19-year-old Shishmaref man honored at the White House

A 19-year-old from western Alaska was honored last week at the White House for his work advocating on behalf of communities experiencing climate change first hand. Esau Sinnok spoke to me from his cousin’s house in Nome on his way back home to Shishmaref. He was in Washington advocating for “climate equity.”

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Esau Sinnok (second from the left) talked at the White House aout "Climate Equity" (Photo courtesy of the Department of Interior)
Esau Sinnok (second from the left) talked at the White House aout “Climate Equity” (Photo courtesy of the Department of Interior)

ESAU: Climate equity, to me, means we’ll have available resources so that Shishmaref will have the available resources to either relocate or adapt to climate change so that our future generations can have fun and experience the lifestyle that I had the privilege. So that our future generations can live the traditional lifestyle that ancestors have been living for the past 4000 years on Shishmaref.

HUGHES: In your own life have you seen changes to the climate?

ESAU: Yeah, ever since I was born in 1997, we had to move about three dozen houses from one side of the island to the other because of big storm surges that happened in Shishmaref so that they don’t topple over and go into the ocean. It affects me personally because I lost a loved one. He fell through the ice when him and my dad and a few others went out to the mainland on their snowmachines on the ice to go duck hunting. And on their way back, he fell through the ice and he thought that the ice would be frozen like in previous years, but for some reason it wasn’t frozen all the way so he fell through and lost his life.

HUGHES: What’s one of the messages from Alaska that you’ve tried to bring to the attention of other influencers and other leaders?

ESAU: I always tell other people, where ever I go and whoever I meet, that the youth voice is very powerful. That they are the future leaders of tomorrow. It’s very important for us youth to have a voice in all these types of movements and all these types of issues. Because the future that we’re going to inherit is being decided right now and affecting my hometown of Shishmaref greatly, affecting 223 communities all across Alaska greatly. And not just in Alaska but in the Gulf Coast, in the lower 48 like in Louisiana and Florida, tose states.

HUGHES: And can you tell me what it was like at the White House?

ESAU: It was like a once in a lifetime opportunity at the White House. I had my goosebumps and my heart was beating every time I was there. It was like I couldn’t believe I was there. I’m just a rural village Native kid, and to experience that… it felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. And I would love to get other youth involved to share the same experience. To share what I felt when I was there.

HUGHES: My last question for you is what your next step is?

ESAU: I’m currently studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Tribal Management and hopefully continue with a Rural Development degree so that I can go back to Shishmaref and run as city mayor and to experience how to lead our community. Hopefully one day I could run for Governor of Alaska by the year 2030 to represent not only the big cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks and Juneau, but also the rural communities. I wanna make a change and try to make a positive and better future so that our future generations can live in a safe environment and don’t have the problems that I’m seeing every time I’m back at the community.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah