Poor polar bears, but what about the people?
Native Alaskan artists visited New York this week with a message not so much about art, nor a species that’s struggling as rising temperatures melt its habitat from under its paws.
“With so much attention on polar bears, where’s the concern about the people? What about fellow Americans?” said Alvin Amason, an artist and member of the coastal Alutiiq people, who lives in Anchorage.
Amason and other Alaskan artists hit New York to celebrate the opening of the Alaska House , a nonprofit cultural center that aims to teach people about the challenges and opportunities the state faces.
Not only are temperatures rising faster in the Alaska and the Arctic than in southern parts of the world, but residents in remote regions the 49th U.S. state are facing food and fuel costs that are surging faster too.
And the melting of coastal ice means they can no longer hunt on shore for walrus and other animals that provide them with ivory and bones for carvings.
Now the artists have to hunt by boat, but surging fuel costs in those remote areas are making it harder. “If someone gets $5,000 for a carving from a western buyer, he’s not thinking of spending it on a vacation, he’s spending it on boat fuel and heating oil and food, ” said Amason.
Perry Eaton, a fellow Alutiiq artist, said residents in native communities in and around the Arctic Circle in Alaska are moving in droves to the cities in search of other types of work.
As they do, America stands to lose some of its oldest cultural inheritances. Most of Alaska’s remote native peoples have have remained close culturally to what their ancestors were thousands of years earlier, despite some changes like motorized transport. “It’s the only place in America where there was no Indian removal,” said Eaton. He was referring to the forced movement of natives on the American continent to reservations and institutions by the U.S. government, where many were forced to give up their cultural traditions.
Eaton said Northern Alaska is a place where the languages shared by the 180 indigenous communities don’t have a word for “art” — it’s part of daily life, in the clothes they make, or the masks they craft to help usher loved ones who have died into the afterworld.
Alice Rogoff, the founder of the Alaska House, said she had hoped the Republican nomination of Sarah Palin, for vice-president would have helped shine a light on the plight of native Alaskans. Not yet.
Photo of artist Sylvester Ayek courtesy of the Alaska House. Photo of ice sculpture outside of Alaska House by tpg.