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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native Communities in the Wake of the Spill

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Susan Kernes explores the spill's impact on the native communities of Chenega Bay and Port Graham. The decline of their marine food supply and the influx of cleanup crews and money after the spill threw the already changing Native community into a state of chaos, from which some residents say the communities may never recover.


CURWOOD: Five years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, those who live close to Alaska's southern coastline are still contending with oil in their environment. Not long ago, a native fisherman picked up a lump of oil tar the size of a basketball. Many of the region's native people, known as the Chugach Aleuts, have been slowly recovering from the economic, social, and cultural disruption of the spill. But as producer Susan Kernes found in a visit to several native villages, the recovery masks some profound changes in their way of life.

(Flowing water)

KERNES: This small hamlet, the island of Chenega Bay and Prince William Sound, resembles an unpaved suburban neighborhood. The basic transportation is a modified dune buggy, and the closest store is a hundred-dollar plane ride away. For the Chugach Aleuts who live here, both their survival and cultural identity depend on harvesting and sharing food from the ocean. But that changed suddenly on Good Friday 1989.

TOTEMOFF: Before the oil spill, you could see right out in the rocks out there, there used to be seals on those rocks in the low tide every, just about on every low tide. But now there's nothing. Nothing at all.

KERNES: Phil Totemoff is a Chugach Aleut elder who's lived in Prince William Sound all his life. In his younger days, he divided his time between subsistence fishing and commercial fishing. That was when he lived in old Chenega, before another Good Friday disaster, the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave, destroyed his entire village 25 years earlier. The black sludge that coated new Chenega's subsistence beaches 5 days after the tanker ran aground gave Totemoff a disturbingly familiar feeling.

TOTEMOFF: I survived the 1964 earthquake, you know. And it just reminds me a little bit more of what happened during the '64 earthquake. After I seen all that oil.

KERNES: Chenega Bay residents still hunt seals and ducks, but they aren't finding as many as they did before 1989. And they have to travel farther to get them. So for many here, it's becoming too expensive to put native food on their tables.

(Bird calls)

KERNES: The oil took a week longer to foul the shores of Nanwalek, about 200 miles southwest of Chenega Bay. But it brought similar problems. Sally Ash grew up in Nanwelek, and now teaches village kids Suqpiak, their native language. She was living in Anchorage in 1989, and when she realized the magnitude of the disaster, she rushed home to be with her family and to help clean her beaches. She found Nanwelek a very different place than she left.

ASH: It seemed so weird to come home to this quiet little village, it used to be quiet, and now all of a sudden all kinds of people were coming in. I mean you couldn't really keep track, you know. It was just so noisy.

KERNES: Her village of less than 200 had been invaded by dozens of cleanup workers. She says they took over Nanwalek's community hall, usurping the official of the tribal council. Ash says the influx of outsiders, combined with a sudden infusion of cash into a largely non-cash economy, turned her community's social and economic structure on its head.

ASH: We're not used to probably having, you know, money all at once. I think it caused a lot of people to start drinking again; that was the sad part. And then, like not getting, doing your subsistence that summer, we missed out on the whole summer of no food, and things seemed just kind of out of control or something.

G. EVANOFF: I always say Mother Nature is mad. She doesn't know how to deal with this.

KERNES: Today the crowds and the money are gone. What remains now is the oil. Chenega Bay Corporation Vice President Gail Evanoff gets angry when she hears scientists say that the human role in the cleanup is over, and the best way to treat subsurface oil on shorelines is to allow Alaska's winter storms to scour them clean. She and other native leaders are demanding that money from an Exxon out of court settlement be used for further beach cleanup and monitoring.

G. EVANOFF: You and I know water and oil do not mix, in the sediments. It's there to stay unless it's removed.

KERNES: It almost doesn't matter whether it will take more human effort or natural wave action to heal the ecosystem. The fact is, village residents like Phil Totemoff no longer trust the environment they've relied on for centuries.

TOTEMOFF: A lot of times when I get my food like seal, and set it on the table, I could visualize that oil that I seen. And sometimes it just makes me sick.

KERNES: Still, the shock waves from the Exxon Valdez disaster haven't been all bad. Porkram Village Chief Elenore McMullen says the spill revived interest in the old ways: ways that she grew up learning from her grandmother.

McMULLEN: The Exxon disaster revived a lot of native cultural things: dance, song, building of the kayak, the language, and people have built on it.

(Children's laughter)

KERNES: But whether the children paying today in Chenega Bay will experience their subsistence culture as part of daily life, or just something they do on the weekends, remains to be seen. Larry Evanoff is the mayor of Chenega Bay.

L. EVANOFF: I think we lost a generation of folks here. These young ones that are coming up now. They won't know how to hunt. Yeah, we try to take them out and tell them the way it used to be, what it was, and how plentiful it was. That part of it is, is - is gone.

KERNES: Like many adults who lived through both Good Friday disasters in Prince William Sound, Avenof isn't so sure his village can bounce back a second time.

L. EVANOFF: We fell off the horse before. And we got up, and got back on. When we're going to get our lifestyle back, who knows? I might not see it in my lifetime.

KERNES: For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Kernes in Chenega Bay, Alaska.



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