Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, December 10, 2010

Who Killed Shelton Kokeok’s Son?

It was a fine June morning three years ago, when 24-year-old Nathan Kokeok and a friend set out across the Serpentine River estuary to bring home fish for their families.  The sun almost never sets in the Arctic at this time of year, so the young men had plenty of time for the catch.  The wide bay where the Serpentine flows into the frigid Alaskan seas is teeming with fish, seals, and other marine life that had sustained Nathan, his father Shelton, and countless generations who lived on Shishmaref Island before them.

Shelton Kokeok and his wife Clara
Nathan was Shelton’s hope for the future.  He had taught the boy to hunt bearded seal and walrus.  He raised him to catch tomcod, salmon and herring.  Together they  sustained the family from the surprising abundance of this harsh land north of the Alaskan town of Nome. Shelton had passed on to Nathan his ancestral dances and songs.  And he had had taught him to speak the Inupiaq dialect, unknown anywhere on earth but Shishmaref.

Fishing in the estuary was good.  What’s more, the fishing grounds were easy to access, due to the thick layer of ice that blanketed them almost year round. In June, it was always safe.  Or at least, it used to be.  In fact, the ice had been breaking up earlier and earlier in recent decades.

It was late that night when Shelton and his wife Clara got the worst news of their lives.  The ice had given way.  Nathan had been swallowed up.  His friend could not save him. 

Shelton has never recovered.  “Something went wrong with me the last couple of years, after we lost that boy,” Shelton said.  “I think he’s taken most of my life.  I lost my baby.”

Nathan’s death was a terrible accident. 

Or was it?

Since the days of King David, Inupiaq Americans have lived on Shishmaref, a sandy barrier island facing the stormy Chukchi Sea. It’s cold.  The mercury regularly drops to -40 F during the endless winter nights.  But it turns out that the cold is what has held this community together over the millennia.  For starters, the sea was almost always frozen, smothering stormy Chukchi's angry waves.  Also, the sandy island was bound together in the grip of permafrost.  Even pounding summer waves could hardly make a dent in the frozen sands. And the villagers lived at the edge of the sea, hunting the abundant marine life, heedless of the dangers of coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

Large chunks of Shishmaref routinely fall away into the warming Arctic waters.
Then two bad things happened to the Inupiaq people.  First, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school, and required all children to attend.  Normally nomadic indigenous people had to settle down or break the law, so the Inupiaq adjusted and built permanent homes in Shishmaref.

Then, the climate began to warm.  Seas which were frozen for all but two months per year began to break up earlier and freeze later.  Waves began to take their toll on the island.  The permafrost began to thaw, accelerating the erosion.  As the bluffs fell into the surf, the people of Shishmaref began pulling their homes back from the water, and some succumbed to the waves.  The warming seas advanced relentlessly. 

Finally, in 2002, the people of Shishmaref voted to leave the island entirely.  But where to go?  For thousands of years, they have been subsistence hunters and fishers, with their own unique language and culture.  All nearby shore front locales are subject to the same warming-induced erosion.   

And should they leave, how to pay for the migration?  The U.S. Government Accounting Office and the Army Corps of Engineers both studied the problem, and determined that the bill would range between $100-200 million, an impossible sum for these subsistence hunters.

The Army Corps stiudied seven villages, each costing millions to move.  They gave Shishmaref only 10-15 years to live.
Eight years after the vote, the people of Shishmaref still haven’t found a new home, nor the means of paying to relocate.  Back in Shelton and Clara Kokeok’s home, dozens of pictures of their son Nathan adorn the room, a futile effort to soothe their loss.  But now, they stand to lose even more.  The island is living on borrowed time.  And without funding, their departure as climate refugees will likely spell the doom of their language and culture.  Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome may have a few more disoriented strangers longing to offer their marine hunting skills in the big cities, but the Inupiaq will likely be gone forever.

And why should I care about Shelton Kokeok?  Well, like him, God blessed me with a son – two, in fact.  My youngest is Peter, and I am adjusting every day to his departure for college.  But I have another son also.  Like Peter, I taught him to tie a square knot, to field a baseball, to write an essay, to tell the truth, and to hate losing.  Like Peter, I taught him to sing the hymns of our faith, and to hope in the resurrection and the renewal of heaven and earth. Like Peter, he embodies many of my hopes for the future.

We’re not so different, Shelton Kokeok and I.

My son’s name, you may know, is Nathan.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


More Shishmaref photos:
Here's Shishmaref at the beginning of a summer storm.  Note the location of the black barrel on the right.
After the storm, see the barrel again.  The barrel didn't move; but it's now on the brink.
This house is hanging at least ten feet over the advancing waves.

Another view of the eroding coastline.

How long before these homes are washed into the Arctic waters?

It's too late for the family that once lived in this house.


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. It is heartbreaking to hear that this climate change is not only affecting the beautful earth that God has given us, but is also harming God's most cherished creation: man kind.

  2. Its really sad that it so often takes such a terrible story to inspire people to change. I doubt any could read this and not be moved to make a difference.