Hawaii & Alaska
Julia Lubas/High Country News

AK - Melting Ice May Bring Ships, Unwanted Visitors, to This Native Alaskan Haven

King Islanders fear threats to their food security and cultural resources.

This story was originally published by High Country News

King Island, Alaska, roughly 85 miles off the coast of Nome, is home to the now abandoned village of Ukivok. In the early 20th century, nearly 200 people—the Ugiuvangmiut—lived in small houses raised high on stilts above the island’s steep, unforgiving terrain. Historic photos of the village are impressive: Small clapboard buildings are dwarfed by rocky cliffs. But by the 1970s, no one lived here year-round; most residents had moved to Nome, on the mainland. While several forces drove the migration, King Islanders say a main cause was the decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to close a school it ran on the island in the late 1950s.

Ben Payenna, a King Island descendant and a King Island Native Community tribal council member, tries to make it out to or near the island each spring. Last year, he fished for halibut nearby. “It’s really special. I mean, I grew up going out there, walrus hunting at a very young age, so I have a lot of memories of pulling up to the island in the fog and seeing numerous boats on the shore ice there and having people already on the island walking down to help greet us and help pull the boats up,” he said. “Just going out there brings back a lot of those memories of elders who are no longer with us.”

Now, a rise in ship traffic in the region may threaten descendants’ connection to King Island. “A lot of us are concerned with people getting on the island and rummaging through our stuff or looking for artifacts, things of that nature,” said Payenna. “Having access from outsiders, not just villages around us, but people who aren’t even in the region, is a little bit worrisome.”

King Island is private property, owned by the King Island Native Corporation. According to the corporation’s president, Mike Thomas, all potential visitors need permission to access the island, though the corporation has little control when it comes to the waters around it.

King Island currently appears on at least one cruise ship’s itinerary. Ponant, a company that sails under the French flag, offers a nearly monthlong trip that departs from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, travels through the Northwest Passage and terminates in Nome. King Island is among the many places mentioned on a list of the trip’s “Ports of Call and Excursions,” though a statement from a public relations firm that represents Ponant said that passengers will not disembark from the boat at King Island. “Onboard our ship, we offer lectures from our expedition team and naturalists on the history of the island and the tribe who lived there as well as the island’s geology and biodiversity,” it reads. The company declined to answer questions about whether it has consulted with the King Island community about its plans to sail past the island and the information it provides to passengers.

All kinds of boats, from hobby sailboats to large industrial cargo vessels, are visiting the Arctic in greater numbers each year: Between 2013 and 2019, marine traffic in the northernmost seas increased by 44%. Last summer, Nome’s harbor master, Lucas Stotts, braced himself for more than 20 cruise ships — five times the number the community has received in a typical season in the past. “Industry follows the money, and the money is in the Arctic right now in terms of tourism,” Stotts said.

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