Indigenous Become America's First Climate Change Refugees
On a Sunday morning in late September, Tom John, a wiry fisherman with a deep, placid gaze, ushers me onto his boat, moored on a riverbank in Newtok village, in southwest Alaska. His wife, Bernice, a sturdy-shouldered woman with a voice as bright as a sparrow’s, and their nine-year-old grandson clamber in after me. Our footsteps clang against the aluminum hull. Bernice gestures for me to take shelter from the damp wind in a makeshift cabin built out of wood and a tarp. I nestle in beside coats, buckets, a mug, a cracker box, a camp lantern, an empty coffee jar.
“We sleep in the boat when we travel out to the wilderness,” Tom explains. Virtually no roads cross this vast region known as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta – or the “Y-K Delta” in Alaskan shorthand – an area roughly the size of the Mississippi River floodplain. People get around by boat – winding through the creeks and rivers that stripe the spongy tundra – by ATV, or by snowmobile. A handful of airlines operate flights to the Y-K Delta villages on propeller planes about as hefty as oversized mayflies; I arrived on one yesterday, after waiting two days for dense fog to lift at a rural airport.