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February 12, 2009

Boulder International Film Festival: The Last Days of Shishmaref. ~ via Shannon McNeeley

Are the Iñupiaq Eskimos of Shishmaref the world’s “First Climate Change Refugees”?

This weekend the Boulder International Film Festival will screen The Last Days of Shishmaref  —an ’08 documentary  from Dutch filmmakers about the Iñupiaq Eskimo residents of an Alaskan village that was slowly, or not so slowly, being “swallowed by the sea.”

Shishmaref is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its location on the barrier island of Sarichef in the Chukchi Sea. Homes on seafront property tumble one by one after being pummeled by intense storms on a thin slice of coast buckling and eroding from the melting permafrost beneath. It’s one of the most visible demonstrations of the impacts of climate change, with ruined houses dangling off the edge of the shore. Consequently, over the last decade Shishmaref became the poster child for global warming, with its residents referred to in the media as the “first climate change refugees.”


The film paints a compelling vision of this human story of climate change through intimate scenes and interviews in and outside the homes of several of Shismaref’s Iñupiaq residents. It advocates Shishmaref as a matter of human rights deserving of government support to finance the costly move of the 600 residents to the mainland (estimates range from $100-$180 million). Though the film does a fine job telling the story (despite its sometimes slow pace), it is a focused dramatization.

What it doesn’t do, for better and worse, is give the full history or context of the plight of Shishmaref along with dozens of other Alaska Native villages facing a similar conundrum. Had the film makers added context to the story it would seem less advocacy-driven and a more straight-shooting documentary film. But is advocacy a bad thing if it helps those in need or sparks efforts to abate climate change? Viewers will decide.

While it is true that Shishmaref needs help, the film (understandably, perhaps) lacks presentation of creative solutions or alternatives…and so posits an all-or-nothing end game. Ironically, for years now Shishmaref has endured the onslaught of media attention and camera crews, while progress for the move is at a virtual standstill. Money is the most endangered resource for Shishmaref and this movie aims to be a catalyst for financial support.

Will this film be the knight in shining armor they seek, or will it rest in the canon of documentaries and news stories piling up throughout Medialand? We shall see.

Human-caused climate change is happening (in tandem with natural cycles) and any remaining doubt resides with benighted skeptics. However, Shishmaref is not the first victim of climate change and most definitely not the only. There are highly vulnerable populations throughout Alaska (one of the fastest warming places on Earth), across the Arctic, and in so-called “hot spots” the world over. Farmers in the African Sahel, fishers on the low-lying islands of Tuvalu, and the residents of the Bangladesh Ganges Delta all share the designation of being among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change.

What they all have in common is an attachment to place, relatively strong connections to nature and her seasonal cycles, and livelihoods that embody a rich mosaic of past traditions intertwined with the complexities of modernization. As the world’s indigenous peoples carve out a 21st century existence with a tenuous hold on remaining inter-connections and traditions that shaped their cultures, climate change will undoubtedly add to their struggles.

But climate change is not the main cause of their problems. Loss of language and culture after decades of acculturation and assimilation policies (or various other forms of neo-colonialism), poverty, environmental degradation, disease, drugs and alcohol, and the lack of local education/work opportunities combine to underpin cultural erosion and structure political barriers to adaptation. Climate change now and into the unforeseeable future adds insult to existing injury.

Since 2003 I have had the fortunate experience of working on my doctoral dissertation in the remote northwest region of Interior Alaska with the Koyukon Athabascan Indians. In partnership with several tribal governments and communities I documented Elder observations of climate change and in so doing glimpsed the rich and varied social and cultural context of current-day climate change impacts.

Like the Iñupiaq Eskimos, the Koyukon Indians are vulnerable to the effects of recent decades of warming and the consequent ecological and physical changes. They have to adapt to the environmental changes and, like Shishmarefians, face a similar cultural existential reckoning.

As a Boulder community member and visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) I’ve been asked to give a short talk for a community forum Q&A after the film about my work as it relates to the film, and I’ll try to add a broader context for the very real issue of Alaska Natives adapting to climate change as shown in the film.

The Last Days of Shishmaref will be screened as part of the Boulder International Film Festival this Saturday, February 14th – 10:00 a.m. @ the Boulder High School auditorium.

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