Countless western Alaskans have lost livelihood resources, food, and even camps that tie them to the land. While various agencies are still assessing the extent of the damage caused by the storm, residents are analyzing what this loss means for them and their families.
Melanie Bahnke, CEO of Kawerak Inc., shared with KNOM listeners on September 21 that the damage to subsistence shacks goes beyond the loss of buildings.
“We have several people who have lost their subsistence huts and their boats. And we all know that our subsistence huts aren’t just for recreation. They are means for our food security but also for our cultural continuation and they connect us to the land and to our ancestors,” Bahnke said.
Bahnke’s point about the cultural bond affected by the storm has been repeated time and time again by people in western Alaska.
Darlene Trigg is one of the many residents of Nome who no longer has a camp for herself and her family. He was completely swept away by the storm.
“The camp itself is gone, but you look down and you’ll see things. We had just renovated it and there is a doorknob, like a… well it was a homemade door, so all he used was to lock it. And it’s just sitting right there on the floor. We walked to where the boats were. But you could see his (my dad’s) commercial fishing tag on the floor right where his boat was,” Trigg said.
Some residents still have their family cabins intact, but they have been relocated across Safety Sound or moved to another location in the tundra. Others dig through the rubble of what were once their subsistence camps.
“On this tiny plot of land, each of my family members has their own story, all the work and love they put into it and their own memories which each hold dear – that goes for all the camps involved. Each of us was affected even though we didn’t lose a cabin – it’s a collective experience,” Trigg said.
“My mom and dad took it upon themselves to make sure all the kids had subsistence food, and it all happened there,” Trigg continued. “My earliest memories are in this building, around this land. It’s part of the foundation of who I am…it’s built into my identity.
While visiting Norton Sound earlier this week, Governor Mike Dunleavy witnessed extensive damage to boats and subsistence gear in the Nome area.
“You fly along this coast, you have countless fishing camps, you have countless shacks, countless areas where there are valuables that people can’t access,” Dunleavy said.
Across the region, residents spoke of the impact of this storm on their subsistence lifestyle. Alaska Senator Donny Olson of Golovin pointed out that the community’s subsistence food was nearly wasted when power went out in Golovin for days.
Daisy Lockwood Katcheak, the municipal administrator of Stebbins, told KNOM that her community would not have as much food for the winter.
“100% of the fish racks and fishing supplies for all of our subsistence fishermen are gone,” Lockwood Katcheak said.
Lockwood Katcheak estimated that a quarter of the community was unable to even fish and gather subsistence food this summer, due to the lack of salmon in the area and the essential work that needed to be done at Stebbins. The community is requesting food deliveries from various agencies to help meet their needs over the next few days.
As families come together to clean up and repair what remains of their generational cabins, the question now is: Will federal government financial assistance help rebuild these lifesaving camps and livelihoods? ?
Bahnke said Kawerak will do its part to ensure these needs are met.
“We need to be able to convey that these are not just cabins for recreational use, these are our means of supporting our families and our communities. And as our ancestors passed on to us these resources along with the knowledge and connection to the land, rivers and oceans; we also want to be able to pass that on to future generations,” Bahnke said.
The Alaska congressional delegation sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to approve Governor Dunleavy’s request for a major disaster declaration in western Alaska.