Climate change & indigenous knowledge: learning from "Losing Alaska"
Updated: Jan 14, 2022
by Rachel Gee, UCL Institute of Education
When will the mainstream population finally realize that the annihilation of Indigenous peoples is also the annihilation of humankind on Mother Earth? – Sherri Mitchell, Whe’na Ha’Mu Kwasset, Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth.
“For many Alaskans it is not a question of if they are going to relocate, but when”, are the opening words to Tom Burke’s documentary, Losing Alaska. They are spoken by then President Barack Obama when addressing climate issues in Alaska in 2015.
Watched as part of a project funded by UCL's Institute of Education Global Engagement Fund, exploring how film can contribute to climate justice, Losing Alaska is a poignant documentary that focuses on Newtok, the first community in America set to be lost due to climate change.
My role in this project was to identify key climate change documentaries – the good, the bad and all in-between. I found Losing Alaska's focus on climate change in the 'Global North' particularly interesting. While reviewing my chosen films, I came across few focusing on the 'Global North', and while it is fair to say that the South is the most at risk of a climate breakdown, it is the ‘developed’ countries of the North that are responsible for the highest global emissions.
Further light is placed on the North-South divide when looking at the disparities in hierarchy when it comes to voicing climate change. 'Thought leaders' from the Anglophone 'Global North' dominate not only policies, but also public facing social media channels. In a recent UNESCO survey report, figures highlight that while 95% of respondents from all over the world felt that global cooperation was vital for overcoming our global challenges, North America expresses the lowest faith in this approach. As one of the top four countries producing the highest emissions, it is crucial that the US uses its voice for good.
Documentaries that raise questions of climate change as a problem of ‘here’ not just of ‘there’, such as Losing Alaska does, could be part of the solution. This is further supported by recent extreme weather such as floods in Europe or fires in the US that break down assumptions about how climate change both affects and is the responsibility of all of us, not just those in so-called 'developing' nations. Understanding accountability is a key dimension of climate justice.
Losing Alaska: A closer look Rising temperatures have led to thawing in this Yup’ik community. As a result, this has widened rivers and led to rising waters from Ninglick River, which has eroded homes in the area. At the time the film was made (2018), the town was losing 50ft of land per year, every year and it was predicted that the highest building in the town, its school, could be taking in water by 2021. Since its production, families have been forced to move to the village of Mertavik, 10 miles away. Fast forward to 2022 and the pressure is on for the entire town to move to higher ground, though funding shortages, heightened due to the Covid pandemic, are making this difficult.
'Losing Alaska': Climate Justice, Education & Indigenous knowledges
Throughout the documentary there is a focus on education and indigenous learning. Wide shots take the viewer to a community school that awaits flooding. We are introduced to locals in their mother tongue and we are given an insight into the Yup’ik community’s core values. From start to finish, it is evident that education and knowledge are of the utmost importance to the community. Select scenes present teachers sharing their knowledge about climate change with local children as they teach them what is happening to their town – it urges others to do the same. As a local villager within the film comments, while standing in a school, "in a very oral culture, one has to be able to tell stories. Elders talk about ‘you have to be a thief of lessons from other people’”. Prompted by the documentary’s focus on tradition and sharing wisdom, I was inspired to read more on indigenous knowledge and its link to climate action.
Increasingly, there has been a shift in perspective, urging people to listen to those closest to nature. Projects such as The Open Tree of Life, an online phylogenetic tree of life, confirm that human beings share genes with all living organisms. Yet all too frequently indigenous activists and leaders are excluded and marginalised from climate conversations, despite the impact on their lives, rights and cultures.
To indigenous communities, there is nothing new about climate change. These communities have coping and adaptation knowledge that has been transmitted from one generation to the next. Communities such as the Skolt Sámi in the European Artic have shown how their knowledge can aid the management of socio-ecological systems, restoring rivers such as Vainosjoki River back to health.
Research on African indigenous knowledges highlights their contribution to adaptation mechanisms: indigenous lives are strongly tied to the ecosystem and their everyday dependence on nature makes their knowledge of the planet fundamental to its healing. Such connections are vital to not solely adapting to climate change, but to working towards restoration and regeneration of our relationship with the planet.
So what does it mean to listen to indigenous activists, and to learn from their views, as documentaries such as Losing Alaska allow us to do?
A key message for me from the documentary Losing Alaska is the need for kincentric approaches to climate change. This refers to indigenous belief that both nature and people share an ecological family, ancestry and origins. This connection means that traditional indigenous knowledge can enhance and preserve the ecosystem. In a project by Nelson Island community members, non-native scientists joined Yup’ik community members to document and share their history with their younger generation. The findings emphasised the Yup’ik community’s belief that the world thrives when humans and nature are harmonious. They include the following points:
• Animals remain plentiful where people share resources - people do not take too much or things they don’t need. For example, greed such as overhunting and commercial fishing has directly impacted climate change and the community’s ability to hunt.
• People should learn from the past in order to protect the future. They should act with gratitude and respect.
• There is a need for people to take responsibility for their actions and climate change and continue their learning. Instructions should continue to be based on generational knowledge in relation to the present.
One of the most powerful things that I learned through my research is the spiritual positivity presented in indigenous communities. It urges people to look forward and not dwell on things that cannot be achieved. This is reflected in a UNESCO public survey report that found that Indigenous peoples were the demographic group with the highest level of confidence that the world can overcome its collective challenges. Indigenous knowledge has helped humans to survive through multiple ice ages and transformations, it is based on co-existence and preservation and is therefore key when talking about climate change.
“For how can humankind continue to live when the keepers of the umbilical connection to Mother Earth have been destroyed?” – Sherri Mitchell, Whe’na Ha’Mu Kwasset, Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth
Rachel Gee is an MA student in Education, Gender and International Development at UCL's Institute of Education. Alongside her studies she works as a freelance writer and content director. Recent work includes articles focusing on technology and sustainability, along with a content project for Business Alliance Against Malaria. Rachel worked as a Research Assistant on the IOE Global Engagement Fund project 'Advocating through Film: Education and Climate Change in Fiji', led by Dr Charlotte Nussey (UCL) and Dr Rosiana Lagi (USP).