A Journey to Alaska

“It’s time we learned from Indigenous people instead of oppressing them”  - A quote from a presenter at the Religions for the Earth Conference.

We intended to do just that.

Alaska always holds a certain mystique.  It is ruggedly beautiful through all the seasons, gifting us with mountains, glaciers, and sea, ice, although unforgiving when venturing out in nature at 40 degrees below. I had worked in Alaska as a psychiatrist and had the opportunity to fly into Athabascan and Inupiat villages. There were only two mishaps flying.  One time a plane landed and hit a stump, although no one was hurt. I did however treat a few passengers for trauma over the next few weeks. The other, which happened to me, was less dangerous. The door I was sitting next to flew open when we were about 1000 feet up. I managed not to fly out.

I loved Alaska and its people and was excited to going back, this time with a different mission.  Merle Lefkoff, the head of the Center for Emergent Diplomacy convening the ECOS gathering, www.ecosgathering.org, and Gary Oakley, my next door neighbor and photographer, joined me bunking in with Donna Galbreath. The first Athabascan family physician now based in Anchorage was featured for her work in revolutionizing medicine in the November 2015 Alaska Magazine.

Obama had been to Alaska to attend a conference on climate change just two weeks before.  He was featured in the same magazine.  There were other articles in the local newspapers, and Alaska Magazine did a good job talking about the loss of sea ice previously protecting beaches and villages now being washed away.  There was also mention of the changing eco-systems and the lack of snow for the Iditarod.  Donna jokingly remarked, “I always wanted to meet Obama, and the closest I got was in the magazine.”

We were in Alaska to find out how Indigenous people were coping with climate change and how they saw the future. We met with Dr. Beth Leonard, Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies and Director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska.  Beth, who is Deg Xit’an Athabascan and a member of the Shageluk Tribe of interior Alaska, researches and teaches Indigeneous Knowledge systems and methodologies.  She was generous in sharing information with us about the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, keeping the culture alive during the trying times of sea-water inundation.

Later at the university we had an opportunity to meet with Llarion (Larry) Merculieff) PhD. an Aleut from the Pribilof Islands, and Libby Roderick, PhD. They had recently written “Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning” and “Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education.” Larry spoke of the knowledge and wisdom of his people, the Aleut, about the sea life, natural cycles, and the changing climate and its impact.  Growing up in a traditional village immersed him totally in the culture, so he was able to speak eloquently about Indigenous education and his connection to nature, the very topic that had brought us to Alaska.  “ We must get down from our heads and into our hearts”, he explained. 

After exploring Indigenous education we talked about climate change. Larry’s oral history framework is built around “five disasters”, and the sixth is global climate change. Larry almost immediately focused on women’s role in dealing with this issue. “So the elders asked: what are you choosing to focus on? Are you focusing on that which you are moving away from, or are you trying to focus on that which you are moving toward?  What you focus on becomes the reality.”  Larry went on to suggest that we must act and not just react. He also said, “Women are going to lead the way,” a theme that repeatedly emerged in our conversations with other Indigenous elders. 

We spent a final evening with Donna back in Anchorage trying to treat her to New Mexican style tacos and were up at 6:00 am the next morning to fly to Barrow. A moose ran in front of us while travelling through downtown Anchorage giving us a great send-off as we made our way to the airport and on to Barrow.  The flight, leaving at 10:30 am, was the best chance we had of seeing the Brooks Range, and we were not disappointed. The Mountains were a spectacular bluish hue from the low lying southern sun. 

Flying to Barrow we talked about wanting more information about the circumpolar organization that includes Russia, US, Canada, Greenland, and the Indigenous blue -eyed Sami in the North of Scandinavia. People from Barrow had organized the Circumpolar group and had studied and written several articles on climate change. I had met the Sami in Arctic Village when previously working in Alaska. 

As we walked around Barrow, small street lights punctuated the dark. The sun came up at 11:30 and set less than an hour later, but was up long enough to see the effects of storms washing away some of the beaches along with attempts to create a sea wall with mounds of gravel.  One of the highlights of the day was meeting Rosemary Ahtuangarvat, an Inupiat Activist from Barrow and the surrounding villages.  A tireless activist, she had been involved in the health effects of environmental pollutants and had been instrumental in demanding a clean up of the dirty air resulting from gassing of wells.  More recently Rosemary had expanded her interests and activism to include climate change. She spoke eloquently and was thoroughly informed. 

When asked what she saw for the future she responded, “I see our Inupiat people staying strong in our villages and our young people having a focus on sustainability within our villages.  They will be doing activities that will provide them an income in the village as well as help for their children and elders who are increasing in age.  We will be feeding our families from our lands and waters as other generations have done from time immemorial.  Our economy has become a throwaway society and we have to change this and recognize that every acre of land and water is important in our lives to keep us healthy for future generations.  We have to value the importance of health for our people, the health of our lands and waters, and we have to value tradition and  culture and bring those values to the future generations.”

We sampled pickled whale skin, a delicacy, delicious sea bird stews, and the local whale museum shop, where I purchased beautiful seal skin slippers. The fact that the Inupiat have survived for over 1000 years in that location, the most northern village in Alaska, is witness to their stamina, sophistication, and knowledge of the natural world. 

We flew back to Anchorage to enjoy a meal of moose and apple pie with Donna’s son Tikkan and his wife, Jennifer, and friends. I was ecstatic having moose so well prepared, succulent and flavorful, reminding me of my youth, having grown up eating deer, elk, and antelope.   Tikkan had hunted the moose that fall. He and Jennifer were committed to obtaining at least 50 % of their food locally and sustainably with the idea of increasing that percentage in the near future. 

It was a too-short trip to a magical but exacting north country feeling the early but significant effects of climate change.