Newtok feeling nervous about relocation timeline

Locals say the “Nignlick” riverbank has been eroding since the 70s. (Photo by Charles Enoch/KYUK)
Locals say the “Nignlick” riverbank has been eroding since the 70s. (Photo by Charles Enoch/KYUK)

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Residents in the small coastal village of Newtok in Southwest Alaska have been preparing to move as erosion eats away at their village.  A dispute over who has tribal authority has slowed the process,but now that dispute has been decided by federal courts and a new set of tribal officials are getting the relocation effort underway again. With climate change accelerating the erosion many are getting anxious that the move can’t happen soon enough.

Newtok resident Nathan Tom is living in the house closest to the eroding shoreline. This isn’t the first interview for the 31-year old. In a piece by The Guardian, he explained he wasn’t too concerned, but that was 2 years ago.

“Last time I said I wasn’t worried, but now I am,” said Tom.

That’s because now the home he grew up in is about a hundred feet away from the water. Increased storm surges and warming permafrost are washing away between 50 to 75 feet of land each year. Tom predicts he has a couple years before his house is literally on the brink, and like most residents he says the move can’t come sooner.

“I don’t know how they’re going to do it. We don’t exactly don’t know how they’re going to do it. I don’t wanna lose this house ‘cause it was my grandma’s house, who raised me since I was a baby,”said Tom.

His house was one of over 20 that were inspected and deemed stable enough to be relocated 9 miles south to the new site called Mertarvik, or “a place to pack water” in Yup’ik, located across the Baird Inlet. However, getting there won’t be easy, as there are no connecting roads in the region.

This time of year people get around on foot or ATVs, all while navigating a system of sinking boardwalks barely able to keep them out of the mud.

You wouldn’t notice the sense of urgency, as many from the village are out hunting moose or picking berries on the tundra. However, the village has been waiting for a decision on a legal dispute between the old tribal council, called the Newtok Traditional Council, and the new one, called the Newtok Village Council.

The old Traditional Council was in charge of the move since its inception in the 1980s. As state and federal funding became available, many in Newtok began to wonder if their leaders were properly managing the relocation process.

A Newtok resident of 49 years, Teddy Tom, says residents were eventually fed up with the way the old council was running things.

“We started to ask questions, ‘When’s this road project going to happen?’ and they say ‘It’s going to happen next year and it doesn’t,’ and they say, ‘We’re going to move next year, too’ and [it] never happened. We got tired of being lied to,” Tom said.

Tom, and many others, say villagers petitioned the Traditional Council to hold an official election.  The council never followed up.

With the help of state agencies Newtok residents held their own vote in October, 2012 to elect a new council. The results would have swept the old leadership away, but the Traditional Council said that election wasn’t valid. This left the funding agencies with no clear tribal entity to work with.

That conflict was resolved in August of this year when the Interior Board of Indian Appeals upheld a 2013 BIA ruling, and sided with the new Village Council providing the new leadership with tribal legitimacy.

Now the Newtok Village Council is spearheading the effort, and they say the groundbreaking project is coming together. Romy Cadiente is the Village Council’s tribal coordinator.  He says there is little room for error this time around.

“You look at the eroding shoreline and the imminent flood. We don’t have very much time; we need to get this thing right. We need to get it right this time.”

Cadiente says they are currently re-establishing connections with state and federal agencies to provide funding for the move. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the move could cost upwards of $80 to $130 million. Cadiente says there are plans to use barges to transport the buildings, though nothing is concrete as of yet.

The new tribal administrator, Thom John, says it will be a relief when it happens.

“This new site has beautiful scenery, especially on a clear sunny day. The view is very beautiful, and its on higher ground, [we] wouldn’t have to worry about high floods,” John said.

The new site already has six houses. The plans for the new site include two intersecting airport runways, plots for houses, a wind farm, a water plant, a small boat harbor and a community garden; facilities that Newtok residents do not currently have.

There is also a foundation for what was supposed to be an evacuation and community center, a critical piece that would have served as a multipurpose building during the move, if it were completed. Thom John says without access to the old council’s documentation it’s hard to know exactly what happened.

“The council dissolved the MOA with Department of Transportation and public facilities, and from there it seemed like everything stopped,” John said.

According to an audit done by the State of Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs the legislature awarded $4 million to the project in 2010, and $2.5 million again in 2011. The audit highlighted questionable spending and poor accounting practices. The FBI has made inquiries into the matter, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

John says only about $1.9 million is left and no one knows for sure how the other part was spent.

KYUK contacted several former officials with the Newtok Traditional Council but they declined to interview.

Back at Thom John’s home in Newtok, his wife Bernice John says it will be hard to move for some since it has been their home for a long time, but she adds it could have some benefits.

“Oh, it’ll be a good time for sorting my house out anyway,” said Berncie.

According to locals the Yup’ik name of the village, Nugtaq , means ‘the village that moved,’ a reference to the relocation effort in the 50s and 60s to move the community closer to a barge landing. And Bernice says moving has always been a part of her ancestor’s lives.

“They’ve always been adapting, ‘cause they’re always moving back and fourth. In springtime they disperse to their fishing and hunting grounds, and by wintertime they would head back to a whole village site,” said Bernice.

But she hopes this move is permanent. It won’t be decided by the seasons, but rather the Newtok Village Council’s ability to win and manage government funding. They hope to begin moving some homes as early as 2018, but given the setbacks it could be later.

Former KYUK News Director Daysha Eaton contributed to this story.