© Selawik resident, 2019

Bye, you poor Eskimos, you’re our last worry!

7 April 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Youth in Action. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Many people in Alaska’s Native Village of Selawik feel abandoned by the federal and state governments in their struggles with climate change. Tuva Nerral Volden is a young academic who went into that community to document their stories about—and thoughts on the reasons for—government neglect.

The native village of Selawik in rural northwest Alaska is home to about 850 primarily Indigenous People. In 2009, the United States Army Corps of Engineers identified the village as one of 26 Priority Action Communities in the state due to significant amounts of riverbank erosion. Ten years later, when I first visited Selawik in 2019, most of the people I met were clear that the climate crisis is affecting their lives. Altered animal migration patterns are making subsistence hunting more difficult, while erosion and permafrost thaw threaten public infrastructure and private homes.

During my stay, I met a family whose house was no longer level because of erosion. They told me that this had made its structure more fragile, so when an earthquake struck in November 2018, the house collapsed. The earthquake and its effects in Anchorage, the state capital, received major media coverage, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encouraged all affected citizens to contact the agency for assistance. But during my visit in April 2019, this family had yet to hear anything back from FEMA about their application for assistance. Nor had they received help from any other federal or state agency. They had moved back into their damaged house, where they were coping with electrical, water and sewer issues.

This is just one example of the lack of US government attention to and assistance with the impacts of climate change in Selawik. As further evidence, other villagers I spoke with told me that Selawik’s status as a Priority Action Community has not increased the government support received. In fact, many were unaware that their community had even been granted this dubious status.

In general, accounts of government neglect in the face of climate change were plentiful during my stay in Selawik.

“I think they’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re on your own,’” is how one woman described the government mentality. Another told me she thinks the government is too disconnected from rural Alaskan realities: “The bureaucrats are not here,” she said. “We’re almost kind of isolated in trying to deal with a lot of these changes.”

Many of the people I met shared a nearly fatalistic view of the likelihood that government would provide support and felt they had limited influence in the matter.

As one resident put it: “If they wanna help, then they’re gonna help, and if they don’t wanna help, they’re not gonna help.”

In terms of the reasons behind this sense of abandonment, many of the people with whom I spoke drew links between climate change assistance and politics. One man described how the needs of Selawik and other Arctic towns like it are assigned low political priority: “[Government climate change assistance] depends on the federal dollars and it depends on the global economy. If there’s war, then boom, the federal dollars go. ‘Bye, you poor Eskimos, you’re our last worry.’”

Another said the lack of assistance is symptomatic of the US government’s limited commitment to climate change action more broadly.

“Climate control, [the government has] been talking about it for 30 plus years and nothing’s been going on. (…) That’s all they’re doing, just talking, nothing’s ever happening. And that’s where people get it wrong. ‘Oh, they’re talking about it, they’re talking about it.’ But every year, they just talk about it and nothing’s happening.”

The Arctic is now in many ways the face of the climate crisis. The government support received in Selawik—and, most likely, in other communities facing similar challenges—falls far short of the significance of the consequences. Many of the villagers I spoke to believe this is because efforts to fight the climate crisis and help affected communities respond to it depend on the priorities of those in power. While many of the current responses to climate change may seem apolitical—such as working on technological innovations to store carbon dioxide or building seawalls to prevent flooding—the decisions about what measures to prioritize and for whom remain intrinsically political.

For people in Selawik, the climate crisis doesn’t only pose challenges to their everyday lives. It is also a manifestation of their low value in the eyes of power holders. As for the rest of us, we can also benefit from viewing climate change through the lenses of politics and justice.

TUVA NERAAL VOLDEN, a guest writer for this issue, is a recent graduate of the University of Copenhagen and currently lives in Norway. She holds a B.Sc. in anthropology and an M.Sc. in global development. She based this article on field research conducted for her graduate thesis in 2019.