If you can catch a clear day on the Bering Strait and travel by plane some forty miles off the coast of Northwest Alaska, you just might catch a glimpse of the now-abandoned cliffs of King Island.
Its 1,200 foot peaks, mostly vegetated granite, are often masked behind a veil of persistent fog that hangs low on the water. Pack ice surrounds the island for much of the year, effectively preventing travel to and from the mainland. Even when the ice retreats in summer, boats can only attempt to land in three locations because of the extreme grade of the embankments.
“King Island—you have to be tough to live there. Have to be real tough. Mind, body, and soul. When things get rough physically, you just can’t give up. You either do it or you move away,” recalls King Islander Vince Pikonganna of his childhood. In spite of its remote and seemingly austere character, Vince smiles as he reminisces. “Growing up back there – oh that was the best place to grow up, on the island. The best place.”
My research partner and I are talking to Vince in the common room of a community living center in Nome, Alaska.
Then 68, he’s telling us about the first 13 years of his life. “I used to get excited just hearing the birds chatting away. Flying around out there. I would put on my parka, put on my mukluks, my pants, and everything and then out the door I’d go. Put on my slingshots, my pouch, and out the door I’d go and I’d climb.” Vince is radiant as he ruminates about life on King Island, closing his eyes and laughing at memories of playing, hunting, and dancing with friends and family.
In 1961, Vince Pikonganna was forced to leave the laughter, slingshots, and warmth of a tight-knit community for good and migrate to the city of Nome.
Today, no one lives on King Island. The houses, perched on long driftwood poles and lashed into the slope with braided walrus hide, are long abandoned. Its 200 residents are scattered across Alaskan cities with no social safety net or anchored identity.
Vince’s story is a bellwether for the story of America’s great climate change migration today – one that holds important lessons to heed and policy recommendations to follow. The history of King Island is a 20th Century account of what happens when a village is displaced with no guidance or support on how to relocate as a cohesive community.
It is a tale that resonates into the present as hundreds of small, rural communities in the United States and U.S. territories face a similar fate of forced migration, displacement, and urban relocation from climate change impacts.
In 2017, some 1.5 million Americans migrated
in the face of natural disasters, temporarily or permanently, to other parts of the country. From the severe wildfires in California to the fall hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard in 2018, America is now following an emerging trend of more Americans being displaced each year as warming temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.
As at-risk coastal and wildfire-country residents retreat for safety, families often migrate to near-by cities, with their concentrated resources and economic activity. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, researchers found
that families displaced by the hurricane moved to nearby major regional cities, including Baton Rouge, Atlanta, and Houston. More recently, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans
have relocated to the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, the majority of whom migrated to cities like Miami and New York.
The migration from Hurricane Katrina and Maria are only the tip of the iceberg. By the end of this century, 13 million Americans
will be at risk of displacement by sea level rise alone.
To plan for the demographic shift that slow and sudden onset disasters bring, it is incumbent upon U.S. cities to include support for climate migrants in their city climate change plans.
From Atlanta to Anchorage, city leadership will need to invest in public infrastructure and services for disaster-displaced rural residents in their region.
Those public policy investments must include support for the regrowth of the social safety net and place-based cultural identity damaged during climate-induced displacement, migration, and relocation reminiscent of the damage faced by those like Vince and the King Islanders.
They say that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
For better or worse, the U.S. has a long history of migrations – both forced and voluntary – of Native American, African American, and impoverished white communities from rural to urban landscapes. To support resilient migration for America’s climate change-affected communities today, policymakers must heed the bellwethers of past displacements and allocate resources for the documentation, enablement, and physical housing of climate migrant’s cultural heritage at every step of the migration process.
And that history lesson begins on King Island.
Northern Vanguards of a Warming World
Before arriving in Alaska, I had never heard of King Island.
In August 2016 my research partner Eli Keene and I had traveled some four thousand miles north to Alaska as part of a two-year research project on climate change and the potential displacement of American coastal communities. I wanted to know how we as a nation were responding to the dynamic and dangerous shifts along our coastlines as sea levels rise – and what could be done nationally to better support local climate change champions in responding to the impacts we can no longer avoid.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, we interviewed just over 350 local leaders in American Samoa, Alaska, the Gulf Coast, and the Chesapeake Bay on climate impacts, displacement, and relocation.
Our decision to include a trip to Alaska in the project was made because of a series of United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports on relocating Alaskan villages threatened by flooding and erosion. In December 2003, the GAO first reported
that most of Alaska's 200+ Native villages were affected to some degree by flooding and erosion – an effect that would be exacerbated by the growing impacts of climate change.
It’s important to know that in Alaska, the threat of climate change reigns supreme.
The Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions, where Alaska is geographically located, are warming at more than twice
the rate of the global average. Think of Alaska’s climate change story like a movie on fast-forward. From life-threatening food insecurity to the breakdown of transportation networks, Alaska is already living with the unbridled magnitude of a warming world. Many of the climate consequences projected for the Lower 48 for 2050 onwards are an everyday reality for America’s northernmost citizens in 2019.
Displacement, migration, and relocation caused by climate impacts is perhaps the biggest of these northern vanguards.
Out of the 200+ Alaskan villages at risk of flooding and erosion, 31 face an imminent threat of displacement. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' March 2009 Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment
identified that “at least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate--in part or entirely--or to explore relocation options.” We had chosen four different Alaska Native villages at different stages of exploring relocation to conduct interviews for the project – Teller, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, and Unalakleet – all on the westernmost coastline of Alaska.
It was in one of these villages, the Native Village of Shishmaref, that we first heard the story of King Island.
Shishmaref, Alaska, is a village of 600 mainly Inupiat residents. It sits in the Chukchi Sea on a narrow barrier island that, at points, measures barely a quarter-mile wide. For hundreds of years, Shishmaref has been losing land from natural erosion, but with climate change, that natural trend is getting a lot worse. Normally, an icepack develops around the island in the fall months. This ice has always acted as a buffer against severe storm surges, forcing waves to break miles off shore instead of against the village. But as warming temperatures have caused the ice to disappear, so too has this natural defense. Combined with thawing permafrost—the softening of the very land the village is built on—this has resulted in a loss of three to five feet of shoreline per year, with severe individual storms washing away as many as 50 feet of land.
In August 2016, while we were they conducting interviews, the community voted to relocate
in full from its current site onto the Alaskan mainland seven miles away.
Shishmaref does not have the $179 million
required to make that move, and so it sits in an uneasy limbo. With no financial support to relocate, the next big storm may well force residents’ displacement without a plan B for where to migrate.
Tiffany Magby, the acting City Clerk, walked us through what will happen if a major storm hits Shishmaref before they can relocate during her interview.
“They’ll give us two options to choose from and we’ll either choose Kotzebue or Nome, but the majority of the village will choose Nome. They would evacuate us and then depending on how the storm left the village when that day comes they will decide what will be the next step for us. We can’t decide ourselves because we are declaring a state of emergency where the state will decide what we are going to do next—is the Island still livable? Is it safe?”
Depending on their assessment, if Shishmaref is no longer safe, the move to Nome could become permanent. Residents fear that Shishmaerf would face a cultural loss of their community, heritage, and identity if an emergency evacuation resulted in a forced co-location. “We don’t want to just move to an urban community because that’s losing our identity,” Annie Weyiouanna, the local coordinator for the Shishmaref Tribal Agency, told us in her office. “There were people that were forced to do that from King Island.”
And just like that, in an off-hand comment, King Island burst into our research.
King Island’s Cultural Heritage on Unsteady Stilts
Like any good researcher, the first step in exploring a previously unheard place is to Google it.
Saving our Internet bandwidth, we closed our laptops and began using snowball sampling – where one interviewee refers you to one of their acquaintances to be your next interviewee – to learn and listen to King Island’s story.
Eventually, we snowballed into Vince Pikonganna in Nome.
“Off and on,” Vince began his life story living on King Island, describing the annual migration of his community to mainland Alaska. “Come back in summer go back in winter to the North Star [The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter that transported the community each season].” The King Islanders were a semi-nomadic community for centuries. Villagers wintered on the Island, hunting walrus and seals on the ice in communal oomiaks, a type of open skin boat made from driftwood or whalebone over which walrus or Bearded seal skins are stretched. Each summer, the entire community would migrate to Nome together to get resources not available on the island, such as caribou, salmon, and berries. But more than food and trade, the Islanders would enjoy time spent socializing with family and friends usually separated by miles of water and ice. As the long summer days of the Arctic stretched on, King Islanders would set up a makeshift village at the edge of town, and as fall approached the Seward Peninsula, everyone would pack up and return home to the Island.
“Every time we left the island, I would miss it. Because it was like a sanctuary to me. Nome was just a place—for me, it was just a playground. No education. Because I wanted to learn all I can in Inupiaq. And in our culture. So there’s a lot of opportunities for that on King Island. We learned traditional values. Traditional way of doing things, Eskimo dancing, and how to be among the people.”
In the spring of 1961, Vince boarded the Nome-bound cutter for the last time. Five years later, the entire King Island community had relocated to Nome for good.
The late Dr. Deanna Marie Kingston, a King Island descendent and seminal Alaska Native Anthropologist, and Dr. Elizabeth Marino of the University of Oregon eloquently summarized the confluence of factors lead to the gradual population decline on King Island in their 2010 article, Twice Removed: King Islanders’ Experience of “Community” Through Two Relocations.
Better access to health care in Alaskan cities; a rise of tuberculosis on the Island; the introduction of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 and Indian boarding schools that offered post-eight grade education to Alaska Native youth; and the internal political struggles between the King Islanders catalyzed by these depopulations all contributed to its decline.
With fewer children on the Island and the increasing expenses of operation, in 1959 Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the only school on King Island. That fall, most of the King s decided to stay in Nome through the winter due to the school’s closure. That year, only 62 people returned to King Island, some with their children. In April 1960, the church and mission were closed. In 1964, only 16 people returned to the island.
By 1966, the village had relocated to Nome in its entirety.
Vince has only returned to the Island once since he last lived there. In 1971, he spent a few weeks climbing the cliffs of his childhood and visiting the abandoned homes on wooden stilts. He tells us that the trip was a good experience. It reminded him of what life had been like before the King Islanders were displaced and co-located. “After you live on the island we were more together. We were more together. We had more respect for one another. And people were not lazy. What needs to be done—hey did it. Without saying anything. They just look at someone that needed help—they go over right away and help them.”
Things have changed since the King Islanders were co-located to Nome and dispersed across the city.
The physical closeness that once bound the community together and allowed for the preservation of language, dance, and kinship is gone. “Now people don’t even do that. Only once in a while. Everything has been lost in our culture except the older generation. Except the older generation like me, we’re still keeping the tradition alive. Because it’s what keeps us together. Eskimo dancing is a big part of our life. It brings people together. Brings people together.”
On King Island and the makeshift summer village in Nome, King Islanders had a Qagrit
, a community house around which the people’s religious and social lives revolved. For much of the winter, men would spend the short hours of daylight dancing together in the Qagrit. In Nome, however, there is no place for King Islanders to dance. If members want to practice Eskimo dancing in a large enough space to accommodate the larger community, they have to call the city of Nome to rent a room for $75.00. With no physical gathering space to come together and a lack of support for community cohesion programming, the cultural values and traditions of King Island have gradually eroded.
“What we need is a community building to pass on what we know and give our young people a chance to under—let them understand where they come from.” Vince suggests for King Islanders ...“I care so much about our culture. About our livelihood. That I will do almost anything just to keep it alive.”
Abandoned but Not Alone in the Anthropocene
Vince did keep his culture alive until his last days.
For a great number of years he was employed at the Nome-Beltz High School teaching art and his culture, and traveled around the world with the King Island dance group. Vince volunteered at the wellness program, the Elders Committee, Behavioral Health, NACTEC program and helping with the Katirvik Cultural Center in Nome – the realization of his vision for a dedicated cultural center.
Four months after we met him in December 2016, Vince passed away at the age of 68.
It has been nearly three years since we interviewed Vince in Nome. His interview was conducted midway through the research project, and is just one data point amongst 350 taken over the course of 2016 and 2017. In some ways, Vince and his story stand out. The rich personal archive he held and traditional knowledge he shared as an elder, the experience of displacement and co-location, and the truly memorable brightness he brought to the faded communal room of the community living center where we met.
But in other important ways, his interview data fits a wider trend in our research. When I asked local leaders to describe the impacts of changing weather and sea level rise on their communities, they quickly moved past the risks to property and built infrastructure to instead speak about threats to their histories, cultures, and traditions.
In Aunu’u, American Samoa, community champion Peter Taliva showed us how higher tides are flooding taro fields, killing the central staple food of both everyday meals and ceremonies. In Miami, Florida, community activist and PhD candidate Kilan Ashad-Bishop explained how sea level rise threats to the city’s multi-billion-dollar waterfront is exacerbating gentrification and displacement in the high ground community of historic Little Haiti. And in the Native village of Teller, Alaska, Mayor Blanche Obanik Garnie showed us how thawing permafrost is endangering generations of her family’s graves.
From hundreds of interviews across America, the one unavoidable takeaway message is this: climate change is, at its core, a story about the looming reality of losing the places and histories that make us who we are.
Sea level rise, wildfires, and extreme weather events are already causing the displacement and resettlement of households in every corner of this country.
We began 2018 with a powerful nor-easter that left nearly two million people without power in states across the North East and eventually causing more than two billion dollars in damage. In Spring, hail storms in Texas and Colorado caused golf ball to baseball sized hail and widespread harm to homes, vehicles, and businesses, damaging downtown historic districts and hotels. Over the summer, the four corners region of the southwest witnessed extreme drought conditions, threatening both historic buildings and a way of life passed down from generation to generation for farmers and ranchers. In September, Hurricane Florence produced a coastal storm surge and extreme rainfalls inland across the Carolinas, causing rivers to surpass previous record flood heights and devastating historic buildings and culturally important landscapes. And as the year drew to a close, California communities across the state experienced the deadliest wildfires in its history.
For many individuals and families displaced by these disasters, the migration away from their homes to nearby settlements will become permanent.
In the aftermath of a climate-induced sudden onset disasters like those above and slow onset disasters like sea level rise and erosion, rural areas generally report
larger out-migration responses than urban centers, and with better standards of living and easier access to public services, many of these climate migrants choose to relocate to cities. Many stay beyond the time of disaster recovery and make cities their permanent homes. In Houston, for example, as many as 100,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees
permanently settled in the city ten years later.
Often making this urban transition more difficult, cities are comprised of different economic, cultural, and demographic characteristics than more rural communities. The wellbeing of many coastal and rural fire-prone residents exists in an elevated level of vulnerability risk to hazards and potential displacement because climate change impacts are not race, gender, or income neutral. A recent study
of U.S. coastal communities found that the effects of land loss fall disproportionately on non-English speakers, those with low incomes, and those whose livelihoods are tied to natural resources. More generally, climate impacts disproportionately affect low-income communities
, communities of color
, and women
. Centuries of economic, social, and environmental injustices have made it difficult for low-income, legacy, and Native American communities to secure financial and technical resources to prepare for displacement, migration, and resentment inland.
As families face the physical, mental, and economic challenges of dislocation and seek new homes on safer ground, they are often forced to leave culturally important places, landscapes, traditions, and histories behind. And yet, the investment and inclusion of cultural heritage support for climate migrants in city climate change policies is entirely absent.
That cultural deficient in U.S. city support for climate change migrants and their cultures is deafening and dangerous.
As exemplified in the history of King Islanders, the loss and damage of cultural heritage that comes from serving a community’s attachment to a place-based identity is both emotionally demoralizing in the short-term and hinders long-term community recovery and resilience. Severing social cohesion, dislocating local knowledge on how to absorb shock events, and weakening cultural practices like food, faith, and music that play a vital role in building friendships in new hometowns all erode the adaptability of individuals and social safety net of communities.
To support resilient migration for America’s climate-affected communities, climate change policies must allocate resources for the documentation, enablement, and physical housing of cultural heritage at every step of the migration process.
Putting Cultural Heritage into City Climate Change Policies
Over a hundred cities
across the U.S. already have climate change plans.
In response to President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, thousands of leaders in all 50 states joined the We Are Still In
Movement. A commitment to pursue ambitious climate goals, city mayors are working together to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From Atlanta to Chicago, cities are now leading in mitigating the causes of climate change.
There’s just one problem: no U.S. city includes regional climate-related migration or cultural heritage in their climate change plan to support the successful urban relocation of migrants like Vince.
Vince Pikonganna’s interview highlighted the need for the documentation of, bridge building between, and physical space for cultural heritage as a missing key to his story of displacement and urban relocation. City climate change plans today are one straightforward entry point to include resources for cultural heritage preservation and empowerment of climate-displaced migrants. These three policy pillars – (1) documentation; (2) dialogue; and (3) durable dwellings to house migrant traditions – were reiterated by interviewees throughout this research project as pathways to resilient climate migration. Each of these can be meaningful investments for policymakers to incorporate for new climate-displaced arrivals in their cities.
Investing in Resources for Loss and Damage Documentation
City climate change policies strongly focus on climate change mitigation – efforts to reduce or prevent further emissions of greenhouse gases using renewable energy, efficient building technology, and public transit. Last year, Cincinnati, Ohio became the 100th U.S.
city to commit to 100% renewable energy, with a target for 2025. Some city climate policies also include adaptation
mechanisms – the response to the adverse effects of climate change that humanity is unable to avoid. Here, think of Miami Beach
’s dune restoration, street raising, and sewage pump systems for sunny day flooding.
To date, no U.S. city climate change plan includes the allocation of resources for loss and damage, the inevitable harm climate change will cause for vulnerable populations, cultures, and ecosystems.
Damage exists when coping or adaptation measures are not effective enough; when the costs of measures are not regained; when measures are helpful in the short term but have adverse long-term consequences; or when no measures are possible to safeguard life, livelihoods, ecosystems, or cultural heritage from climate impacts. Loss and damage is traditionally discussed
in relation to developing and least-developed nations, which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. But in every corner of the U.S., communities are making difficult decisions on what historic sites and cultural assets will be left behind as communities are forced to relocate to cities.
City climate change policies can allocate resources to document with dignity the historic sites, traditions, and cultural assets damaged or left behind by newly arrived climate migrants. This can take the form of small to medium grants for documentation of cultural assets to local museums, nonprofit groups, universities, and art centers in cities. Such a low-cost migrant heritage grant program embedded within climate change policy creates a number of co-benefits beyond the preservation of important cultural practices and assets of migrants. The creation of oral histories, exhibits, and other forms of documentation can simultaneously educate on climate change, build social connections between city institutions and migrants, and foster a sense of inclusivity and belonging in their new home.
Building People-to-People Resilience Through Mediated Dialogues
Once the documentation of left or damaged cultural heritage of climate migrants is included in city policies, urban leaders must then focus on empowering cultural heritage throughout the process of receiving displaced communities.
Climate change migration is a two-way street that requires investment in the space for and facilitation of people-to-people bridge building. For city governments, this means including the resources required for mediated town-hall discussions focused on cultural heritage and climate migration. A proactive series of resilience dialogue between city government officials, local urban civil society leaders, neighborhood champions, and rural community leaders at risk of climate change displacement can simultaneously build cultural bridges to mitigate suspicions around migrants, strengthen cultural heritage, and help to determine shared goals and potential collaborative projects that enhance the resilience of interdependent systems, including systems that protect the health, safety, and well-being of city residents.
In the short-term, the idea for a migrant-focused dialogue can be readily mapped to identify goals and projects to address the cultural challenges of climate-induced regional migration and urban emplacement.
The establishment of a committed forum like dedicated climate town halls to discuss displacement, migration, and emplacement for city neighborhood leaders and displaced community leaders is a straightforward first step to bolster resilient climate migration. Partnering with already-proven dialogue frameworks like the federal U.S. Global Change Research Program
to pilot dialogues in cities within regions of high climate displacement vulnerabilities, namely California; Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia; Florida & the U.S. Caribbean Territories; and Alaska is a low-cost option to jumpstart the inclusion of climate migration and cultural heritage into city policy.
Financing Durable Dwellings for Cultural Heritage
Once climate-displaced households arrive and settle into cities, migrants may become vulnerable to socio-economic discrimination, phycological, and physical health complications, and violence. Each of these vulnerabilities decreases individual resilience to future climate and non-climate disasters, and in turn influences community-level resilience to forthcoming climate threats. Noted by scholars Fikret Berkes and Helen Ross in a 2012 article
, “Resilience at the level of the individual, the household, and the community are all interrelated, even though resilience building mechanisms of each, and the actual set of principles applying to each, may be different.”
A key ingredient to migrant resilience? Culture.
Once displaced communities have been received by cities, they must have a physical space to practice their traditions as a group and sustain their social cohesion
of community. Ensuring climate migrants have easily accessible and affordable space to dance, garden, sing, play music, weave, or offer youth culture camp to teach traditions is critical to the resilient of displaced populations. Rooms, centers, or parks designated for the continuation of community cultural practices sustain social cohesion from displaced neighborhoods, towns, and villages. These networks are critical in times of shocks – climate-induced disaster or otherwise – for migrants to rely on for health, social, and economic support.
The proposed city policy commitments outlined here are not blue-sky proposals. They are tangible and targeted options for overcoming the challenges of climate-induced migration to U.S. cities and offering a culturally-empowered, resilient pathway forward in an era of large demographic shifts.
Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It
By the time we met Vince Pikonganna in Nome, he had been globe-trotting with the King Island Eskimo Dance Group
for many years. “I have traveled all over this world,” he reflected, smiling at the thought of all the rich cultures he had seen visiting nearly every continent. Turning back to his home, his face changed to a more somber expression. “Everything has been lost in our culture except the older generation like me, we’re still keeping the tradition alive. It’s what keeps us together.”
When the next large-scale extreme storm or fire hits, rural residents across the country will be forced to move like Vince and his family.
And while a small handful of communities will be able to accrue adequate resources and time for a fully planned, wholesale community managed retreat, most will be displaced without having the needed cultural mitigation measures in place to lessen the resulting stress on both the receiving city and migration communities. The story of King Island is an American history of what goes wrong when cities don’t plan for rural displacement, forced migration, and urban relocation; but it doesn’t have to be our future.
In preparing policies for American’s future on the move as temperatures rise at neck breaking speed, the experience of King Islanders is worthy of reflection for any city leader facing the consequences of human movement and implications of demographic shifts. Support mechanisms like grants for cultural documentation lost to climate impacts and guaranteed access to physical spaces to share and practice traditions can make the difference for climate migrants finding new homes in America’s great cities.
But here’s the thing – they can only be achieved by a driven effort of decision makers and those who support research-driven policy making in America’s cities. Before leaving Nome, we asked Vince what he thought the future held for the next generation of King Island descendants. In his response to the question, Vince’s views reflect my own thoughts on the future for climate-displaced communities across our country.
“Who knows what’s going to happen.”