President of Alaska Native village highlights threat to community

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: President Millie Hawley introduces President Barack Obama

The leader of an Alaska tribe warned the nation of the dangers facing her community as she introduced President Barack Obama during his historic visit to the Arctic on Wednesday.

President Millie Hawley of Kivalina said her village could be swallowed up by the Arctic sea. Rising water levels have placed the eight-mile island in imminent danger of destruction.

"As it stands now, my current home may not exist 10 years from now," Hawley said as she introduced Obama before his speech in Kotzebue, another Arctic community.

Hawley traced the problem to climate change. Her tribe sued huge energy companies like ExxonMobil for contributing to rising temperatures but the case was dismissed when a federal judge concluded that the issue was best resolved through the political, rather than legal, process.

YouTube: President Obama Speaks on Energy Policy

"As citizens of America, my people still live in conditions the rest of America considers third world," Hawley said. "We're also on the front lines of climate change with erosion impacting our community in a very serious way."

Attempts to revive the lawsuit were unsuccessful and the tribe has yet to secure full funding to relocate to higher ground. But Obama, who flew over Kivalina on his way to Kotzebue, insisted help was on the way.

"If we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between 6 and 12 degrees by the end of the century," Obama said in his speech at Kotzebue High School. "That means more melting, more fires, more erosion, more thawing of the permafrost, more warming after that. And that threatens all of us with hardship, not just people up north."

Obama said the Denali Commission will serve as the "central coordinator" to help communities in Alaska address climate change. But while he promised $2 million to support relocation efforts, the amount falls significantly short of the funds needed to help Kivalina -- a 2006 master plan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated costs from $155 million to $252 million.

An aerial view of Kivalina in Alaska. Photo from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia

"Think about it -- if another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect it," Obama said. "Well, climate change poses the same threat right now."

Kivalina isn't the only Alaska community in danger, either. The village of Newtok is trying to relocate to avoid constant flooding but an internal leadership dispute has stalled progress.

According to a 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office, 86 percent of Native villages surveyed suffer from long-standing and seasonal environmental threats. A follow-up report from 2009 said "limited progress" has been made.

A big part of the problem a lack of funding. But the GAO also pointed out that there doesn't appear to be a single agency or program with the authority to move any of the villages, an issue that Obama hopes to address by putting the Denali Commission in charge.

President Barack Obama met Alannah Hurley, the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, left, and elder Mae Syvrud during his visit to Dillingham in Bristol Bay. September 2, 2015. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

"Whether we live in the Arctic Circle or on the Hawaiian Islands, whether we’re in big cities or small towns -- we’re one people," Obama said. "And our future is only as good as the efforts that we put into it."

Obama's speech in Kotzebue came on the last day of his historic three-day trip to the 49th state. He arrived in Anchorage on Monday. He met with Native leaders at a roundtable and delivered remarks to the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, where he discussed the dangers facing Native communities due to climate change.

On Tuesday, Obama visited Seward. He hiked to Exit Glacier and toured Kenai Fjords National Park.

Before heading to Kotzebue yesterday, Obama visited Dillingham in Bristol Bay. He met local fishermen -- including Alannah Hurley, the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, and elder Mae Syvrud -- at Kanakanak Beach.

The president also attended a cultural performance at Dillingham Middle School. But he didn't just watch -- he participated in a Yup'ik dance with youth from the community.

President Barack Obama joins a Yup'ik dance with youth at the Dillingham Middle School in Dillingham, Alaska, on September 2, 2015. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

"I've been practicing," Obama said as he joined in during the last song of the performance.

"Keep up your traditions, even as you go out into the big world and learn," Obama told the youth.

Government Accountability Office Reports:
2003: Alaska Native Villages: Most Are Affected by Flooding and Erosion, but Few Qualify for Federal Assistance | 2009: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion

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