In the Alaskan city of Kotzebue, the lack of sea ice stands to threaten the Iñupiat people’s ability to attain food sovereignty and adhere to their traditional ways of eating. The Iñupiat make up about 70 percent of the city’s 3,500 residents, and—out of both economic necessity and culture—many Iñupiat have a subsistence diet where they hunt seal, geese, ptarmigan, moose, and caribou from the seas to the tundra to the mountains.
Lance Kramer is Iñupiat, and a former elementary school teacher who is now a pastor, working with youth and suicide prevention. His tribe traditionally has hunted whales, seals, and polar bears, and he does the same, as well as teaches those in his family and community to hunt as well. But the climate crisis is putting that in jeopardy.
“Normally here at Kotzebue... our ocean will freeze all the way across, 4 and 5 feet thick. That ocean ice is very important for sea life. There’s little platelets in the bottom of the ice. In those platelets is algae, and it’s the start of the food chain for the whole ocean. Everything starts at the bottom of the ice. When you have no ice, you have no food chain,” Kramer said.
No food chain means no seals to hunt.
Kramer said that they have access to satellite technology that helps them see where and how thick the ice is, but the windows for hunting are growing narrower by the day. “Last year there were so many people who, because the ice left so fast, they just could not get anything. We had to go miles and miles to find ice and hunt seals there. And even then, we didn’t get what we needed.”
The level of ice melting that he has seen, particularly in nearby Cape Blossom, is “unheard of,” Kramer said. “Never before has that happened in my lifetime or any of our elders’ lifetimes.”
What’s happening in Kotzebue may be unheard of, but it’s not mysterious. Like for many other Indigenous communities, the climate crisis has prevented the people in Kotzebue from accessing their ancestral diets, which can lead to health problems, cultural disconnection, economic distress, and climate grief.
"Last year there were so many people who, because the ice left so fast, they just could not get anything."
According to National Geographic, Kotzebue is located 80 miles away from the world’s largest zinc and lead mines, the Red Dog Mine, which produces 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals. Lead and cadmium pose serious threats to human health—especially in children—and for the food sources of the animals Kramer and his community depend on for survival and sustenance. While Kotzebue’s city officials maintain that Red Dog’s toxins are not dangerous to the city’s residents, they certainly aren’t helping the situation, reported National Geographic.
Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black and farm manager and co-director of Soul Fire Farm, has dedicated her life to addressing racism in the food system. Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm on 80 acres of Mohicans territory in Rensselaer County, New York.
She said there are many factors that keep Black and Indigenous peoples from accessing their ancestral diets, mostly a result of “capitalism and colonialism.”
“We have the history of being forced off our lands. We have the destruction of our environments from not just climate change, but the plow and deforestation. We have the commodification of food, which has driven many people to produce commodity crops instead of their own ancestral foods,” Penniman said.
"A gallon of milk is $10. A bag of cereal is $16... That's where there's rage for us."
Penniman, who uses the pronouns li/ya/she/he (li is an all-gender pronoun in Haitian Kreyol), said the government also intentionally keeps Black and Indigenous peoples from having access to affordable foods and subsistence activities like hunting and farming. “The government subsidizes commodity foods so that our communities are flooded with them instead of having access to affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” Penniman said.
“It’s not because those things are more expensive to produce; it’s because they’re not being subsidized by public dollars the way that sugar and corn and soy and all of that are also being subsidized,” li added.
In Kotzebue, as hunting grows harder and harder by the day, food is obscenely and violently expensive. “A frozen turkey here in our local store is $99. A gallon of milk is $10. A bag of cereal to feed your kids is $16. A box of Keurig coffee is $101,” Kramer said. “If there is any rage, that’s where there’s rage for us.”
The object of that rage? Alaska Commercial Company, or the “AC” store, which provides food to many Alaskans, especially those in rural areas like Kotzebue. But at the AC store, survival carries a hefty price.
The AC store “has a monopoly on our people,” Kramer said. “The high prices at the AC store are precisely why the climate crisis’ threat to subsistence lifestyle is so dangerous. If we are not able to harvest subsistence foods like we normally can, then we have to rely on food from the stores.”
“The only way to fight that is to create a tribal store that can compete with it and lower their prices,” Kramer said, adding that this has happened in Nome, Alaska.
The exorbitant prices are beyond enraging; they are among the latest measures governments have long used against Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, European colonizers here tried to starve tribes like the Oceti Sakowin, the Kiowa, and Comanches into submission by eliminating the buffalo. The U.S. government ultimately did not succeed in making buffalo extinct, but the generational trauma lingers on.
To address that generational trauma, Penniman feels it’s imperative to return to the land. “Food is not just a fuel food, but it’s also a part of how we connect to our ancestry and lineage. Certain recipes and traditions that are carried down, these ancestral memories are part of what makes us fully human and makes us feel connected to something that’s bigger than ourselves.
“So when you break that and you commodify food, you’re also robbing some of the richness of what it is to be human, and the dignity of what it is to be human,” Li said.
Penniman is using the land to keep African and Indigenous traditions alive by growing ancestral foods like okra, Mohican beans, garden egg, Muncie black corn, lochia, collards, and so many more. “This food is getting boxed up and delivered at no cost to people surviving food apartheid in our area, which is Albany, Troy, Schenectady, New York, the capital district of New York,” Penniman said.
Penniman and the team are also doing gardener and farmer training—although many of their programs are virtual or on hold due to COVID-19—to help build resilient communities that are better able to adapt to the devastating impact of the climate crisis.
While Kramer is keeping his people’s traditions alive by hunting, he said one of the biggest things that need to happen is a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Such a switch would require an ethical government, he said, and the U.S. government is “corrupt, immoral, and divided.”
But when he sees the global protests against racism, he feels hope. “I don’t have hope in our system; I have hope in the people that are standing up,” he said. “We need a different system. It’s not the people that’s failing.”
Kramer believes in his community’s ability to survive, based on the ancestral memories of his people, going back thousands of years. ”Our people are very resilient. The people we have been for thousands of years will, we will continue to be. We’re very creative. We’re very intelligent. We’re very confident, and very resourceful. We always have been, and that gene has not left us.”
Nylah Burton is a writer based in Washington D.C. and Denver, Colorado, who covers mental health, climate, and race. Follow her on Twitter.