NOME, Alaska - Vince Pikonganna was 12 when his family joined the slow exodus from the Eskimo village that was built on stilts across the steep, rocky face of King Island.
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Almost five decades later, his voice still quivers recalling his new life in this frontier gold rush town across the Bering Sea.
Like other children from the remote Alaska island, Pikonganna spoke only Inupiaq when he arrived in Nome in 1960. He dreaded going to school, where King Islanders were taunted by white and local native students alike. The newcomers were different, scornfully labeled K.I.s or villagers, said Pikonganna, 58, who went on to make a living here as an ivory carver.
"That affected us, like it would affect any human," he said as he stood outside his small downtown home. "I had never known any prejudice in my young life until we reached Nome. I didn't know people were like that."
King Island, a tiny spot 80 miles northwest of Nome, was among numerous relocations involving indigenous people throughout the circumpolar north. In Alaska, moves were driven by deteriorating land, natural disasters, wartime circumstances, better opportunities in the 20th century. Some, like King Island, joined other communities. Others moved to unoccupied sites.
Earlier, nomadic communities simply picked up their skin tents or abandoned sod homes and headed to seasonal hunting grounds. Then Western civilization left its imprint in virtually every community, complicating current efforts to move Alaska villages threatened by erosion and flooding.
"With the advent of infrastructure, of schools, of churches, of sewer and water systems, we've become stable, rooted communities, where it's not so easy to pack up your tent and move to where the caribou are coming through. It's created a completely different community from what we used to be," said Patricia Cochran of the Alaska Native Science Commission.
Vestiges of the past still exist for some villages, like Shaktoolik and Point Hope, which moved within walking distance of their abandoned sites.
A few miles south of Shaktoolik's driftwood-piled shore, deteriorating wooden houses and the ruins of the old concrete school stand among caved-in structures just feet from the eroded bluff overlooking Norton Sound. The old village was prone to severe storms and winds, so residents began relocating in the 1960s to their present site on a narrow spit, only to face increasingly harsh storms that are gobbling up the beach.
Rural Alaska is crumbling
Winds and water continually wear away at scores of native communities. Every year whole chunks of land simply float away.
And this vast place is eroding in other ways, too.
Dwindling funds have nudged some small governments to the brink of extinction. They couldn't afford to pay their workers or keep up with the skyrocketing cost of fuel.
Native languages are fading. Youngsters in even the most remote villages weigh their lives against the hype and glamour blasting from their TVs and computers.
But Alaska's most remote residents - many of them indigenous peoples - are looking for new solutions. And they are clinging to past traditions for their survival and a measure of independence from Western civilization.
This is one in a series of stories by The Associated Press examining the impact of erosion in its various forms as well as the strengths of Alaska natives who have endured some of the harshest conditions on Earth for thousands of years.
More than 300 miles up the western coast, bleached whale bones lie scattered amid old sod igloos occupied until the 1970s by residents of Point Hope, billed as the longest continuous settlement in North America. Some of the sod houses are remarkably intact, still attached to whale jawbone frames and wooden beams. Poking out of the ground are remains of power boxes that generated electricity for a time before residents moved two miles east.
The village relocated because of chronic flooding and erosion, which also plague the current location on a triangular spit surrounded by the Chukchi Sea, Arctic Ocean and a large inlet.
Like Shaktoolik, Point Hope is eyeing plans to build an evacuation road. But an existing road residents want to extend for such purposes was badly damaged itself by flooding last spring, adding to the sense of vulnerability among residents.
"So much for an escape route," village bookkeeper Masuk Lane said as she showed a visitor the collapsed pavement. "How are we going to get out of here? If we had flooding from more than one side, I'd say we'd be on an island."
Other factors contributed to King Island's demise.
During World War II, some of the men were drafted into the military. Tuberculosis killed some people and hospitalized others in the late 1940s and 1950s, said Deanna Kingston, lead researcher in an Oregon State University study of King Island and its former inhabitants. In its fourth and final year, the study aims to document the history of surviving villagers, their stories, place names, burial sites, wildlife and vegetation, said Kingston, whose mother was born there.
"When people talk about the island, they say it had the best salmonberries, the greens were sweeter there, the ducks were better, the best drinking water in the world was on the island, that walrus hunting was easier," she said. "Probably a third of the place names there all refer to getting food."
Beginning in the 1950s, however, fewer people returned to King Island from traditional summer camping grounds just east of Nome, where there were doctors and jobs. Most people, including Pikonganna's family, decided to leave for good after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the village school in 1959 because of declining numbers and concerns about a potential rock-slide.
By 1966, everyone was gone. People initially moved to the camping grounds, settling in abandoned buildings and donated Quonset huts in what became known as King Island Village or East End.
Hunters visited the island every year to hunt walrus and sometimes brought their families for camping trips. Others never went back until an emotional return with OSU researchers over the last two summers.
"A lot of people were crying," Kingston said. "They were so excited to be there."
Survivors and their descendants consider the relocation a pivotal period in their history and a catalyst behind their fierce protection of identity. To this day, many hold fast to their culture, their songs, carving skills, even building a new community hall for themselves.
The King Island Dancers and Singers, formed in the 1970s, is still going strong, performing all over Alaska and outside the state.
"That's one of the biggest ways we held on to our traditions from the island because these songs were not made just to play hum-along. They had a reason behind them, they had stories behind them, history," Pikonganna said. "Dance keeps us together, at least during these times when we visit one another, hearing each others' voices."
But some felt unheard in their new home, falling prey to the plentiful alcohol in Nome. They gave up their language, lost their self-respect, their sense of family.
Pikonganna said he would hate to see the same thing happen to Shishmaref. The Inupiat Eskimo village of 600 - built on a sliver of island north of the Bering Strait - may soon have to move because of aggressive erosion. Most residents want to stay in the region, relocating to an unoccupied site on the mainland southwest of Shishmaref.
That's the best option, in Pikonganna's opinion.
"I really wouldn't encourage them to move to another town. No way," he said. "We had to make a lot of adjustments here and we lost a lot."
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