Kivalina, Alaska: Native Village Sues Oil Companies (pt 1)

June 22nd, 2008

NOTE: This entry (part one of two) was written over a month ago and held until the client, der Spiegel, published.
View the article in PDF (in German)
View their web edit

I was awake when alarm number one went off, with that nervous feeling of sleeping in; the kind of energy I have before an alpine climb. With only three and-a-half hours of sleep, I hit the snooze and rolled over. Minutes later alarm number two, the clock radio, went off. Madonna’s “Holiday” quietly reminded me I had to get up. In two hours an aircraft would be taxing across the Anchorage, Alaska, tarmac, with or without me. It was four in the morning and I’d been up until one trying to finish some work for a non profit client. (at right: attorney Heather Kendall at home)

By midday I would be in Kivalina, a 400 person native village on the northeast coast of Alaska. The assignment, given to me last week, was to accompany a writer for the German news magazine der Spiegel. The story was about how this native village, essentially an extended family steeped in an ancient way of life, is suing 20 oil companies for climate change, ie. global warming. But, technically, it’s about property damage.

The chain goes like this: the beach is eroding so the village needs to relocate; it erodes because of winter storms; the storms destroy the beach because the pack ice melts early and forms late; this is because the climate is changing, it is warming up, due in part to carbon emissions from burning liquid fossil fuels. Oil.

If I have this right (don’t quote me and if you’re a lawyer please correct me by commenting below) but in California, where the case has been filed in Federal court, tort law says if your actions have been injurious to others’ property–in whole or in part–you can be held liable. With few jobs and a subsistence-based lifestyle, Kivalina needs someone to pay for its relocation. After 15 years of trying various government agencies, and recently being told that Congress can’t afford it, as a last resort the village is turning to the oil companies. (at left: writer Ansbert buying last minute supplies in Anchorage)

While this is a lot more complicated than I can summarize here, in its treaties the Federal government essentially said it would take care of an indigenous population if it exercised some semblance of conformity.

When Alaska became a territory, and later a state, the government mandated all native children attend school. This effectively ended their nomadic native practices for the government plunked down school houses and little else in locations of its choosing. It established an official school at a summer fishing camp on a narrow, vulnerable spit of land best suited for barged resupply and an airstrip.

More at stake than Kivalina’s beach front property, with its sweeping panorama of the sea, is a native culture that, while struggling, is very much alive. A large part of that culture is subsistence hunting; beluga and bowhead whale when pack ice fills the Bering Sea; walrus and bearded seal during the spring break up; arctic char and dolly varden in the summer when the river runs free, and caribou and wolves throughout the year. With the changing climate animal migration or access to wildlife is changing, altering a traditional way of life. Kivalina is said to be in the top 10 of 180 native villages facing cultural extinction.

Showered, I stuffed the last items into my over-filled pack. Heather Kendall, the only native Alaskan attorney working this litigation had given us a primer the day before. Chiefly, be self-contained. We would sleep on the floor of a classroom, for $50 per night, and may have access to a small kitchen where it was expected we would do our own cooking. Layered in my pack were items I’d take backpacking; high-calorie, easy to cook (or simply consume) foods. Cheese, meat, some canned, and a couple hardy vegetables. My German companion, the writer Ansbert, had tossed in some Oscar Meyer hot dogs. Classic. (at right: groceries to take to Kivalina)

The reason for the self sufficiency, Heather explained, is that food is expensive to ship in and is also difficult to go out, find, then kill. To be invited into someone’s home for a meal, in this reserved community, would be momentous. It should not be expected and, if offered, treated with utmost respect and appreciation. Even if it is whale meat soaked in rancid seal oil.

We’ll see. I’m kitted out with my regular winter climbing clothes and the same digital media studio I had in Cambodia six weeks ago. I’ve got four days to build relationships that allow me to photograph a story about a culture facing extinction in today’s changing climate. Even though, on paper, it is really about liability and property damage. (at left: pack ice from front street in Kotzebue, a small town and layover on our way from Anchorage to Kivalina–which lies over the hills in the distance. BTW, there is a wi-fi restaurant on front street!)

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

4 Responses to “Kivalina, Alaska: Native Village Sues Oil Companies (pt 1)”

  1. Marc says:

    Kivalina is a culture caught in transition with a total lack of leadership. The people in this community receive 95% + of what they buy from government handouts. This lawsuit is another example of the American people providing a giveaway to the people of Kivalina. I know that not one person in Kivalina will make a financial sacrifice to pay for this suit. The delta island is eroding, like all delta islands do. Thus, we call them delta islands. They move, they get reshaped, it’s nature’s way. Some families need to move…… these are modular units the federal government provides for the people of Kivalina, free of charge. Not one person in this community thought this idea up. Anchorage lawyers, if successful, will make a fortune on this one…..): Subsistence hunters and fishermen don’t need cash. The federal government should deliver the next batch of houses to a better place and slowly phase out this location. I am sure more homes and school buildings are on order, courtesy of the American government. Shame on the “outsiders” for sponsoring this lawsuit. Is it really legal to rent classrooms as hotel space? Does the money get sent back to the taxpayers of the U.S. or does the principal of the school keep the money? You have to go to this place to understand how ridiculous this story really is! Can’t wait for Part II!

  2. […] on a whim, I sent in a selection of images from my Der Spiegel assignment in Kivalina, Alaska (Post 1, Post 2. I thought they were sufficiently moody, not terribly difficult in subject matter, and […]

  3. […] that my photo essay from Kivalina, Alaska, was selected for the Top 50. Reflecting on the trip (part 1), (part 2), it was hard work and an amazing adventure; being selected for the Top 50 certainly is […]

  4. […] Inupiat Boat from my Spiegel Magazine assignment in Kivalina, Alaska. Read the Kivalina blog posts here and […]


US mobile: 1.206.409.3069
skype: timmatsui
e: tim(at)

PO Box 17941
Seattle, WA 98127 USA