Hungry and tired, we were instantly warmed by the welcoming table of fresh hotcakes, salted herring, hot coffee and the lovely company of the Weyiouannas. Ardith sat poised on a stool flipping hotcakes, while Brian and I were seated at a round table with her husband John and her two sons, Charles and Perry.
Perry had just come inside after nursing a dog who has been sick for the past week, and he had finally just let the dog loose to try to run it out of its system. "A lot of times, they just need to work it out for themselves," he said, though his distress was obvious.
He changed the conversation, asking why Brian said that we've always wanted to come to Shishmaref, even before the inspiration for our cookbook project. Brian explained that, among other reasons, he is interested in photographing Alaska Native villages that are currently undergoing coastal erosion. He has already photographed Kivalina and Newtok, and Shishmaref has been another village profiled extensively for its quickly eroding seawall.
"I'm interested in it because I love Alaska, and this is something that I can show visually to someone who might be able to do something about it."
Shishmaref has largely been covered in the recent past as one of the villages under siege of coastal erosion due to global warming. Warming temperatures have caused the sea to freeze later in the winter and thaw earlier in the spring, and the bed of permafrost supporting the village has begun to melt, cause feet of the village's coastline to plummet into the sea, taking houses and other structures with it. The village has appealed to the federal government and other agencies for financial relocation assistance but thus far has been unsuccessful in securing funding.
"We knew it was happening for a long time—global warming and coastal erosion—though we didn't have a name for it," Ardith says, seating and serving herself porridge and salted herring. "Now we just have to figure out what to do next."
We asked John Weyiouanna if he was in favor of the move. "Yes, of course. As the coast recedes and we are continuously pushed back, our homes are damaged and the foods that we hunt and fish are becoming unavailable. We need to move. We just need to come to an agreement as to where."
It has been suggested that Shishmaref merge with another village such as Nome, but if this happens, so much of the village's life and culture will be forced to change—the landscape and traditions of the two villages are incredibly different. Tin Creek, a little over seven miles from Shishmaref, has been the most favorable location suggested thus far because of the similarities between the two areas, but the similarities are also cause for concern; Tin Creek, like Shishmaref, rests on permafrost, which means that it may soon experience the same erosion problems.
Our talk returned to our cookbook project and to the lovely spread on the table. The Weyiouannas are happy people and gracious hosts, and we left, satisfied after engaging dialogue and a warm, filling meal.
Brian and I spent the afternoon meeting more members in the community and working with students at the school before returning to our host family, the Eningowoks, who were busily preparing a feast of tom cod and caribou stew. Justin Eningowok explained to us his method for preparing tom cod while cutting up pieces of the frozen fish, and setting out a dish of salted seal oil for dipping.
"You don't have to dry it," he said. "We just catch the fish in the fall when they're heartier by threading a pole through the ice, and then we freeze the fish whole. You can eat them as soon as they're frozen or hang them until you're ready to eat."
The liver, he explained, is the best part, cutting it in half to share with us.
Brenda Eningowok announced that dinner was ready and placed a steaming pot of caribou stew and bread on the table. The Eningowoks are young and have two small children—ages one and two—so the majority of our conversation was about the children, the food, and our families. It was a lighthearted and comforting meal of good friends—the perfect way to relax after a long day in the cold.
Some time after lunch with the Weyiouannas and dinner with the Eningowoks, Brian and I took a sunset walk around the entire spit and out to the sea wall, and as we looked upon at the frozen sea, we spoke of the terrifying possibilities of loving a place like this, of loving it enough to build a family and a life here. But we see why the villagers love it—we love it, too.
Ashley Skabar and Brian Adams are currently in Shishmaref working to recreate a 1951 cookbook by Shishmaref students. They will be documenting their experiences over the next week on Tundra Telegraph.
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