AP PHOTOS: Alaska village still home despite climate threat

Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
The Rev. Aaron Silco, and his wife, Anna, who are pastors at the Shishmaref Lutheran Church, stand for a photo with their two-month-old son, Aidan, in a cemetery next to the church in Shishmaref, Alaska, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. “If they focus too much on that (on climate change), it will become too much of a weight, too much of a burden, because…there are birthday parties and there are funerals and there are sports events,” Aaron Silco said. “There’s still life happening despite all of the weight and the burden that climate change can cast upon this community.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
The morning sunlight falls on Daniel Iyatunguk, a 21-year-old seal hunter, as he pauses for a photo by the lagoon in Shishmaref, Alaska, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. He said he noticed thinning ice during hunting seasons. “It’s not as thick as it used to be long ago,” said Iyatunguk. “It’s a concern.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
APTOPIX Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Dressed in an Inuit-style parka, Annsoph Nayokpuk, 6, stands for a photo in Shishmaref, Alaska, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Sitting on their ATVs, seal hunters John Kokeok, right, and Ralph Olanna share a light moment before pulling a boat into the water in Shishmaref, Alaska, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. Kokeok’s brother Norman, a skilled hunter, knew the ice and trails well. Yet during a hunting trip in 2007, his snowmobile fell through ice that melted earlier than usual, and he was killed. John blames climate change and he has been retelling his story ever since in hopes of warning younger generations and finding solutions to protect his island community. Like others, he voted to relocate Shishmaref to safer ground. But he also wants to protect its traditions, its way of life. The only way he’d leave now is if he’d had to evacuate. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
APTOPIX Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Ned Ahgupuk and girlfriend Kelsi Rock, stand for a photo with their 1-year-old son Steve Rock-Ahgupuk while strolling along the beach on the Arctic Ocean in Shishmaref, Alaska, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. “We’ve been here all our lives,” said Ahgupuk. He said climate change is a concern but he won’t leave the island. “Everyone is like a big family caring for each other.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Ardith Weyiouanna, center, holds the hand of her grandchildren, Isaac Olanna, left, and Kyle Rose Olanna as they stand for a photo after attending a Sunday service at the Shishmaref Lutheran Church in Shishmaref, Alaska, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. “To move somewhere else, we’d lose a part of our identity. It’s hard to see myself living elsewhere,” said Weyiouanna, whose family first came to Shishmaref with a dogsled team in 1958. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Joe Eningowuk, 62, and his grandson, Isaiah Kakoona, 7, stand for a photo in the lagoon while getting ready for a camping trip in Shishmaref, Alaska, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Gary Kakoona, 15, smiles for a photo in front of his aunt’s home in Shishmaref, Ala., Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Mary Kakoona, 63, pauses for a photo while removing fat from seal skin in Shishmaref, Alaska, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. “I know we gotta move sometime,” Mary said about a relocation that at times seems inevitable. “Water is rising and this island is getting smaller.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Sadie McGill, right, and her husband, Tracy, hold their puppies as they stand for a photo next to the home Sadie was born and raised in Shishmaref, Alaska, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. She built her life elsewhere after leaving the village decades ago but came back recently to take care of her aging mother. “Yes, I missed it,” said Sadie. “People here are really nice. They are really helpful.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
APTOPIX Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
APTOPIX Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery
Alaska Disappearing Island Photo Gallery

SHISHMAREF, Alaska (AP) — “Home sweet home.” That’s how Helen Kakoona calls her Alaska Native village of Shishmaref when asked what it means to live on a remote barrier island near the Arctic Circle.

Her home and the traditional lifestyle kept for thousands of years is in peril, vulnerable to the effects of climate change with rising sea levels, erosion and the loss of protective sea ice.

So much has been lost over time that residents have voted twice to relocate. But Shishmaref remains in the same place. The relocation is too costly. In this Inupiat village of 600 residents live mostly off subsistence hunting of seals, fishing and berry picking. Some fear that if they move, they’d lose that traditional way of life that they’ve carried on from their ancestors.

On a recent day, hunters boarded boats at sunrise in the village’s lagoon and returned in the evening hauling spotted seals. Kakoona and her mother helped skin the seals with an “ulu” or women’s knife and prepared to cure them in a weeks-long process.

“No other place feels like home but here,” said Kakoona, 28. She tried to settle down in different towns, but she ended up returning to Shishmaref to stay with her mother, Mary Kakoona, 63.

“I know we gotta move sometime,” Mary said about a relocation that at times seems inevitable. “Water is rising and this island is getting smaller.”

Shishmaref is located on an island that is a quarter mile wide and about three miles long. It is one of dozens of Alaska villages that are under threat from climate change.

“We’ve been here all of our lives,” said Ned Ahgupuk, a Shishmaref resident, who on a recent day strolled on a beach at sunset with his girlfriend and their one-year-old son. Climate change, is “kind of” a concern, he said, but he won’t leave the island. “Everyone,” he said, “is like a big family caring for each other.”

Sadie McGill and husband Tracy McGill feel the same. On a chilly fall day, they played with puppies bred to be sled dogs in front of the home where she was born and raised. After living abroad, she recently returned to the village to take care of her aging mother. The effects of climate change worry her and she’d be willing to relocate but she’d prefer to remain home.

“It’s really sad to see our native land go and disappear into the ocean,” she said. “I want to stay here where we were raised and born — and (where) we know how to survive.”

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