A conversation with the elder - a dichotomy of tradition and modernity

A conversation with the elder – a dichotomy of tradition and modernity

While in Kivalina, we had the opportunity to meet with two elders from the community. “Elder”, as explained to us, is a person of age 57 or older who is well respected in the community due to his or her accumulated wisdom. While we patiently listened to the elders’ different descriptions of environmental impacts the community has faced over the last two decades such as water pollution, coastal erosion, decreased sea ice and reduced availability of wildlife for subsistence, I had so many questions. I wanted to learn how these environmental changes had impacted their traditional livelihoods. How had their livelihoods been modified over the years? What were the major causes of these changes? And, how was the culture being preserved by Kivalina’s younger generations?

I soon realized how difficult it was for the elders to talk about these topics.  The community of Kivalina used to live off the land relying heavily on people’s hunting and fishing abilities, and to some extent the growth of wild berries and other spring plants for their survival. But now, things have changed. It must be heartbreaking to feel that their culture is disappearing and there is so little they can do about it. They conveyed their past with a sense of nostalgia for their traditional subsistence livelihood which is currently being threatened:

We usually got belugas in the spring; we hunted walrus and seals in June, and then, we put them away for the winter.  But today… there are no belugas. After the port was built, the belugas have stopped coming.

Our fishes are dying because of the discoloration on the water

Caribou migration was blocked because of a road construction. Now instead or eating caribou, we eat (and pay for our) beef.

30 years ago… everything was so clean. We washed cloths by hand, and everyone worked and exercised.

This snapshot from the earlier days depicts a healthy and harmonic relationship between humans and nature. Kivalina always had and continues to have a true sense of place and care for its environment. However, these images of purity and un-development from the past are clashing with the images of a highly destructive world driven by modernity. The elders do not need to understand the technicalities of environmental changes; they recognize the consequences and are more aware of them than anyone else.

Our elder interviewee described a conservation with a functionary from the Red Dog  Mine:

What do you mean the water is drinkable? This water is not pure. I know it. Whenever I meet with these people, I know they have treated the water. The color is yellowish.

Kivalina’s elders have experienced increasingly polluted water, changes in whales’ migratory routes, reduction in the numbers of available fish, and sea ice thinning among others. These environmental changes are threatening the community livelihoods and are contributing to the loss of traditions. Yet, cultural changes can be fully understood if approached holistically within environmental, social, economic, and spiritual perspectives.

Kivalina is no exception. The elders say:

 Our culture is fading away. Our young people no longer go hunting, they depend on their parents or are spoiled by the government, who gives them a full stipend every month. They do not want to help, do the hunting, and     collect food for the family.

Based on our interviews, there seems to be a general consensus that younger generations lack motivation and suffer general boredom. This is reasonable considering that they live in a community of 380 habitants in an eight mile-long barrier reef island in the Artic region. However, instead of occupying themselves with productive activities to help the broader community as their elders did, youngsters are drawn to drugs and alcohol consumption, playing video games, or migrating to bigger cities. The elders are worried about what will become of the youngest generations, who no longer know how to survive in the wild, nor are interested in learning.

Although Kivalina is currently suffering from the impacts of coastal erosion, sea level rise, thinning of the sea ice cover, and food scarcity due to change in weather patterns, problems which might be reduced through the village’s planned relocation project, yet Kivalina’s challenges go beyond climate change-related displacement. Topics such as access to running water, education, and other basic needs as well as avoiding identity and cultural loss fall into a broader development agenda. Kivalina’s newer generations would have to define the future they want to live in. Would they be are able to maintain their traditional lifestyle while engaging actively in the modern cash economy? The elders suggest returning to a lifestyle living in harmony with nature as the optimal solution to preserve their tradition while ensuring their livelihood. Although this option might seem incompatible with the pressures of development and modernity and be opposed by the small portion of the community employed by Red Dog Mine, I constantly wonder whether we would all be better off if we listened to the elders’ voice.