

          — Richard Wagamase, One Native Life

In relation to shocking, unexpected and sometimes abrupt change, many designers, artists, academics, and those committed to fieldwork proceed from the assumption that “personal” means being there. Such a claim begins to sound like an excuse to fly around the world in order to experience the climate emergency firsthand. This position reveals more about the culture of the researcher than it does about the subjects of study. Such a culture tends to see climate emergencies as a faraway place, further reinforcing antiquated methods that divide other species from humans, and humans from one another. To be a vulnerable observer of faraway landscapes one must be able to meet climate precarity on personal terms, in order to make sense of it in relation to your own land-based experiences. Radical acts are concealed in the effort to relate to one another because noticeable change is everywhere if you look carefully enough. What studying Alaskan permafrost taught me was that there is integrity in not going to Newtok, in replacing in-situ fieldwork with ex-situ fieldwork that acknowledges our collective vulnerability: we are all at risk.

Despite our common connections, the semantics of climate change mitigation labels the Yup’ik villagers of Newtok an “at-risk” population. And this is precisely where the trouble begins. It does not begin with the steady liquefaction of permafrost. Neither does it begin with the associated collapses and patterns of melt that spread across the state, adding pressure to the geologic features and interspecies networks so unique to the Tundra. It also does not begin to explain how policy ties and binds Americans to leased property. Rather, it originates in the forced displacement of tribes from their land, and it endures in the subsequently enforced settlements that settler society still labels “reservations.” What is sustained by calling Yup’ik tribes “at-risk” is a story of indigenous suffering that reiterates hardship, hurt, and disillusionment. According to Indigenous author Richard Wagamese, misery is the only indigenous story that perseveres in contemporary culture, curtailing any healing or future empowerment: “Our stories, as presented in the media, seem to reflect our lives only when we are dead, dying or complaining.”

Yup’ik life is positive, striking, and charged with reality. Not know- ing very much about Yup’ik tradition and culture has made my encoun- ters more symbolic and emotional. My ignorance propelled me to find common associations that always brought me back to a shared respect and care for the land. I am grateful for the magic of the research that was constantly revived every time my expectations were derailed. I am the vulnerable observer. It was almost a decade ago that an interest in land-based knowledge brought Yup’ik traditions into focus. And this is where the vulnerability lies: Primary education in Alaska finds achievement in weaving traditional knowledge into curriculum, in order to grow an understanding of how climate change actually lands. The results are humbling and expose the irrelevance of less progressive educational systems, including the ones I am familiar with. For instance, multicultural education is strengthened by preparing students in both English and Yup’ik language, the effects of thawing permafrost is taught in middle school, with units entitled: seasonal shifts, shrub expansion, and impact of subsistence. Pedagogy expands to include “Native ways of knowing,” in which the teaching context multiplies in support of the integration of place-based learning, as Indigenous practices mingle with scientific pedagogy. According to the Alaskan Native Rural Education Consortium, “Curriculum development processes and related teacher education efforts were decentralised as much as possible to ensure local input and shared control over decision making and implementation.” The effort to decentralize engages students towards multi-generational learning, validating elder traditions in an effort to link land-based experience to the everyday effects of climate change. After centuries of denial, including forced displacement, residential schools, and the precepts of settler society, land- based knowledge is linked to survival.

Removal from the land entirely erased the relationships to place that enabled native peoples to flourish. Settler societies understood well that breaking the ritual and spiritual connections to the land would ultimately defeat the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. These powers of persuasion are called policy, and it invents division. The division is often described as a human–human conflict. In fact, it is a human–land conflict that severs ties to other species, to the soil and thus, survival. Education in Alaska is inclusive of western textbooks and observational experience alike because survival rests on intimate knowledge of the landscape. I gained invaluably because Alaska pedagogy revealed the deep denial of survival in my immediate environment. Native ways of knowing and teaching inspire and appeal to an understanding of change in the landscape around us.
Tundra is part of a broad transition zone unbroken across the Northern landscape from Labrador to Alaska, over Lapland and snaking across Siberia. The climate is too cold, too wet, and generally too wind-exposed for tree growth, but these same factors encourage the growth of permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground that forms underground in sheets that are often hundreds of meters thick. The constantly changing nature of cold is expressed as shorter periods of freeze or especially across the mostly flat interior of the state, also referred to as the Intermontane basin and Plateau region.

According to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the first act of violence was extinguishing the connection peoples and the plants that co-create the landscape. She restates that the dominant story about North American peoples—as weak and unenlightened—not only reinforces the deceit of indigenous erasure, but that its repercussions endure today, largely through academic scholarship. The enduring violence is endures by constantly dismantling the rituals, ceremonies and belief systems between people and land.

1977: The year of this photographic moment was taken. 1977: The year questions began to arise about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 19 million acre stretch of Alaskan coastline. In 1977, the year the construction of the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline System (TAPS) was completed.