Kivalina, Alaska: Native Village Sues Oil Companies (pt2)

June 23rd, 2008

NOTE: This is Part 2 of 2, from an entry held until the client published.VIEW IMAGE GALLERY

It was a little past midnight when Austin’s brother in law shouted at me, “You want to go back to town? Come on, then!”

As fast as I could, I packed my gear, said hurried thank you’s to the men staring out at the ocean and ran, on half-frozen feet, across the snow-crusted pack ice to the snow machines. Snapping a few frames in the dusk of midnight, I stuffed the camera into the front of my parka, mounded the machine, and pulled my goggles down. We were off. (at right: an image of the pack ice shot just before departure)

Clenching the seat with my thighs, the back rail with one hand, and the other trying to keep my camera from smashing into the other, I broke into a grin, then a smile. I was being tossed around like a rag doll as we hurtled over pressure ridges in the ice, but we were in the most serene of landscapes.

I had spent most of the day watching the light change over a whaling camp positioned at the edge of the melting pack ice. I had the pictures I wanted: atmosphere, weapons, scenery, teamwork; I’d eaten traditional foods, helped them move the camp, gotten into the energy of whale watching and witnessed a successful seal kill. And now, in the extended alpenglow of a near-polar sunset, I was screaming across the ice heading back to Kivalina, Alaska, a native village of 400 whose existence still relies on subsistence hunting. For them, the day was like any other out on the ice. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I’d read about as a kid, studied at university, and never thought I’d get to experience. (at left: whaling boat at the ready)

Getting out on the ice was no small feat. Apparently native villages, especially when it comes to hunting, aren’t the most hospitable. We were warned of this, but the general sense I felt was not a lack of hospitality, just that people tend to stick to their own. I suppose two journalists (in a growing stream of them) snooping around town asking questions about a very controversial subject qualify as something to watch from a safe distance. The town is suing 20 oil companies for climate change, the impact to their beach, and the fact that one major storm could wipe out half the town.

Part of it is not having a lot; the assignment was initially proposed with an adventure photographer in mind because there was no hotel. There’s no bar either: it’s a dry town (meaning, by law, no alcohol). I immediately thought “cool, home stay.” Now, having seen the weather beaten one to three room prefabricated government boxes, some of which house three families, I understand why we stayed at the school. There is no road to this town; supplies are flown in to their dirt airstrip during the winter and barged in during the summer. While they have a small store, packed with quality items like donuts, chips, and canned goods of dubious nutritional value, food is expensive to import. Most of the residents rely on subsistence hunting, and it isn’t uncommon to see drying hides hanging outside of homes or, in one case, the four upended legs of a frozen caribou on someone’s staircase. (at right: kivalina from the air; the ocean to the left, the bay to the right, and the river’s mouth in the foreground)

Another part of the guarded nature–in my unsubstantiated and opinionated commentary–is the nearly cheek-to-jowl, somewhat primitive living conditions. There is a moratorium on building because the village is bounded by water on three sides, an airstrip, cemetery, and landfill on the other. The only buildings with running water (and toilets) are the school and the teacher’s housing. The remaining houses are plumbed, but apparently a village administrator absconded with the funds to finish the project. So residents haul their water in plastic garbage cans from the city’s two water towers and use five gallon buckets as toilets. At one point I set my pack down in the snow outside a home only to hear a woman say “I wouldn’t stand there, your standing in shit!” Looking around, I saw a cardboard box filled with plastic bags of frozen human waste. Good to know.

I believe this close proximity has an effect on the social fabric, both positive and negative. The community functions as an extended family, in the literal and figurative, which can strengthen bonds. But I ran into a couple of people who made some venomously disparaging remarks of others; I suppose when you live next door to your hated kinfolk the only way to continue to exist is to not get involved in the affairs of others. (at left: ansbert sneaking into the frame)

What this meant for Ansbert and I is it was harder to make meaningful connections. The lack of a sense of time also complicated things; that far north long winter nights are complimented by long summer days. With no where to go, few real jobs, and endless days, time ceases to be important. For us it meant a lot of standing around simply “being there” in hopes of connecting. As such, I think we worked well together; I feel we had an even balance of leadership, discussion of which subjects would work best, and when it came down to only one of us getting out on the ice, I went and Ansbert found more interviews. I would have loved to have him out on the ice, but he found a way to do it through conversation.

We were fortunate that we arrived a day before two documentary filmmakers left; they were a pleasure to spend time with and were instrumental in introducing us to a few people, notably teacher Anna Hercha. Though not native, she’s a native Alaskan and has taught in Kivalina for 11 years. She’s a tough woman with an incredible sense of humor and a generous heart. Unasked, she came into the school two mornings in a row and cooked breakfast for Ansbert and myself. Also, in her company, I laughed harder that I’ve laughed in a long time–cheeks hurting, stomach cramping kind of laughter.

Still, there were a few moments when Ansbert and I, in the modicum of privacy afforded by the school’s faculty lounge, looked at each other and sighed. Would we be able to get what we needed to make this story work? He needed interviews, I needed portraits, we both needed atmosphere and something to represent the culture. And then, there were the enormous sandbags on the frozen shoreline I was supposed to make a dramatic photo of. They were white, buried in snow, and on the shore of a frozen sea. But they were the physical representation of the village’s fight to preserve itself. On our last night, we both had the same look. (at left: ansbert and myself at midnight)

“You know what I’m thinking?” I asked.

“How good a beer would be right now?” Ansbert replied.


While I can’t read the German, I feel it was a successful assignment on many fronts. For those of you who also are unable to read German, this is a summary from Ansbert:

“The story itself has three parts: At first I explain the traditional lifestyle, the whale hunt and how cliimate change threatens all this. The middle part is about the lawsuit: I discuss the tobacco wars, compare them to the law suit now and finally I tell how Kivaliina was caste as a plaintiff. Part three describes the life behind the picture of a traditional lifestyle, the alcohol and drug problem, the bad education, the welfare. Conclusion: climate change is there, it threatens them, but their lifestyle has changed already and will continue to change.”

It’s not the rosiest of pictures, but it seems pretty factual to me, based on the impression we were able to achieve.

For me, it was a great experience, I met some cool people, saw some beautiful sights, and pleased a client. Ansbert quoted the photo editor who, in a rare moment, exclaimed “These are paintings!”

Flattering. But even more so, was his admission: “I had shorten my text because the (page designers) refused to reduce the size of the photos – that is not usual here and says a lot about the quality of your work.”

I think part of that success came from how we worked as a team. I look forward to a chance to do so again. (at right: hamming it up while waiting for our flight out at the airstrip)


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3 Responses to “Kivalina, Alaska: Native Village Sues Oil Companies (pt2)”

  1. that photo of the boat is down right iconic. Fantastic. Now i need to read the story.

  2. Tim McGuire says:

    Hey Tim,

    Looks like a fun assignment. Nice pics!


  3. admin says:

    It was a really cool assignment and one of those out-of-the-blue-and-you-have-hours-to-decide sort of jobs. But who can turn down the chance to see a world you’ve only read about? The writer and I were like kids with the experience; it was work, but it was cool work. Met some great people too.

    Unfortunately, I can’t read German…and online translators don’t do the writing justice.


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