I AM A MOTHER raising Black children in New York City, which is unceded Munsee Lenape territory. Often, I am afraid for my children’s lives. Where my family lives, the storms are growing worse, and the water is rising, and these are not the only threats to our safety. I have come to the Arctic to ask you what changes you have witnessed, and to humbly ask, with your permission, for your wisdom about survival.
This was the script I had rehearsed for my journey to a coastal Alaskan village in the late summer of 2022, when my boys were eleven and nine. It felt like something I would have to revise, potentially extractive and teetering on false equivalence, yet important to get right to justify the carbon footprint of traveling such lengths and leaving my children behind. The last place I’d flown this far from home to study survival was Palestine.
I was joining my colleague, Dr. Maria Tzortziou, a distinguished professor of environmental sciences who studies the effects of climate change upon vulnerable ecosystems and communities, including the basin where the Yukon River joins the Bering Sea. This is one of the fastest warming parts of the planet, or as Maria put it, “a ground zero.” Ours was an interdisciplinary effort. While she prepared to conduct measurements with her NASA-funded research team that would capture changes in the coastline from as far as space, we’d work together gathering testimony from elders in the Native community whose tribal council office would serve as our base, having collaborated with Maria’s team for several years. To truly understand the impacts of environmental change in the coastal Arctic, Maria explained, scientific questions need to derive from the people who live there. For instance: why are the salmon dying?
To say I felt like I was traveling to the edge of Earth only indicates my bias. Technically, I wasn’t even leaving the United States. To the Yup’ik people who’ve lived through subsistence hunting and gathering in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for millennia, that region is the center. It took two days and five flights to get there, each plane smaller and later than the one preceding it:
New York to Chicago.
Chicago to Anchorage.
Anchorage to Bethel.
Bethel to Emmonak.
Emmonak to Alakanuk.
On the second of these flights, the old man seated directly behind me suffered from severe memory loss. Every few minutes, for six straight hours, he asked his companion, whom I took to be his long-suffering wife, where they were going. “Anchorage, Rafael,” she repeated. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
Three minutes later, he’d ask her again: “Where are we going?”
“I already told you,” she’d moan. “You’re not connecting the dots.”
Adding to the sense of disorientation (mine) were the pink drifts of fog lit up by the low-hanging sun, not yet set though it was late at night, because we were so far north.
On the fourth of these flights, a tiny biplane carrying more weight in mail than human cargo, I found myself buckled next to a woman in her fifties crying like an animal in a trap. She had no companion to ground her. We were about to take off. Her sobs racked her body and filled the aircraft. I knew better than to ask if she was okay, because she so clearly wasn’t. Her pain was elemental, naked, pressed up against me, unconscionable to ignore. Not since my friend Drema, keening over the loss of her dad to COVID-19 on her front stoop in Harlem, had I heard such a sound. The difference then was that we weren’t allowed to touch each other to offer comfort. I could freely offer my seatmate comfort through touch, but I hesitated, thrown off by jet lag, the weight of the moment, the weight of the era. What day was it? Where was I? What to do? What to say? Who was this woman’s tribe? Why was she mourning? Would she welcome a stranger’s intervention or prefer to be left alone? Then I remembered a piece of advice I’d been given by my mother. If there’s ever a question of whether to offer kindness to someone in pain, the answer is yes. Do it.
I laid my hand on her heaving shoulder and pressed a tissue into her clenched fist. The engine kicked up. The propellers whirred. The woman, whose name was Edna, turned her wet pained face to mine and choked, “I just heard my mother died. I’m going Emmonak to see her. But I’m too late. Why do I have this feeling that I’m all alone? Would it be all right if you hold me?”
I knew exactly how to hold her because I was a mother. Because I had been held. I stroked the side of her face, her arms, as if she were my baby. Sssshhhh, I said. The earth below was not solid, was all pocked with puddles and ponds. The delta. For the rest of this flight, I now understood, my role was to orient myself to her suffering. We needed a ritual to deliver us. I unwound the bright pink kaffiyeh from my neck and put it around Edna’s shoulders. I’d gotten it in Palestine. It wasn’t a quilt, but it would have to do. “I want you to have this because your heart is in a dark place,” I told her. “This cloth is to remind you that there is still color in the world, and when you can see it again, you will give it away to someone else.”
“Quyana,” Edna said, using one corner of the scarf to wipe her eyes. Somehow, I knew the word meant “thanks.” “I really needed the support.” Presently, her breath calmed down. We sat together in our travail until landing. Instead of saying goodbye, she asked, “It’s never going to be the same again, is it?”
“No,” I said. I told Edna I was sorry. I told her I thought I knew how she felt. “I lost my father a year ago. You feel like an orphan.”
The singing style of the slaves, which was influenced by their African heritage, was characterized by a strong emphasis on call and response, polyrhythms, syncopation, ornamentation, slides from one note to another, and repetition. Other stylistic features included body movement, hand-clapping, foot-tapping, and heterophony. This African style of song performance could not be reduced to musical notations, which explains why printed versions do not capture the peculiar flavor of the slave songs . . .
—Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion
LET ME TELL YOU what, in his lifetime, my father loved. He was always on the lookout for thin places, where the distance between heaven and earth collapses so we’re able to glimpse the divine. My father collected icons, attempts to render the human face of God. He loved the spiritual power of the Divine Liturgy. He loved the teachings of Trappist monk, mystic, theologian, and social activist Thomas Merton, who said: “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.” He loved his children. My brothers. Me. His grandchildren. My boys.
One area of his research as a renowned historian of African American religion was the retentions, or “Africanisms,” that survived the lacuna of the Middle Passage as expressions of faith among the enslaved even as they took on, or were made to take on, the master’s religion. The blue note in spirituals. The dance in the ring shout. The syncretism of a Yoruba deity with a Catholic saint. The rituals that protect a soul’s core from getting snuffed out by evil forces putting profit above life. This was the stuff that interested my father.
At his seventy-seventh birthday party, he took down the framed photos from what he called his “ancestor wall.” He was well into his diagnosis by then and had started hospice care. His hands were trembling. My stepmother had baked a German chocolate cake. The pecans in the icing reminded him of the Mississippi Delta, his home place, in the eastern floodplain where the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers join the Gulf of Mexico, increasingly a dead zone where fish are dying, though it’s just as important for you to know that this mucky region was also the birthplace of the blues. He showed us the pictures, my brothers and me and our many children who had gathered to celebrate his life, which was ending. As he named our ancestors for us and reminded us of their stories, I thought—he knows he is going to forget them. I understood to pay keen attention, lest the names be lost for good.
Agnes Damian, Arthur Chikigak, Donald Augustine, Frank Alstrom Jr., Nellie Edmund, Ragnar Alstrom, Raymond Oney, Regis Augline, Richard Agayar, Rose Isidore, Ruth Oney, Sally Leopold, Mary Ayunerak, Denis and Winifred Sheldon . . .
—List of elders, tribal council office, Alakanuk, August 2022
THE FIFTH AND FINAL flight did not include our luggage and so Maria and I arrived in Alakanuk with nothing but our questions. Maria was understandably miffed about the delay of her field equipment, but glad to be back in what she described as a “special place.” I was in a state of awe, blown away by the beauty of the wetlands—not water, not earth, but both.
A man called Theodore Hamilton was there at the runway to pick us up. “Welcome to the Yukon,” he greeted me. He gave Maria a big bear hug, pleased to see her again. She was last in Alakanuk in spring, when she started training local high school students to collect environmental samples. We climbed onto the back of his red four-wheeler. Theodore could talk, smoke, and hunt. He was a self-described “half-breed,” and by the time he drove us through low willow thickets along the muddy road to the elevated one-story plywood-sided cabin of his boss, Augusta Edmond, he’d already explained in as elegant a disquisition on ambiguous loss and traditional ecological knowledge as I’m sure I’ll ever hear: that he sees through Yup’ik eyes, that the land is his church with no walls, that he’s an outlaw in the eyes of state bureaucrats who try to impose regulations through white man’s laws thinking they know best when it’s local communities who know how to take care of the land sustainably, that his people used to hunt in quadrants in rotation across the domain to keep regeneration in balance following the seasons and the animals, that in camp, on the tundra, you have to wash town off you and get quiet, that a September moose tastes better than an August moose, that there are more moose now, that the willow trees they eat are getting taller now that there’s not enough snow, that the snow geese and cranes are the smartest birds, that there are fewer ducks now in the sloughs than before, and fewer porcupines, too, that you never used to see a beaver when he was a kid but now that the terrain is different they’re all over the place, that the fat of the black bear turns blue after the thaw when they grow drunk from eating so many blackberries, that the speck in the sky over there is a loon, that down in the lower forty-eight where they paved over the wetlands they think they know better, that the white man’s food makes you sick and the white man’s ways have poisoned the salmon, that from the headwaters to the mouth, nobody is fishing for salmon because no salmon are passing through, that things are gonna get harder, that the spring freshet used to feel like an earthquake in his heart when the ice came downriver, but not no more.
He parked in a mud puddle. We were at Augusta’s place. Augusta had been managing the tribes’ environmental protection programs for many years, with Theodore as her assistant. Like a lot of Bureau of Indian Affairs houses in that village of roughly six hundred, on account of permafrost melt, Augusta’s place was shifting. (Some homes had to be moved away from the river. Because of rapid erosion they were at risk of falling in.) And like a lot of working mothers, including me, her house was cluttered. Yet she opened her home to us as if we were family. She pulled two pairs of sweatpants out of an enormous pile of clean laundry yet to be folded for Maria and me to use as pajamas until our bags turned up. Maria asked after her kids. The sweatpants belonged to Augusta’s daughters. She had five daughters, she told us later when I asked what she feared and hoped for her children, and though it worried her to imagine—along with loss of subsistence hunting ways, the loss of the sea ice, the loss of the permafrost, the loss of the snow, and the loss of the salmon—she understood why young people might not want to stay in the village, because the village would inevitably have to move to firmer ground. But Augusta also said she was busy, she had things to do; there were two hundred boxes of meat from the Food Bank of America on the way, they would have to be distributed, so if I really wanted to know about climate change, I should talk to the elders, who remembered how it used to be before the warming began.
Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life.
—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
AFTER MY FATHER DIED, a friend introduced me to the term ambiguous loss. It seems important to mention that this friend was preoccupied by the moral question posed by the climate emergency of bringing children into this world. Ambiguous loss, my friend explained, was a theory introduced in the 1970s by social scientist Pauline Boss while researching the experience of unresolved grief among families of soldiers gone missing in the Vietnam War. This kind of loss doesn’t come with closure or clear understanding. When a loved one goes physically or mentally missing, it leaves the aggrieved unsettled, unresolved, searching for answers. It can occur, as in families scarred by the Holocaust or slavery, across generations. The therapeutic guidance for such trauma is toward building resilience. Other forms of ambiguous loss might result from incarceration, migration, divorce, miscarriage, terrorism, addiction, pandemic, climate chaos, or dementia, like my dad’s.
Indeed, by his seventy-eighth birthday party, my father had forgotten the names of our forebears. And not only their names: he had also forgotten his own name. The names of his children and grandchildren. How to feed himself. How to dress. How to write. How to read. One of the last things he remembered was the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales, which he could mouth along with my recitation, according to something like the muscle memory of that aged ballerina whose Alzheimer’s didn’t rob her of the
choreography when Swan Lake was played. Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour . . . And then, he forgot that, too.
He was not yet dead but the lambent mind I had known was gone. Did he know where he was going? “It’s okay, Dad,” I told him, reintroducing him to old photos one by one. “This is your mother, Mabel, who raised you to overcome. She brought you north to keep you safe. She went gray young and didn’t suffer fools. She took you to church every Sunday. That is you, when you were her little boy, sitting on her lap. This is her husband, your father, Albert, standing between your big sisters, Marlene and Alice. She named you after him. This is her favorite sister, your aunt Emily. You named me after her. This is her grandfather, Edward, whose mother, Mary Lloyd, was enslaved . . .” These are our people, I meant to say, from whom we come and to whom we belong.
The flexible, improvisational structure of the spirituals gave them the capacity to fit an individual slave’s specific experience into the consciousness of the group. One person’s sorrow or joy became everyone’s, through song. Singing the spirituals was therefore both an intensely personal and vividly communal experience in which an individual received consolation for sorrow and gained a heightening of joy because his experience was shared.
—Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion
ON SUNDAY I WALKED from the tribal council to Alakanuk’s Catholic church. The mud sucked at my hiking boots. It was the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Ordinary time? In two days, I’d overhear Maria reading aloud to her team an article from the Associated Press stating that “dead ice” from the rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet would eventually raise global sea levels by ten inches. We were eating a breakfast of instant oatmeal at the bustling tribal council office, having rolled up our sleeping bags so the researchers could share this vibrant space with the people employed to serve the community. “It’s just going to melt and disappear from the ice sheet,” she read. “This ice has been consigned to the ocean, regardless of what climate (emissions) scenario we take now.” Later in the article, a glaciologist at the Greenland survey described the situation as “one foot in the grave.”
“Does that mean I can stop recycling?” cracked one of the scientists, deploying gallows humor before gamely going out into the bad weather, despite the grim prognosis, to collect samples in the boat of a local called John Strongheart. Meanwhile, Augusta and Theodore were figuring out how best to get the government meat to the folks in town who could no longer live off hunting and gathering alone. The ancestors on the wall vigilantly watched our true acts of devotion.
Nearby the church stood a tide staff for measuring flood events. The high-water mark was eleven and a half feet. The recommended building elevation was a foot higher than that. The church, like the tribal council, was elevated on stilts. Jesus hung on the cross at the altar. Before the cross, wearing green robes and rain boots, stood the deacon, Denis Sheldon. He had a stooped back and a kind face. The acolyte passing out missalette hymnals was his wife, Winifred. One of the hymnals was in Yup’ik. The other hymnal was in English. In a front pew knelt Mary Ayunerak, wearing a flower print head-scarf knotted below her chin. Like Denis and Winifred Sheldon, she was an elder. I knelt beside her. Maybe because it was the start of moose hunting season, the church was otherwise empty.
The reading was from the Book of Sirach, on humility. How to live within the covenant, faithful to God in the small things. “We know this lesson is true,” Denis Sheldon confirmed in his sermon, “because we were already told by our elders to be humble. I’m glad I was born when I was, because in my childhood I was taught by elders with knowledge before the missionaries came.” On the wall behind the cross hung a fishnet with a harpoon, two eagle feather dance fans, animal skins, and a drum. Clearly, the cross had been absorbed into a larger cosmology. Jesus was only a small part of the story. Denis, Winifred, and Mary sang a song in Yup’ik. Toward the end of the Mass, I joined my voice with theirs to sing, “Go, Be Justice.” I remembered the hymn from my Catholic upbringing for this rousing lyric: “Catch the tyrants in their lies.” I liked singing that song with this congregation. When the service was over, I told them why I had come. They agreed to speak with me and Maria, back at the tribal council, the following day.
Mary Ayunerak, who has sixteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren, and whose phone number was listed on a suicide prevention poster as someone in the community available to call on for encouragement and support in times of trial, said that the Yukon didn’t used to be that wide. Her original birthplace, close by, is now underwater. “Right now, our water is dirty,” she said, “it’s so messed up, it never used to be like that. It wasn’t that warm. Used to be kind of cool. Really nice to drink out of too, from the river. We didn’t used to have sandbars down here. A lot of homes that used to be down here are gone due to the eroding. We used to get a lot of fish, wherever we set net, but now, no. We used to work together as a community to get food for the winter supply, and whatever we need, but now . . . people hardly ever go fish camping because no fish to cut. We don’t go anywhere anymore like we used to a long time ago. Fish are starting to get pus-y and they have that ugly smell, and so maybe that’s why people don’t ever hardly go out as a family anymore. We used to be able to go out and get whatever we need and eat together, connect things together. Our homes are sinking. The ground is getting soft. Our permafrost is not like it used to be long ago. We used to travel a lot and put our food that we catch under the ground in a little house-like thing where we kept our food nice and cool, but the food started to smell.”
Interested in learning how the younger generation was dealing with these changes, Maria asked if her grandkids worry. Mary Ayunerak said, “Yeah, my grandkids do.” One of them, she couldn’t remember who, asked her, “Grandma, where do you think we’ll move, like if we have to move?” And she told them, “I don’t know, I might not be here, and if I happen to be here, I’ll be too senile to know where we are. It will be up to you guys to decide.”
Winifred Sheldon picked up Mary Ayunerak’s thread on biodiversity loss: “We had some dead fish floating on the Yukon. We’re having a hard time getting the fish, and the fish is very important to us. We eat that all winter right now. And right now, it’s getting harder. It really is changing a whole lot compared to when we were small. My mom used to sew lots of boots when we were young with beaver skins for the bottom, and spotted seals for the top. I almost learned how to make the boots, but I went to high school almost five hundred miles from here and then I forgot how to do it. I had to stay with white people, and I felt uncomfortable at times because I was the only Yup’ik person there, and sometimes I would feel like, ‘Why was I born Yup’ik?’ when I was staying with them. After two years, I came home, and I never went back. I wish I had just stayed home and learned how to do things like my mom did, like sewing. I would have learned to make those boots for my grandkids or my kids when they were small.”
Denis Sheldon shared his real name before continuing his wife’s story about what had been lost. Kituuralria. He told me it means “the one who’s passing by.”
“It was a time when the whole country here was tundra,” he said, “and caribou used to come. During the fall time, they would herd the caribou toward the river, that’s when they killed what they wanted. Most of the time it was young calves because calves made the best clothing.
“There’s been a lot of changes in the sloughs and channels. Beluga whales are not as many. Some seals are not as many as they used to be. Like the spotted seals. Right now, the freeze-ups are getting later and later, and breakups are getting to be earlier and earlier. When we were young, our men did a lot of trapping for mink, otters, muskrats, foxes. In those days, when it was colder, the men would be able to cross the Yukon with their dog teams. They could see the frozen breath of the dogs in the air like smoke.
“When I see pictures like that up there,” he said, looking up at the ancestor wall of photos of the dead, some of their names passed down and echoed in the list of elders hanging by the phone, such that the tribal council office felt like a genealogy, like reading Leviticus, “they’re all people who took care of the land, the water. Like that man to the right toward the window with red suspenders—Joe Phillip.”
“That’s my father,” explained Winifred Sheldon.
“I learned a lot from him,” Denis Sheldon continued. “He would say, ‘Show respect to the animals.’ They would have fish in ceremonies and rites they did because they believed that everything has a spirit. Yeah, so our people were very spiritual. The one that they respected most is the Great Spirit of the Universe. They always told us, wherever you go, even if you’re all alone, you’re not alone, because the one who is not seen is there with you. They had many names for Him, the Great Spirit. The almighty. There were so many names they gave him. So many names. The greatest command was to get to know what He wants us to be.”
I told Denis Sheldon that I liked the sermon about humility he gave on Sunday and asked if he’d been sent to a Catholic residential school as a child, like his wife.
“Yeah,” he said, “close to one hundred miles from home.” He was eleven, the same age as my eldest, when he went away to that school. He was nineteen when he came back. He lamented, “I really missed my family when I went. Those who took care of us, some of them were not good. They mistreated us. Some of those effects . . . I can see how they affected me. I tried not to show it.”
I asked if he felt the pope’s recent apology for the church’s role in the cultural genocide that went down in the state-sponsored residential schools with mottos like, “Kill the Indian in the child”—where children like Denis and his wife, Winifred, were torn from their families, had their hair shorn, were punished for speaking their Native languages, and in many cases were psychologically, spiritually, physically, sexually abused, and even murdered, all in the name of being “civilized”—was meaningful. I didn’t ask it like that, though. I simply asked if he accepted the pope’s apology. He said yes, but also that the apology wasn’t enough. In the deacon’s view, the expression of sorrow needed to be spread to those who didn’t hear it. “Our children and grandchildren,” he said, “I think they need to know that some things happened that were not good. That affected their lives somehow.” That was how Denis Sheldon spoke about generational trauma.
“How do you reconcile the need for justice with the need for forgiveness?” I asked him. “How does your body bear it?” This was what I had come all this way to learn—What do we do with our anger? What can we do when we can’t just stop living?
“That’s easy.” The deacon smiled. His eyes had been smiling all along. Coming from someone else’s mouth, his answer may have sounded trite. But not when Denis Sheldon said it. I felt completely disarmed by Kituuralria’s qanruyutet, knowing in my bones these words of wisdom to be true: “We take care of each other.”
How do you transform and transfigure sorrow into joy? That’s the theme of the greatest Christian poet in the English language of the 19th century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. There’s no accident that Du Bois chooses her twice to invoke the epigraphs of The Souls of Black Folk. “What is it, Elizabeth?” “I’m trying to saturate Christ’s blood in my soul so that I can respond to the ceaseless wailing of suffering humanity and transform sorrow into joy.” It’s no accident that he would be the one to get inside the humanity of Black folk in white supremacist USA. From Bay St. Louis, Mississippi—Gutbucket, Jim Crow, Mississippi. Who would think that after the murder of his father he decided not to hate, not to terrorize, not to traumatize. He’s gonna be a love warrior, freedom fighter, yes. That’s what he was, but with a deep sense of humility. Deep sense of self-criticism. Oftentimes I would say, “Brother, you’re too hard on yourself.” I’m Holy Ghost Baptist so I don’t have to worry about that. We Baptists don’t have to worry about being too hard on ourselves. We need to be more humble. Brother Raboteau going through the rich Catholic tradition and went on his way to Russian Orthodoxy—condemnation of no one, absolute forgiveness of everyone, embracing humanity of everyone but always understanding that you look at the world through the lens of the cross—that’s what made my brother a saint in my eyes, ’cause for me a saint ain’t nothing but a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart. And for Christians who look at the world through the lens of the cross.
—Cornel West at Al Raboteau’s funeral, September 24, 2021
“AND THIS IS YOUR great-great-grandmother, Philomena Laneaux,” I told my children seated in the pews at my dad’s homegoing, holding up the last of the many pictures I’d brought to the altar. My inheritance. (They will go on the walls of my office now.) I didn’t want them to be afraid of the corpse, but rather to understand that he was now an ancestor too. The choir waited up in the loft of Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Church, ready to start the next hymn in a minor key. The icons surrounded us, their faces aglow. I felt a sense of communion, an old pattern of meaning I rarely had the distance to see; a web of relations spreading behind and before me. Soon we would gather round the casket, and then the grave. I finished my eulogy with a quote from Birago Diop’s “Sighs,” translated from the French, epigraph to Slave Religion.
Those who are dead are never gone:
they are there in the thickening shadow . . .
they are in the hut, they are in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.
For more information about the work that Maria Tzortziou is doing in the Arctic delta, visit https://www.arcticriverscarbon.org/.