Climate change as art; 'My culture is beautiful ... I'm glad I am Yupik'

Cast members (Photo by Elizabeth Herron-Ruff)

Joaqlin Estus

Newtok theater: 'Before the Land Eroded: We Were Here'

The people of Newtok remain determined to live a Yup’ik lifestyle even in the face of climate change. 

“Permanently” frozen ground under Newtok once held firm against the mighty Ninglick River. Now, the permafrost is melting and water is eating away the ground beneath villagers' feet. Erosion has taken away a mile of land, bringing the Ninglick river to within 40 feet of some homes. The barge landing that was needed as the only cost-effective way to bring food and supplies to the village has already been destroyed, along with the landfill.

Newtok is one of 31 villages in Alaska dealing with the impact of climate change. It’s the furthest along in steps to relocate. Federal and state agencies, tribal health organizations, villagers, and even the military, have worked together to build infrastructure at a site nine miles southeast of Newtok. The tribal council has been working for years to make the move.

It was quite a feat of fundraising, planning, and coordination to get a third of Newtok’s 354 residents moved last October to Mertarvik, the new village site. Its name means “getting water from the spring.” At Mertarvik the once-bare land now has a barge landing, a landing strip, and an evacuation center. And it's where classes will be held until a school is built. Mertarvik has gravel roads, a power plant, fuel tanks, and 21 homes designed for the subarctic climate.

Plans call for other structures, including dozens more homes for the people still living in Newtok. But there’s no money to build them ... yet. Programs exist for natural disasters, even a COVID-19 response, but there is no agency with a  mandate to help communities prepare for a slow-moving disaster such as the one Newtok is facing.

Margie Waska played the part of a young poet named Martha. (Photo by Elizabeth Herron-Ruff)

Students recently used the arts to express their views on the changes. The play got an enthusiastic response in Newtok last Fall and at a second March performance in Anchorage. 

The play “Before the Land Eroded: We Were Here” is a Water is Life project developed in collaboration with the National Tribal Water Center. 

Marleah LaBelle, consultant/freelance writer at Turning Pages Consulting, was a co-author and driving force in getting the project organized and funded, along with Newtok school principal Elizabeth Herron-Ruff, and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Rachel Gold with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and others.

An audience member, performance artist Allison Akootchook Warden, Inupiaq, said, “I think it's important to utilize the arts, and theater especially, to allow the people who live in these communities to have their stories be heard in a different way. And it's very cathartic to be able to tell your story and then to see it on stage or to act it out. It helps. The arts are helpful to these kinds of big transitions.”

The Anchorage audience applauded, laughed, and listened, fully engaged, as middle and high school students performed traditional Yup’ik dances, and read their lines from scripts set on music stands. They gave the students a standing ovation.

Warden praised “the energy and the love in the room. And it was a packed house.” Alaska Pacific University’s Earl R. Brown auditorium holds 200 people. “It was a great show. Beautiful, beautiful work.”

The play, which is based on conversations with villagers, was written by New York artist and playwright Ty Defoe, Ojibwe, Oneida; Juneau playwright X’unei Lance Twitchell, Tlingit, Haida, Yup’ik, Sami; and Marleah Makpiaq LaBelle, Sugpiaq/Iñupiaq. Poetry by Martha Kasaiuli, Yup’ik, of Newtok runs through the play.

Relatives and friends turned out for the show, which Jobe Nevak, Yup’ik, a 17-year-old high school senior, said helped settle his nerves. “They were right there [near the front]. I looked at them and I felt a little good until even our other relatives came here, and the people that we invited to it, then it was pretty good.”

The applause may have been for the depth of wisdom and emotions the script portrayed, or the way it celebrated Yup’ik culture. It may have been for the play’s message that the Yup’ik people have survived hard times and will again. Or perhaps it was to recognize the courage and determination of the people of Newtok. No doubt it was also for the students’ bravery in taking the stage.

Douglas John, Yup’ik, age 20, said he was nervous about being in a play, but wanted to increase public awareness of the village’s needs. “I thought of our tribe, our people, they're having a hard time moving in. They need more money,” said John. “So we're telling a story to get more funds.”

Writing the play started with interviews to hear stories and local history from Newtok elders and community members. In the 1950s, the village’s location between the Ninglick and Newtok rivers wasn’t so much chosen as settled upon. It was the farthest point barges could travel upriver when delivering school construction materials.

One of the characters in the play, village elder John, said, “... the land is sinking. It used to stay frozen longer. We used to know what it was going to do. The world is hot now. The world is more unknown than known.”

Another character, a young poet called Martha, said, “People talk about the climate changing, and some say it’s not happening, but this is not the world we know. This is the world we have to leave behind in search for a new one.”

“Newtok. The rustling of the grass. It is beautiful. It’s so beautiful.” [Excerpt from the play]

“Maybe we don’t want to move, but what choice do we have,” the elder named John said. “No matter where you go, be it Mertarvik or some place after that, Newtok will be in our hearts.”

In the play, elders and spirits described the predictability of the tides and the annual return of salmon to streams and rivers to spawn. They also sketched the unpredictable nature of the world — floods, famine, and droughts — and the changeable nature of water.

Martha, speaking to the water spirit Itqiirpak, said, “We’re sorry for what we may have done here. We have been quiet people. We have been real people, like we were taught. Please pity us. Please help us live in this world and be helpful to others and to each other.”

The salmon spirit Taryaqvak directed the people to close their eyes and envision their home hundreds of years ago, with clean, healthy water, and sunshine.

"Now, take a photo with your mind. It doesn’t even need to pop out [like a Polaroid]. You don’t need to shake it. This is us, making stories. Never forget that.”

The play also describes the traditions of the Yup’ik people that give them strength in an uncertain world.

“My culture is beautiful.
We take care of nature, and it takes care of us.
It provides us food, like moose, seal, fish, and edible veggies and fruits
Our culture is beautiful
Women dance while men sing and drum
Families stick together and help each other out
Our culture is beautiful.

I'm glad I am Yup'ik.
I’m glad I am Yup’ik.
I'm glad I am Yup'ik.
I’m glad I am Yup’ik.
I’m glad I am Yup’ik.

Later in the play, another poem read:

“I had a dream last night… birds called back to me. They said our grandchildren will be here, even if we are not here. Even if Newtok does not exist.”

The play ended with the cast reciting in unison, “We were here. We are here. We will be here,” followed by a water song.

The students’ trip to Anchorage was a whirlwind. They visited a museum, ate out, and worked with Inupiaq and Unangan artists to create etchings. They had rehearsals with professional Yup’ik and Inupiaq musicians and actors who gave them tips on singing, drumming, and acting.

One of the project’s goals was to open students’ minds to opportunities. Playwright X’unei Lance Twitchell said, “We wanted to make sure that they knew that this is something they could do.” Whether they want to write plays, be in plays, write poetry or fiction, “The door is open,” Twitchell said. “We want them to know that there's a whole world of possibilities and if they set their mind to it and build their connections and just keep trying and not be afraid of failing, they could do it.”

Correction: corrected the name of the person playing the part of Martha.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1

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