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Oceana Magazine Summer 2008: Q&A Caleb Pungowiyi

Caleb Pungowiyi is a Yup'ik Eskimo who joined Oceana early this year to consult on environmental issues facing native Alaskans and the Arctic.

Tell me where you're from.

I was born on St. Lawrence Island, on a small camp about sixty miles east of the village of Savoonga, and I grew up in the village of Savoonga. I was born in 1941, and I lived there the majority of my life. Back in ‘50s we had no electricity in the village, we had no telephones, no tv, we had no runway so the mail came in from another village about 40 miles away. We lived strictly off the sea because the island had no land mammals. We lived off walruses, whales, and other food that we got from the sea.

Is most of your family still there?

I have a couple of sisters out there, and it's like the whole village is my cousin.

It's quite a homecoming whenever you go, then.

Oh yes. You get invited for coffee and tea, all day long. You have to have a strong bladder.

Is there an economy there? Do people trade?

A lot of people do handicraft items. They sell items made from walrus ivory or seal skin, like slippers, pens, hats. They sell them to people who visit the community who are usually non-native. They also will travel to events like Iditarod so they can sell their products. That's the biggest industry out there, the arts and crafts.

How long has that community been there?

Since time immemorial. Our legends say that the island was made by the creator, what is called Qiaghniq reached down into the waters of the northern Bering Sea, squeezed out the water from the mud he grabbed and placed the island between the two continents, and so the name of our island is called Sivuqaq which means ‘the land that the water was wrung from.' 

What parts of the native Alaskan lifestyle are going to be affected by climate change?

Probably the most direct effect is [that] erosion is really eating away at some of the communities. Shishmaref and Kivalina are virtually falling into the ocean due to erosion. The other impact is that the timing and the length of springtime hunting season for seals and walruses is shorter than it used to be in the past because the ice melts so rapidly in the springtime.

Do you find that native Alaskans accept global climate change as a scientific fact?

I think most Alaskans accept that there is climate change, that there is impact from climate change. The discussion is more on the causes on climate change.

Are they already trying to prepare for the difference in the permafrost and the hunting seasons?

There are some plans, some mitigation plans the state and agencies are trying to do in a sense to prepare or adapt to climate change. As far as the community, there is not a whole lot you can change with regards to living off the land. If you are dependent on the migration of the animals, the timing of the migration, the number of animals that are available, and then your ability to harvest them and then store them for future uses - those things are things you can't mitigate.

Do you think the traditions of living off the land might have to disappear? What's going to happen?

I think we'll see, definitely I think we're already starting to see some hardships being experienced by the communities, especially food availability. With the price of energy so high, and the cost of groceries is four times what it costs in the lower 48, people simply can't live off of buying things from the grocery stores.

When you talk about living off the land and hunting, what sort of foods do people like to eat up there? You talked about seals, and walrus, and sort of thing. What other animals and plants do people hunt and gather?

On the mainland, there's caribou, and also some moose, and there's some other land animals such as rabbits, and then of course different species of fish.

What's your favorite meal from growing up?

I would have to say it's walrus. Walrus meat and what we call coak. That's the skin of the walrus that's boiled and eaten with other meats, seal meat and whatever's available.

What is your role in Oceana?

My role is rural liaison in that I make contact with organizations in rural Alaska, let them know some of the issues that we're facing, whether it's industrial fishing, shipping, climate change, oil and gas development, then of course some stuff on pollution. The other part is of course is advising Oceana on these issues, in terms of how do we establish a relationship with native organizations, gain their trust and respect.

How has the response been so far?

In some cases, it's been reserved. A lot of the native organizations have a lot of reservations on working with environmental organizations that go back to some of the anti-hunting efforts made by some of the environmental groups that hurt the native community. Therefore they have some reluctance in terms of working with or cooperating with environmental organizations. That in itself is a challenge, but by showing them that we recognize the importance of the subsistence lifestyle of the native community, and that we are working on the issues that might harm the subsistence resources, that we are making headway with organizations that are willing to work with us, and some communities are now seeking our help in addressing some of the policy issues or development issues that may impact them.

What would you like to see happen in the long term, 10, 20, 30 years?

I think that we as people, people of the world, of the United States, of North America, need to understand that things that are harmful to the Arctic, climate change and other things, are also going to impact the general public, people in the United States and Canada. There needs to be some knowledge and some understanding of the general public as to how events that are thousands of miles away might affect their daily lives.

On that note, it seems the polar bear has become the poster child, or the poster species, for climate change in America. Why do you think people have an attachment to polar bears, of all the animals?

From our native point of view, we revere the polar bear as a very powerful animal that has spiritual and physical strengths, and we revered it as a special animal that lived in the Arctic. We also used it, we hunted it, we utilized some of the resources from the polar bear, the fur and the meat. We hold it in a different aspect than the general public may see, where they see it as something cuddly, something that is a different view that native communities see the polar bear versus people in the warmer climates might see the polar bear. It is true it has become a poster child because it sets a powerful venue to attach the threats we're facing.

In your own hometown, do you see some of the changes from climate change or the other issues we've been talking about?

It's difficult to see it in some settings. You have to have some historical knowledge of things that are happening in the past to connect the changes to climate change. You can't go visit and say oh, that has changed. You have to have some knowledge and historical connection. I think the greatest thing that is affecting people out there is the cost associated with the things they have to live with. The cost of energy, the cost of supplies coming into the community. All those things combined together, makes life out there very difficult.