At the SPE NW regional conference in October, I got to see the talk “Modern Documentary Practices: A case study of working with Yup’ik Eskimos on the Yukon Delta, Alaska” by environmental photojournalist Tara Champion. Champion presented some excellent photographs from other projects she has worked on – all exploring how climate change affects cultures and ecosystems – but it was her series about Yup’iik (Yup’ik) Eskimos, the largest group of Alaskan natives still living on their traditional lands, that I found so interesting and beautiful. Of the Yup’iik, Champion writes, “Their civilization has weathered epidemics, missionaries, and outside influences but as a subsistence culture their connection to the land remains firm. Elders who remember life before contact with the outside world are aging but their value system, living in balance with nature, is being passed to a new generation. Now they are fighting to retain their cultural identity as the very land they depend on is transformed by climate change.”

From the artist’s statement: I lost feeling in my hands hours ago, the tears forced out of my eyes by the whipping wind have frozen to my cheeks, the snowmobile beneath my body jerks and bumps along with such violence I know I will find bruises tomorrow. I bury my face into the back of Matthew Jr., who skillfully dodges through the willow forests and along the frozen rivers used as roads in winter. Another hour goes by as I wonder why I am here, what am I thinking, this is how I will die… we break out into another clearing, and stop on a large frozen river in the shadow of the only mountains for hundreds of miles. I stumble off the back of the snowmobile and take in the scene. Here, hours from any village are dozens of families laughing, playing, and picnicking while they manaq (ice fish): just a typical Saturday family outing. These are the industrious peoples whose connection to this harsh landscape has been passed down through the generations. I am truly an outsider, but here on the ice for the next ten hours, I am an adopted Yup’iik. I have asked to understand what it is to be Yup’iik and slowly I am shown.

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