We Once Were Here

November 11, 2019

The town of Newtok, Alaska, named for the vast delta grasses and the sound they make in wind, clearly hears another sound: the river. Newtok, Yup’ik for “rustling of the grass,” is located within the 19 million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, a spongy lowland dotted with rivers, sloughs, streams and lakes. Water is everywhere.

When it was established in the 1940s, Newtok was well inland, located near a sweeping bend of the Ninglick River. However, over the last 40 years the land has been consumed by the river’s currents. Residents have witnessed the slow but ravenous destruction of their homes and their connection to a land that is thawing under their feet and disappearing into the river’s flow.

The Ninglick River is fundamental to the residents’ subsistence. The seasonal cycles of its fish and game are inexorably bound to their way of life and yet for decades it has slowly threatened their very existence. It is time now to leave.

Newtok, a community without running water, is surrounded by it. Water laps at doorsteps, has taken away buildings and barge landings, and flooded boardwalks. Nine miles away, on higher, drier land, is Mertarvik, a new townsite to replace the one succumbing to climate change.

Our lives are water,

Flowing through generations,

Bringing our stories together.

– Martha Kasaiuli, Yup’ik poet and Newtok resident

In early September, the community came together to remember its history and to honor its Yup’ik traditions and culture, especially in relation to water. In collaboration with the National Tribal Water Center (NTWC), Newtok residents organized a Water is Life project.

Water is Life celebrates the role of water in Alaska Native and American Indian culture and traditions through songs, photos, stories and art. The program aims to connect people, ignite a sense of community and promote awareness and pride in ownership of Tribal water and water systems. The goal of every Water is Life project, notes Marleah LaBelle, project manager for NTWC, is to share knowledge and behavior that optimizes the health benefits of clean water use, improve the sustainability of local water infrastructure and preserve the knowledge of local water culture.

Newtok’s Water is Life project centerpiece was a play written for the community. “Before the Land Eroded: I Was Once Here” was written by New York artist and playwright Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida) and Juneau playwright X’unei Lance Twitchell (Tlingit/Haida/Yup’ik/Sami), with Martha Kasaiuli (Yup’ik), and LaBelle (Sugpiaq/Iñupiaq). The play is based on conversations with the Elders and community members of Newtok.

“The play is their story,” says LaBelle. “We just helped write it.”

Kasaiuli’s poems, based on her experiences growing up in Newtok, are also in the play.

During Water is Life’s weeklong celebration, students in every grade helped paint colorful murals and create props for the play. Seven high school students memorized and rehearsed their lines. Every student in Newtok had a hand in the creative work of bringing the play to life. The performance, attended by about 80 community members, included Yup’ik singing, dancing and traditional storytelling.

They used drums and trenches

Buried in the ground,

But now they sink in the mud.

We sink in the mud.

Some of them are going fast.

We are going fast.

It is time to go to the place

Where it is dry.

Blackberries everywhere we look.

New homes to call our own.

– Martha Kasaiuli

The Water is Life project found a deeper focus with Newtok, one of recentering a community in flux, leaving its identity as the people of Newtok and building a new future in Mertarvik. The play gave voice to the Elders and culture bearers, reminding the residents that their beliefs and their culture are what matters. Where they live has traditionally varied with the seasons and the whims of nature. 

Newtok 10th grader Mary Kasaiuli, who portrayed the play’s king salmon character, wrote in the Newtok school newspaper, “The play showed how much knowledge our Elders hold and teach us, some cultural values including yuraq (dance), the Itqirpak (king salmon), our land, and so much more.”

In Mertarvik, Yup’ik for “getting water from the spring,” a clear, natural spring is the community’s new water source.

I had a dream last night.

The people went to Mertarvik.

Getting water from the spring.

We’ll sing a song for the water.

We’ll sing a song for Newtok.

– Martha Kasaiuli

A few weeks after the celebration, the first Newtok residents began the move to Mertarvik. They would cross the Ninglick River to higher ground where they could once again hear the delta grasses sighing in the wind and remember their old home.

Remembering is one of the most important goals of Water is Life.

“One of the things that we like to say as part of the Water is Life project is that we don’t tell people what to think we just want them to think,” LaBelle said. “And art is a great mechanism for achieving this, one we hope will create memories that people will carry with them.”

To help facilitate Water is Life projects in Alaska Native and American Indian communities nationwide, NTWC, located within the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, has made available the Water is Life Education + Outreach Curriculum to guide organizers through the process. The free 40-page booklet covers the step-by-step process for developing a water week celebration. Those interested in bringing a Water is Life project to their community can download Water is Life Education + Outreach Curriculum on the NTWC website, www.tribalwater.org.

The Water is Life outreach project is organized by NTWC and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indian Health Service, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  For more information, contact NTWC at (907) 729-3635.

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