Officially, the process of moving the entire town of Newtok, Alaska began in 2006. Unofficially, it began more than 30 years ago.
The town and people of Newtok, a native village located in the southwest corner of Alaska, are being forced to relocate due to rapidly eroding shorelines caused by permafrost degradation, warming temperatures and a decrease in sea ice that once protected the shores. Rich in culture and history, this area of Alaska has been inhabited by indigenous populations for thousands of years. But now, its 350 inhabitants will become the “first climate change migrants” in the U.S.
Stanley Tom, a man at the forefront of the relocation effort who serves as the tribal administrator for the Newtok Planning Group and operates a grocery store in town to make a living, told reporters the move has been a topic of discussion for at least three decades.
“We all knew it was going to have to happen eventually,” he said. “It was just a question of how long it would take.”
The people of Newtok began searching for new land in 1994. In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a new site for the village known as Mertarvik, which is nine miles away.
In this tiny village struggling to keep its cultural identity from being washed out to sea, Stanley Tom and the other inhabitants of Newtok are fighting for their lives. “We have to do this,” Tom said. “It is going to be very hard to move away from what we know, but we have to do this.” After a long pause and a sigh of relief that reflected 30 years of effort to try and move an entire village, he said again, “We really have no choice.”
For a man who has been working on saving everything around him for more than a few decades, he is extremely confident in his people and positive about their progress, no matter how slow. “I’m sure we’ll adapt to our new environment,” he said. “We’ll move forward no matter what. We really have to for our younger generation, that’s what matters.”
Care for the younger generation, growing their economy, and preserving their community and culture are all extremely important to the people of Newtok. So much so that in the Mertarvik Strategic Management Plan, which outlines the community’s move to the new location, the people of Newtok drafted what is known as maligtaquyarat, or guiding principles. Some of these include: to remain a distinct, unique community; to build a healthy future for youth; making sure development reflects their cultural traditions; and looking for projects that build on their talents and strengthen their economy.
In the U.S., Newtok is the first entire village to relocate to a new location due to climate change, but it likely won’t be the last. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified at least three other Alaskan villages that need immediate relocation assistance. Right now, there are 12 other villages looking to possibly relocating due to climate change.
When asked if he had any advice for the these villages who will follow in Newtok’s fateful footsteps, Tom said, “It will work, you just have to work together. Be one mind.”
Please note, the original post can be found here: Alaska natives move on as their village washes out to sea | Climate Reality