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Homefront/Frontline: Communities respond for climate justice

May 31, 2017


Lucy Amelia Kruesel

#DefendTheSacred Climate Justice rally in Downtown Fairbanks, outside of Morris Thompson Cultural Center
“What do we want? Climate Justice. When do we want it? Now”: chant heard during #DefendTheSacred Climate Justice rally in Downtown Fairbanks, outside of Morris Thompson Cultural Center on May 10, 2017. (Photo credit Lucy Kruesel)  
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

“Climate change is the one place, the issue where the individual makes a difference,” Anchorage First Lady Mara Kimmel assured the audience during her talk about resistance and resilience in Anchorage at Innovate Arctic, one program during the Week of the Arctic. The talk began with Kimmel and her colleague, Robert Templer, a scholar from Central European University, defining resilience in the North: “In the face of trauma, violence and persecution, we are still strong.”

Week of the Arctic 2017, held in Alaska, engaged northerners by celebrating livelihoods, showcasing community development, and witnessing the conclusion of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Throughout the week, I tuned in to many kinds of conversations about climate change, including Arctic 21’s program about scientific research (permafrost patterns, for example), the #DefendTheSacred rally for Climate Justice, and the I Am Inuit photography exhibit. The sense that Alaska (and the Arctic) are on the frontlines of climate change was omnipresent. The way Kimmel and Templer describe it, resilience is interfacing with each of these conversations. Although resilience has become a buzzword in discussions of community capacity and Indigenous response, these events demonstrated the authentic flavor of the word.

Defend the Sacred buttons adorned jackets and backpacks—handwritten alongside Protect the Arctic and an image of a caribou against a midnight blue. Golden Heart Plaza was buzzing with all types of activists. One young woman held a sign with an image of her standing next to a glacier she had visited in 2006 juxtaposed with photo from 2016 that showed the glacier almost entirely receded. Another young man had a sign stating, “The Right to be Cold,” referring to Inuk Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s autobiographical book. Three costume dinosaurs wearing jerseys blazed with “Rexxon ‘89” roamed through the crowd. I spoke with a first-time activist and two others who had walked this path for years. Invited to the stage as first speaker was Willow Leaves, who represented the Youth Council of Fairbanks. Her message was clear and demanding: “We can do this.” The rally was organized and led by Enei Begaye Peter, who wears many hats along with her role as activist. She is also a producer of the recently premiered documentary We Breathe Again, which is about the reality of suicide among Alaska Native communities. Perhaps most profound of this rally was the sense of unification and broadening of the community threshold—with or without the direct response or affirmation of Rex Tillerson, who had just arrived inside the Morris Thompson Cultural Center. The event was called a rally, and that it was—voices were alarmed, concerned, and activated—and yet it was also a walk; the entire event began and ended boldly and calmly with prayer led by community members from neighboring regions. Gwich’in Steering Committee member Bernadette Demientieff spoke to the graveness facing traditional ecological wisdom, increasingly challenged by heights in temperature making its reliability waver. These ways of knowing the land and its relationships have buoyed and informed her community for hundreds of years, and now climate change threatens weather patterns and therefore food security.

It has become clear that climate change is continuing to unfold in grandiose ways: record drought, record rainfall, and huge swings in temperatures. During Arctic 21’s final panel, an audience member questioned the “power” of scientific research in its capacity to respond to climate change. One panelist estimated that 10 percent of a scientist’s work connects to public service, igniting the audience to ask, to whom does scientific research reach? The key towards progress is clearly in question; how will we fight the implications of climate change, and is research integral? A young man from Kodiak Fish, Game and Wildlife expressed his concern with nuances of compromise from ways of traditional food sovereignty, whether or not to harvest Murre eggs as their populations dramatically drop: “Over thousands of years we are now seeing changes … There used to be 150 walrus on [Round Island], now there are about 11 a day … [We’ve taken] it harshly, economically and spiritually.”

Promoting understanding of the Arctic region through visual art, Brian Adams’s I Am Inuit exhibition features portraits of Alaskan people and landscapes. The room is full of color and dynamic angles, unlikely scenes, ulus and fish, snow and less snow. These images are breathtaking in composition but are ever-more-potent with the accompanying narratives. Alongside a photo of Karl T. Ashenfelter from White Mountain (Alaska) are his words: “There are so many things different here since I was a child. You don’t really notice it until you get older. Our diet was more traditional … We lived off the country. The biggest change I would say, is the climate … Skip jacks used to come up every fall; they used to catch them by the net, now there are hardly any. Each year when they come in, it used to be on a specific day, July 4th, now it’s anytime. I think it has to do with the water temperature. I see more algae in the river; it’s warmer.” I felt fortunate to experience these large-format photos face to face. Bearing witness to the many faces of the Arctic this week in person and in still life actualized many issues facing the frontlines of climate change. During the opening ceremony for the exhibit at University of Alaska Fairbanks, Adams proclaims his intention with I Am Inuit to build public awareness of the Arctic, with the Inuit people at the center: “This is the first time I really visually saw climate change … What is it like to be Inuit through common humanity?”

Speakers repeated the importance of regional, local, and individual choices in the urgency for understanding and progress. During Arctic Interchange, R. Max Holmes dissected the question of the panel, “What is the Arctic we need?,” by first asking, who is “we”? “We all have a stake in the Arctic,” Holmes declared while discussing warming and thawing cycles. The importance of this Arctic exchange, especially during a time of political transition for the Arctic Council Chairmanship, was to reinforce and amplify the urgency and necessity of action by everyone present – delegate, student, artist, farmer, scientist, youth leader, chef, innovator.

Resilience is an experience that all can adhere to, and this week I witnessed communities working through their own actions and capacities on individual and local levels, not dependent upon governmental promise. Perhaps this is all not about returning to a state of being but finding a new better right way. Cross-pollination is essential in merging scientific and creative ways. Fifteen leaders of the Arctic Council came together in spirit of commitment to the futures of their communities; promises live within the existence of the Council itself to increase and amplify the local, Indigenous voice. It appears as though progress is taking place already from the ground up in rallies, art exhibits, and community conversations – and these increasing dialogues about climate change will only pressure the capacity of our national and global leaders to follow suit. It is essential that we consider who the “we” is in our communities, and who is on the frontlines of the action and/or conversation. Are we listening to understand? Or listening to respond?

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.