Shishmaref: A Native American Struggle

Nima Taradji


United States

Shishmaref, Alaska is a remote village of about 600 people located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, flanked by the Chukchi Sea to the north and an inlet to the south, and it sits atop rapidly melting permafrost. In the last decades, the island's shores have been eroding into the sea, falling off in giant chunks whenever a big storm hits.

Sarichef Island (on which Shishmaref is located) is part of a dynamic, 100 km-long barrier island chain that records human and environmental history spanning the past 2000 years. Erosion at Shishmaref is unique along the islands because of its fetch exposure and high tidal prism, relatively intense infrastructure development during the 20th century, and multiple shoreline defense structures built beginning in the 1970s. (Wikipedia)

As the water temperature has increased, the time span the Chukchi Sea stays frozen is getting shorter each year which then exposes the shoreline to the winter storms, accelerating the erosion of the coastline. It is estimated that the Island loses about 10ft to erosion each year and likely the entire Island will be just gone within the next decade or two.

The City of Shishmaref is located on a narrow spit of fine, silt-like sand, which is about three miles long and a quarter-mile wide. The City is surrounded on all sides by water making travel by boat or plane the only way in or out of the City.

In 2002 the City voted to relocate. However, 14 years later, there appears to be very little movement in that direction. In fact, the City Council elected in 2008 has largely ignored the previous plans for relocation and there is no indication that any new plan has been proposed or is in the works. Even if there was a plan for relocation, it is unclear where the funds necessary for such a relocation, which has been estimated to be around $100 Million, will come from. The Federal Government has no program or funds allocated for this project.

So for now, this traditionally Inupiaq Eskimo village where residents rely heavily on a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and gathering their food, has adopted a sort of wait and see attitude towards their uncertain future.

At stake is the existence of this unique native culture, which is comprised of Alaska Native Inupiaq people going back many generations. It likely will disappear should the city not be relocated as a unit and the residents end up scattered around in the mainland of Alaska.

Clifford Weyiouanna, a lifelong resident of Shishmaref told me "when the White Man came they told us that our traditional dance and culture was the work of the Devil and they made us not speak our language or engage in our traditional dances." This resulted in the younger generation not speaking the Native Language and the culture has been diluted. The unclear future of Shishmaref will likely deal the final blow.

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  • Andrew Ningealook, 26 years old and a life long resident of Shishmaref, breaks the ice before laying his fishing net under the ice. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A resident of Shishmaref visits his sister's grave on the 17th anniversary of her death. The cemetery is centrally located in front of the Lutheran Church - The only church in the village. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Sled dogs wait to be fed. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A crack in the ice formed on the lagoon. The frozen lagoon provides the residents of Shishmaref with access to the mainland and allows them to go further to hunt for caribou, bears and wolves. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A freshly caught seals waits to be cut and processed. Seal is one of the primary sources of meat for the people of Shishmaref, Alaska and their dogs. Leaving the fresh kill outside provides perfect and convenient freezer storage. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • View of the Alaskan tundra from the small airplane on the way to Shishmaref. During the winter season, planes are the only practical way of transportation to and from the Village to other villages and to the mainland Alaska. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A young Shishmaref resident runs with her puppy on the main street in the village. Puppies older than 4 weeks old must be on the leash although the rule is generally not observed. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Many homes in Shishmaref are decorated with Christmas lights and decorations during the Christmas season. Although most residents are members of the Lutheran Church, they also observe their native Eskimo spiritual practices. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Shishmaref's center "square". Snowmobiles or “snow-go” are a primary source of transportation in town and for hunting food. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • During a break from bingo, players go outside to smoke and regroup. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Nora Iyatunguk washes her son, Gilford, in the women's section of the Washeteria in Shishmaref, Alaska. A bucket of hot water for this purpose is $2.00. The Washeteria is the only place for residents to take showers and/or wash their clothes. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Allison Neyoktok, 26, watches her mother, Catherine Neyoktok, 62, sew mittens using seal fur and skin. On weeknights they play bingo at the Shishmaref Community Center. Catherine is a fourth generation of Neyoktoks born in Shishmaref. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Bingo is a regular pastime of the residents of Shishmaref, Alaska and is held every night except on Sundays and Wednesdays so as to allow the residents attend the Church services. Once a player calls "Bingo" a game official reads out loud the numbers and the bingo caller confirms the win. Payment is then received on the spot. While in this case the pot was about $350, prizes as high as $1000 are awarded each night. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Lena Weyiouanna, 64, a longtime resident of the village, works as a janitor at the Shishmaref Clinic. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Dennis Sinnok was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and moved to Shishmaref when he was a child. He has lived in Shishmaref ever since. He is an accomplished bear, wolf, seal and walrus hunter. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Ryan Ningealook, 4, looks on while his two brothers slept on the floor in the only room in their small home in Shishmaref, Alaska. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Although most residents of Shishmaref are officially members of the Lutheran Church (the only church in the village), they also observe and respect their traditional Eskimo practices and beliefs. During the Sunday service, Pastor Marvin Jonasen sings to the children as part of his sermon. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Mary Kiyutellukinguk was born in Nome, Alaska. She has lived all of her life in Shishmaref and takes care of her granddaughters Kiyeivi, 7, and Kalaya, 3, after school while their mother is at work. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A resident of Shishmaref holds his daughter in their home that he shares with his father. Residents on the island face an uncertain future — it faces inundation because of melting permafrost and the rising water levels resulting from climate change. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • A resident of Shishmaref cooks seal meat and blubber to feed to his kennel of sled dogs. He has couple of dozen dogs being trained sled running. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • Andrew Ningealook, left, and his cousin Thomas Eningowuk speak together while a twin-engine plane makes its final approach before landing at the Shishmaref airport. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • During the previous storms and coastal erosion, various structures have toppled over. The warmer seas prevent the formation of ice that used to provide a natural barrier to erosion during the stormy seasons. Without this natural barrier, the Island of Shishmaref, Alaska is disappearing at a moderate and steady pace. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)

  • After breaking the ice, Andrew Ningealook, 26, and his cousin Thomas Eningowuk, 32, lay their fishing net under the ice. They will leave the net for several days before returning to check if they have caught anything. Fishing has become less abandonment because with the seals have access to the lagoon from the sea now that the sea takes longer to freeze. (Nima Taradji/Polaris)