Farmer, journalist, blogger at Central Minnesota Political, and MN350 volunteer
The vast Chukchi Sea, between the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean, has been the friend and partner of the Inupiaq people for millennia. It was the source of their life and their culture. But for the Inupiaq who fished and hunted in the area of the Kivalina and Wulik rivers, that began to come to an end at the beginning of the last century.
“Kivalina is a small Inupiaq village in Northwest Arctic Alaska that sits on a barrier reef island,” Colleen Swan, the Kivalina Tribal Administrator, told Christine Shearer for her 2011 book Kivalina: A Climate Change Story. “The village sits there because, in 1905, the Bureau of Indian Affairs came and built a school on the island, informing the people who lived in the geographic area that they had to bring their children to the school to be educated or face imprisonment. Historically the island had only been used for seasonal hunting and fishing. The Inupiaq people complied and brought their children to the school from their individual settlements on the outskirts of the barrier island, an area that was and is their aboriginal territory.”
“Over time, life became difficult and the parents were concerned that they were endangering the lives of their children by bringing them to and from the school during winter storms and subzero temperatures. Winter consists of approximately nine months out of the year in this part of the world. The parents began moving their families to the island permanently and that began a different life for them in what is now a village called Kivalina,” Swan continued.
However, the people did not need that education that the colonists forced on them, and meanwhile, the island they were forced to move to was doomed.
The process likely started earlier, but Christine Shearer says that Kivalina elders first recall noticing sea erosion on the island in the 1950s. The island, which is made of sand and gravel, was being eroded from wave action and storm surges from the Chukchi’s powerful winter storms. The storms were eroding the island because year by year, with increasing rapidity, the sea was warming, no longer forming the dense mat of protective ice it had been before the storms began.
Shearer describes a series of storms in the first decade of this century that relentlessly chewed away the ground under the little community. An excerpted description included in her book written by David Darlington, of Reader’s Digest, is perhaps the most graphic.
“As the first big fall storm approached in 2004, the ground behind [the school principal’s] trailer collapsed. Where there had once been a broad beach between the town and the ocean, the earth behind the buildings now dropped directly into the water, and the former school principal Gerry Pickner suddenly found his house teetering on a steep bank with seawater splashing against its windows. While teachers scrambled to move his belongings into the school, the ocean advanced on the town’s fuel tank and generators; meanwhile, at the island’s north end, waves threatened a gravel airstrip, Kivalina’s main connection with the outside world,” Darlington wrote.
Kivalina was hammered by powerful storms again in 2005 and again in 2007. In 2008, the people had had enough. They sued a raft of fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, for the estimated cost to relocate the village from the fast-disappearing island to a higher site on the mainland. The US Army Corps of Engineers had estimated the cost to relocate to be between $100 and $400 million, and the science was clear: The fossil fuel industry was largely responsible for the disappearing ice in the Chukchi Sea and, as a consequence, the disappearing island of Kivalina. The village also sued the fossil fuel companies for creating a false debate around global warming.
The Inupiaq people believed that they were owed recompense from the fossil fuel companies who knowingly corrupted the truth about the destructive use of fossil fuels and thereby were responsible for the destruction of their home and way of life.
Kivalina: A Climate Change Story is not about the lawsuit, which was dismissed by a federal judge in 2009. It is about the tragedy experienced by the people of Kivalina. It is also about a more-than-fifty-year campaign to knowingly corrupt American public discourse, politics, and the judiciary so that those who are responsible for the tragedy at Kivalina, and other corporate wrongdoing, will not be held to account.
Minnesota recently sued ExxonMobil, and others, for creating a false debate around global warming. If you want to understand what Minnesota’s lawsuit is up against Kivalina: A Climate Change Story is an excellent explainer. Read MN350’s statement on the lawsuit here.
Tim King is a farmer, journalist, blogger at Central Minnesota Political, and MN350 volunteer living west of Long Prairie, MN.