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Erosion Jeopardizes Homes, Artifacts in Alaska

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now many scientists are blaming climate change for another problem--chronic flooding and erosion that damage about four-fifths of Alaska's native villages. The indigenous residents of the Arctic say warming temperatures are threatening their culture and in some places the evidence of ancient history. Gabriel Spitzer of Alaska Public Radio Network reports.

GABRIEL SPITZER reporting:

The native name for the village of Point Hope is Tikigaq, which means pointer finger. It describes the shape of a long spit jutting out into the ocean about 120 miles above the Arctic Circle. Archeologists believe Inupiat Eskimos have lived here at least 2,000 years and the village has some of the richest archeological resources in Alaska, but now this land is sliding into the sea.

(Soundbite of a four-wheeler)

SPITZER: Point Hope resident Steve Umituk(ph) urges his four-wheeler toward the spit's western end. We arrive at what looks like a series of regularly spaced hillets in the tundra. They're the remains of ancient sod houses, semi-subterranean dwellings made from Earth and driftwood. Artifacts at this site, called Ipiutak, have been dated to before the birth of Christ.

Mr. STEVE UMITUK (Point Hope Resident): There's four rows of houses. In each row, there's a 150 houses; 10 percent has eroded away.

SPITZER: That erosion is gradually closing in on Point Hope. As the Arctic warms, the Chukshi Sea freezes later and later. Without early shore rise, coastal villages are vulnerable to the pounding waves of fall storms. In the mid-'70s, encroaching seawaters pushed people to abandon their flood-prone village site near these sod houses and move about two miles east, but the ancestors remain.

Mr. UMITUK: All this area out this way is the Ipiutak graveyard. Every year, we see more and more skeletons showing up.

SPITZER: Umituk says it's difficult to watch this history wash away.

Mr. UMITUK: These are our ancestors. These are our people and here we see them here and we're not sure what to do with them.

SPITZER: Archeologists are keenly interested in the Arctic's early inhabitants. Bill Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Study Center at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, says the Ipiutak site may hold important clues.

Mr. BILL FITZHUGH (Director, Arctic Study Center): It's been the most enigmatic and the most important archeological site we have in Alaska and it's just an amazing site. And it would be really tragic if we can't recover more information from it.

SPITZER: In much of the Arctic, Fitzhugh says coastal erosion is erasing whole chapters of the archeological record.

Mr. FITZHUGH: We have a lot to learn about how people adapted to strenuous harsh Arctic conditions. It's one of the most interesting adaptations that we know of. You know, archeological sites are like needles in the haystack and most of the haystacks have been blown away.

SPITZER: In Point Hope, whaling captain Herbert Popsi Kinovak(ph) says he's just as interested as the archeologists.

Mr. HERBERT POPSI KINOVAK (Whaling Captain): I feel we still have a lot to learn about our ancestors, but it's so slowly getting eaten away.

SPITZER: He says his people are linked to their ancestors by much more than bone and stone fragments in the ground. They still depend on a subsistent lifestyle that goes back scores of generations, hunting the bowhead whale, seal and walrus. But people fear that when the sea ice disappears so will the animals that make up their traditional diet. Here in the busy offices of the Tikigaq Corporation, Kinovak says he worries it's not just his beach but his very identity that's eroding.

Mr. KINOVAK: Well, I already see that we're losing a lot of our culture already here now. I think if we lose our language, we lose the ice, you know, we're going to lose who we are. We're going to have to go to beef and chicken.

SPITZER: The village builds gravel berms each summer to protect historic sites, and each fall, they wash away. Point Hope is seeking money from the state and from Alaska's congressional delegation for a more durable solution, but villagers, like Steve Umituk, say compared to more pressing needs in rural Alaska, rescuing these artifacts is a tough sell.

Mr. UMITUK: Money has always been an issue. They say, you know, in order to save something, there's got to be some value. Well, this is priceless.

SPITZER: Meanwhile, Point Hope will protect its heritage with the tools it has in abundance, pea gravel and long memories.

For NPR News, I'm Gabriel Spitzer in Anchorage, Alaska.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.