• “Imam Cimiucia: Our Changing Sea,” documents elders’ observations from Port Graham and Nanwalek
by Naomi Klouda
“The ocean is part of me. Sometimes, I just have to go down there to smell the ocean,” said elder Simeon Kvasnikoff of Port Graham.
Tied as they are to the sea, the Sugpiat of Port Graham and Nanwalek are reading the unfolding story of climate change in grasses and ice storms. Elder Nick Tanape notices bears aren’t quite as fat as they should be before heading off to a winter’s sleep.
Chitons, a shellfish stuck to rocks and exposed only on low tides, are dwindling alarmingly in number.
Air flights out of Nanwalek see frequent weather delays even in summer that didn’t used to occur.
“There are so many stories that can be learned from just this one place. Everyone is seeing it,” Tanape said.
Tanape worked with authors Henry Huntington and Anne Salomon to document climate change in “Imam Cimiucia: Our Changing Sea,” a hard cover book illustrated by photographs from Lisa Williams.
The book blends western science and traditional Native knowledge to uncover some of the ecological, social, and economic causes of coastal ecosystem change on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
At a time when a flood of information on climate change is being presented, the stories in this book will strike a different chord. It gives the oral accounts of Sugpiat history in the area in order to arrive at a context for the changes they are witnessing.
“I am worried,” Tanape said. “Anyone would be concerned. I think as human beings we are destroying our earth. We are being very careless with what we throw away.”
Tanape has served on numerous commissions, and currently serves on the Seal and Sea Lion Commission, and has worked for many years on natural resource and fisheries issues. He is a life-long subsistence hunter who contributed to the Kachemak Bay Science Conferences. Anne Salomon is assistant professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Huntington is a scientist with the Pew Environment Group specializing in polar studies.
Together, the authors allow the indigenous stories to emerge from the speakers as they weave knowledge of historical and social cycles in with their environmental observations.
“The most recent decline that we have observed is that of the bidarki. Also known as the black leather chiton, or urriitq (u-hee-duk) in Sugt’stun, this intertidal invertebrate is not only an important source of food, it is part of our stories, songs, our culture and our traditions,” Tanape wrote. “We started observing declines in the number and size of bidarkis somewhere between 1990-1995. Bidarki shells found in lower Cook Inlet middens, prehistoric garbage heaps as old as 3,000 years or more, suggest that these chitons have been harvested for thousands of years in this area.”
This is a story of “multiple causes,” though, with elders and scientists alike acknowledging that untangling the various factors contributing to the declining marine life is a difficult task.
One elder, Walter Meganack Jr., of Port Graham puts it this way: “Declines are likely due to a chain reaction. There is still, to this day, no one reason for all these declines.”
Everything from disturbances like earthquakes to overfishing can cause disruptions in an ecosystem, where nothing happens in isolation.
The stories travel back in time, looking at how their ancestors handled challenges during times of food shortages. Simeon Kvasnikoff says the Aleutian chain of islands was populated as they ran low on food.
“They were looking for a better place and better food,” he said. Sugpiat, like many other Alaska Native groups, lived semi-nomadic lives to rotate around an area for hunting and fishing. An elder talks about ancestors occupying the Kenai Fjords on the southern shores of the Kenai Peninsula, Nuka, Yalik and Aialik Bays.
The discussion moves then from the seasonal lifestyle to one of living permanently in villages. When Russians arrived, Native people were forced to hunt the otter, which for a time decimated that population.
By the early 1900s, salmon canneries dominated the economy. Canneries moved into Port Graham, Seldovia, Portlock and Nanwalek.
In the history of the area, interviews lend insight on a range of decades and events, including the 1989 Valdez oil spill. They discuss the custom of sharing subsistence foods – sending it Fed-ex to relatives who are away for training, or other reasons.
Even the sociological loss of language works into the “changing sea” inquiry. Elders pointed out that the younger harvesters lack the information that could be transferred to them through language. Rhoda Moonin, an Alutiiq language teacher, said when they speak in Alutiiq, “we hear our ancestors’ voices… it is our desire that each new Alutiiq generation will learn to speak Sugt’stun so they will always know who they are.”
Given its bleak subject matter, the stories seldom veer off into discouragement. Tanape concludes: “But the situation is not beyond hope. Much knowledge remains with our elders today. If we can pass it on, if our younger people are willing to learn it, those hard-won lessons from countless generations may still be sustained in our communities, together with the healthy ecosystems that nourish us.”
Funding to print this book was provided by a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to the Port Graham Village Council. Additional support was provided by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, Chugach Alaska Corporation, Chugach Heritage Foundation, University of Alaska Press and Pratt Museum. Sales proceeds will benefit the Port Graham Environmental Program and the Nanwalek Resource and Fisheries Program. The book is available at the Homer Bookstore and at the Pratt Museum.
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