Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
I first visited Shishmaref, Alaska — a coastal village near the Arctic Circle — in 2009. I was reporting on climate change for CNN, and the community of 700 or 800 people had recently voted to relocate. The permafrost was thawing, the coast crumbling. At least one home had fallen off the edge of the land. That was enough, residents had decided then. Time to go.
Last month, I got back from my fourth trip to Shishmaref, and the village is very much not gone.
Shishmaref is a place that fascinates me in part because of its staying power — its intense aliveness in the face of slow-drip tragedy. The community has survived in the face of unthinkably daunting environmental stress. (The village still wants to relocate but hasn’t found funding to do so; it’s out of sight and out of mind when it comes to national politics. I’ll be following its story along with three others between now and 2050 for a documentary I’m directing, called BASELINE.) Its Inupiaq culture and stories — its people — also have an uncanny way of living beyond death. It’s a place where nothing truly dies — and where time can feel irrelevant, especially in the 24-hour sunlight that defines the end of spring.
All of this hit me in a new and sensory way on a seal hunt with Curtis, a village elder, and his adult grandson, Jeremiah, who’d never killed a seal before that trip. The bearded seal is a staple of the diet in Shishmaref. Its blubber is an ingredient in seal oil and its meat is dried and stored for consumption throughout the long and sun-less winters at this latitude. These seals are culturally significant, too. Killing your first seal is a rite of passage into adulthood.
We left Shishmaref by boat at about 4 p.m., the sun high above the tundra. By 2 a.m., with the sun still hovering at the horizon and the water shimmering in iridescence, the only seals we’d come close to were spotted seals and common seals — which aren’t regarded with the same cultural reverence. They are rarely hunted. Bearded seals, meanwhile, like to live on bright-white ice fields, Curtis told me, because their silvery coats provide them Arctic camouflage. We drifted timelessly past one hunk of ice that resembled a massive turtle. Another looked to me like a bathroom towel cast in marble. Ice spotting is rather like cloud spotting in that way: you see what you want to see in it. The sun appeared to stop above the horizon and sit there for hours. The sun near Shishmaref doesn’t rise or set as much as stall in the late spring. As we drifted across the sherbet-colored scene, the lines between sky and ocean and between past and future blurred. I felt the weight of all this resting on this transfer of knowledge that was taking place between grandfather and grandson — a tradition acquiring a life of its own.
Some hours later, the duo stopped on a sandy beach, defeated. Jeremiah, the grandson, collected seagull eggs — they’re olive green with dark spots — and boiled them in a pot on the beach. Resigned to an unsuccessful hunt, Curtis watched the tides and found a moment when he thought we might be able to return to the village without getting stuck between ice chunks.
Then, on the way back, sometime the next day, they spotted a bearded seal through binoculars. Jeremiah shot it with a gun. After an hour-long chase (was it an hour? a day?), he harpooned the animal and butchered it on a bobbing chunk of ice. I bring up the timelessness of this scene not because I think that hunting seals is ancient. Inupiat people have been routinely stigmatized as somehow existing outside our current time, like relics of the past. They’re not, of course, and this hunting practice is intensely modern — a part of the world in 2021. It’s somehow both ancient and futuristic and persistently “now.” It’s threatened by global warming and by the erosion of the land and culture in the village. It also is reborn in people like Jeremiah.
Names work that way in Shishmaref, too.
When a new child is born, the baby often takes the name of an elder who recently passed away. Calling this “reincarnation” is reductive, residents told me. But the deceased elder is thought to be living with that child, or in them somehow. The baby quite often is said to take on the elder’s personality and mannerisms — and sometimes that person’s knowledge. These names and stories travel through time, crossing generational lines, existing both then and now.
I met a teenage boy, Norman, who’s named after a hunter who fell through the sea ice and died in 2007, a particularly abnormal and low ice-year, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Young Norman told me he’s had nightmares about drowning like his namesake did. Still, he’s training to become a hunter just like the elder Norman was. It’s as if old Norman lives in him.
Another hunter, Bert Iyatunguk, fell through the ice and died shortly before my visit this year, according to local news reports. His death revived a discussion in Shish about Norman and about the fatal uncertainty of the thawing ice. Paths that once were safe are no longer reliable.
That’s tragic, truly, and is linked to humanity’s inability to stop burning fossil fuels.
Yet in Shishmaref, people and their stories are reborn time and again as names and traditions like the seal hunt are passed across generational lines. Perhaps that will be true of the village itself. I’ll be following that story for decades as part of the BASELINE documentary series. Shishmaref may not hold onto its geographic location. Yet it remains and will remain profoundly alive — a place where past, present, and future coexist beneath the midnight sun.
John D. Sutter is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Salt Lake City. His work has won the Livingston, the IRE Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Peabody Award, and has received two EMMY nominations.