ESAU SINNOK | 18 | SHISHMAREF, ALASKA

This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on November 11th, 2016.

Esau is an Arctic Youth Ambassador and a student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks where he studies tribal management and rural development. This is his story:

“My name is Esau Daniel Sinnock. I am from the island of Shishmaref, Alaska. I am currently 18 years old, 19 years old on Wednesday.

When I was growing up in Shishmaref, that was the best time of my life. I grew up with my uncle and he was a great role model to me. I really looked up to him. On June 2nd of 2007, my uncle and some of his friends were going to the mainland on snow machines on the ice to go duck and geese hunting. On their way back, my uncle fell through the ice. He lost his life on that day. The ice would usually be frozen where he fell through, but it wasn’t.

I remember it was around 12:00 [when] I woke up and saw my great grandma and my uncle who lived in Nome, Alaska. I was wondering, why are they here today? Why are they here at my grandparents’ house?

My aunt told me that my uncle lost his life. Then she told me that I was my uncle’s favorite nephew. That was good to hear. But, you know, it was a lot of mixed emotions, also denial and grieving and sadness. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. He’s always on my mind. I always miss him. One of the reasons why I do climate advocacy work is because of him. His name was Norman.

Growing up, all the residents of Shishmaref were my family in a sense because, the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. And growing up in Shishmaref, I experienced that because all 600 residents, they raised me up. I got to know every single one of them growing up.

My brothers’ names are Ralph, Franka, and Ramin. Ralph is 14 years old, a freshman in high school. Ramin is in sixth grade. He is twelve years old. And Franka is in fourth grade. He’s 11 years old. We all grew up together in the same house, the same community. [I brought] them along with me [ptarmigan hunting] for the first time back in 2014 in the spring. That was my first time going by myself to go ptarmigan hunting. We just listened to my mom and dad on where to go hunt, and so we caught quite a bit of ptarmigan that day.

It makes me happy to see [my little brothers] catch animals, doing the traditional hunting, at this young age. Now, they always ask me to bring them hunting in the spring and the summertime.

When I was a little kid, I remember that the snow used to cover up the doors at my grandparents’ house and we would have to shovel it out every winter just to get outside. In recent years, that hasn’t been happening. We haven’t been getting a lot of snow. Our ice is freezing a lot later in the year. Now, middle November, early December, is when the snow is frozen safe enough to go out on and do our subsistence hunting. I recall my grandfather saying that the ice used to freeze in late September, middle of October. I called them a few days ago, and they said that the ice still didn’t start to freeze yet.

Storm surges have been a lot more frequent, dangerous, and stronger, which results in more coastal erosion each year. We prepare for the worst during the fall time because that’s when the storm surges happen and that’s when a lot of land is lost. Currently, we are losing three to four meters of land each year from coastal erosion and flooding.

Whenever there is a storm surge or flooding, we prepare ourselves for the worst. We also spend time together as a community. We send one another love and thoughts and prayers. We’re still healing from the past 100+ years of colonization. But, climate change, that’s fairly new. Back in the 60s and 70s, we started feeling the effects of climate change. So we’re still learning to adapt as a community.

For the past 10,000 years that we’ve been eskimo living around Shishmaref, Alaska, we’ve been hunting, and fishing off the land and the sea. We hunt for walrus, seals, muskrats, caribou, moose, rabbits, salmon. [We] gather traditional berries to make eskimo ice cream, which consist[s] of caribou or moose fat with seal oil and aqpiks. Aqpiks are salmon berries, blackberries, and blueberries. The main thing I miss about living in Shishmaref is the eskimo food there, but especially the eskimo ice cream.

Back in August, it was our third time voting for relocating. The first was in 1973, the second was in 2002, and the most recent one, was in August. The outcome is to relocate. My plan is to help out however I can to get the relocation resources. I won’t stop until Shishmaref actually relocates.

Shishmaref is currently on an island. It’s a barrier island so we lose land from erosion and flooding. If we don’t relocate that means that we are going to be forced to move to Nome or Kotzebue or Fairbanks, and not be called a community. Language and dancing, eskimo dancing, [are] the two biggest activities that we are trying to teach our children. My grandfather said that, once language is lost, our sense of identity will be lost too. I want [my children] to speak first Inupiaq and then English second like how my grandparents and my great grandparents were taught.

The older generation are hesitant on relocating. They want to stay on the island because that’s where they grew up all their lives and I can see that. My elders, I respect them. I love them to death because they are my elders so I have to respect their decisions. They are the people who raised me up, that I look up to in the community. I respect that they want to stay on Shishmaref because that’s where they grew up all their lives, but to me, as a young person, as the future of Shishmaref, there’s really no way to save it other than to relocate. It’s the future generations, the next seven generations that I want to live in a community called Shishmaref. I want them to grew up the way that I grew up, a traditional subsistence lifestyle. So, relocating is very important right now.

I would love to keep my culture, my identity, and my traditions alive. Shishmaref is all family. We look out for one another. I grew up with all 600 residents of Shishmaref so they’re my family. I would love to keep my culture, my identity, and my traditions alive for the next seven generations and more after that.

To every single climate change denier or skeptic, I invite them, I tell them to come to Shishmaref, Alaksa to see climate change first hand [as] we’ve been seeing for the past six-plus decades. My people have been voicing, crying out, trying to get help because of climate change. We have to push hard as hell to make the change that we want to see. We have to come together and push hard as hell."


Further Reading:

Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, a barrier island about five miles off mainland Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. Sea ice that once protected Sarichef Island from storms has begun to melt as temperatures have risen, leaving the land more vulnerable to erosion and land loss with each storm.[1] The island has lost 3,000 feet of land over the last 35 years.[2] As a consequence of melting ice, storms, and erosion, at least one house has been lost to the sea and more than a dozen others have been forced to move. [3] Moreover, hunting and fishing, the main forms of subsistence in Shishmaref, have become increasingly difficult in recent years as seal and walrus populations have declined.[4]

Given the immediate and long-term dangers posed by climate change, Shishmaref voted for relocation in August 2016. The community had also voted for relocation in 2002, but was unable to do so because of the cost.[5] The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the relocation could cost between $180 and $250 million,[6] but no federal or state agency exists to fund the relocation of Shishmaref residents or other climate migrants.[7] Most disaster assistance is unavailable for such efforts because it is reserved for sudden natural disasters, such as hurricanes.[8] The emotional toll of relocation would also be significant, as Shishmaref residents would be leaving the land that has been home to their families for generations. Thus far, the community has struggled to find a suitable site for relocation; most mainland sites that would allow them to continue their hunting- and fishing-based lifestyle are similarly threatened by climate change. If they are unable to find an isolated site for relocation, the village may be forced to join another town, risking an end to the village’s unique way of life – its hunting, unique Inupiaq dialect, arts, music, dance, and food.[9]

Given the intensity of the climate changes Alaska is already experiencing (average temperatures there have risen by about 3° F in the past sixty years, more than twice as much as the rest of the U.S., and average winter temperatures in Alaska have risen by about 6° F[10]), Shishmaref is not the only community grappling with these threats. As of 2009, 31 Alaskan villages were facing “imminent threats,” according to a Government Accountability Office report, and at least 12 were in the midst of relocating.[11] It is estimated that most of those 31 villages will only be liveable for another ten to twenty years before roads, homes, and schools succumb to the effects of climate change. Shishmaref is just one of many communities in Alaska suffering disproportionate effects of climate change. The village’s trajectory is a window into the future for other Native[12] and coastal communities in Alaska and around the world as they are forced to confront the devastating consequences of climate change.

[1] Merrit Kennedy. “Threatened By Rising Seas, Alaska Villages Decides to Relocate.” NPR. 18 August 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/18/490519540/threatened-by-rising-seas-an-alaskan-village-decides-to-relocate>.

[2] Maisie Thomas. “Shishmaref’s Esau Sinnok recognized by White House as Champion of Change.” The Nome Nugget. 22 July 2016. <http://www.nomenugget.com/news/shishmarefs-esau-sinnok-recognized-white-house-champion-changef>.

[3] John D. Sutter. “Climate change threatens life in Shishmaef, Alaska.” CNN. 3 December 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/12/03/shishmaref.alaska.climate.change/index.html>.

[4] John D. Sutter. “Climate change threatens life in Shishmaef, Alaska.” CNN. 3 December 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/12/03/shishmaref.alaska.climate.change/index.html>.

[5] Amanda Holpuch. “Alaskan village threatened by rising sea levels votes for costly relocation.” The Guardian. 18 August 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/18/alaska-shishmaref-vote-move-coastal-erosion-rising-sea-levels>.

[6] Maisie Thomas. “Shishmaref’s Esau Sinnok recognized by White House as Champion of Change.” The Nome Nugget. 22 July 2016. <http://www.nomenugget.com/news/shishmarefs-esau-sinnok-recognized-white-house-champion-changef>.

[7] John D. Sutter. “Climate change threatens life in Shishmaef, Alaska.” CNN. 3 December 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/12/03/shishmaref.alaska.climate.change/index.html>.

[8] Victoria Herrmann. “Alaskan villages imperiled by global warming need resources to relocate.” 29 July 2015. Artic Institute. <http://www.thearcticinstitute.org/alaskan-villages-imperiled-global-warming/>.

[9] John D. Sutter. “Climate change threatens life in Shishmaef, Alaska.” CNN. 3 December 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/12/03/shishmaref.alaska.climate.change/index.html>.

[10] “Climate impacts in Alaska.” EPA. <https://www.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-alaska>.

[11] John D. Sutter. “Climate change threatens life in Shishmaef, Alaska.” CNN. 3 December 2009. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/12/03/shishmaref.alaska.climate.change/index.html>.

[12] David Willis. “Sea engulfing Alaskan village.” BBC News. 30 July 2004. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3940399.stm>.


Moved by this Story? TAKE ACTION!

  1. SHARE: Esau's story to build awareness about how climate change is affecting coastal communities. 

  2. FOLLOW: Esau and other Arctic Youth Ambassadors by tracking #ThisArcticLife #USArcticYouth

  3. JOIN: the Arctic Climate Protection Network for suggestions on how to mitigate climate change and become ‘Arctic climate neutral.’

  4. CONTACT: Senator Susan Collins, Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies to ask for allocated federal funding for Shishmaref’s relocation and other change refugees. EVEN BETTER, ask the subcommittees to set aside annual federal funding for communities forced to relocate due to climate change.