Store
Indigenous Peoples

Kivalina, photos of the Alaskan village that could be gone by 2025

Kivalina is located on a small island once guarded by sea ice, which is now melting due to global warming. While the sea threatens to wipe the village off the face of the Earth, its inhabitants refuse to give up their lives and traditions.

Take a deep breath. Fill your lungs with freezing cold air, leaving you stunned and startled. Jennifer’s breath, however, feels warm, her face cozily framed by a furry hood. Just like Kivalina’s other inhabitants, she doesn’t want to leave this remote Alaskan village. Located 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, in one of the country’s most inhospitable territories, it has become a symbol of the disastrous dangers of climate change.

It’s happening before our eyes, and I believe one day Kivalina isn’t going to be here anymore because of global warming. But we’re fighting against it, to keep our traditions alive.Alexis Awley, Kivalina resident

Kivalina could disappear forever

Kivalina is a small village found at the very end of a twelve-kilometre barrier reef located between a lagoon and the Chukchi Sea, with no roads linking it to the mainland. The village has always relied on sea ice as its protector. The melting of the ice due to global warming has left the coastline at the mercy of constant erosion caused by waves and unpredictable climatic phenomena, in addition to the threat of rising sea levels as a result of increasing global temperatures. At this rate, the island on which the village is located will be swallowed up by the ocean by 2025, according to predictions.

In 2008, the residents of Kivalina filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and other companies that extract oil, zinc and iron on the island. The lawsuit, the first in the name of climate change in the US, was directed at the companies’ carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for climate change, which is threatening the village’s very existence. Residents demanded a sum of up to 400 million US dollars as financial compensation, money destined to relocating the village – even though the inhabitants wish to avoid this choice at all costs. However, in 2009 the District Court declared the case to be of a political nature and therefore not justiciable.

Life in Kivalina

Kivalina is home to roughly 400 ethnic Iñupiat residents who live in around 90 households. For years, the federal government has unsuccessfully attempted to assimilate the village into dominant culture. “I speak English, I went to school, I dress like Americans do, I even eat some of their food. But I’m still Iñupiat through and through,” whale hunter Enoch Adams says, proudly. The villagers are self-sufficient and their livelihoods are based on hunting and fishing, activities strongly affected by global warming as rising temperatures have radically shifted the distribution of aquatic species and changed the migratory patterns of seals, whales and caribou. Also, the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, according to the Italian National Research Council (NRC). In particular, temperatures in Alaska are increasing up to twice as fast as in the rest of the country, to the extent that permafrost, normally perennial, is starting to melt.

“This is in some ways such an unprecedented problem, and a lot of our national policies for disaster have to do with after a disaster occurs,” Christine Shearer, author of Kivalina: A climate change story, told the Washington Post. “But with climate change, it’s really about: We need to prepare for what’s coming”. The native population has stayed strong but has also sent a strong message to the international community: change is needed. It’s the only way to save Jennifer, Enoch, Russell, Rhonda, Harold and his niece, whose stories are featured here and faces are captured in the photographs by Joe Raedle. People who’ve learnt to survive in an inhospitable environment that they’ve come to know like the back of their hand, but risk losing forever. A trove of traditions that absolutely can’t end up at the bottom of the sea.

Translated by

Related articles
The Omo Valley, where life flows with the river

The tribes of the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia live in close contact with nature and the river they depend on. We explore how their ancestral ways of life are being threatened by the impacts of a mega-dam, climate change and a booming tourism industry, in this exclusive reportage.