Twenty miles from the Bering Sea Coast, along the Ninglick River, sits the Native Village of Newtok, or Niuqtaq in Yup’ik. For over two thousand years, the ancestors of the Newtok people traveled seasonally in order to be close to the animals and vegetation on which they subsisted.
The village of Newtok was first documented in the 1949 U.S. Geologic Survey. In the 1950s when The Bureau of Indian Affairs began building schools for the tribes in rural Alaska, a site was selected across the river from where the group had settled. In 1958, the school was erected. At that time most village residents were living in sod huts. Newtok was just the winter settling place then, and every spring before the river ice broke, they would travel across the river to Nelson island where they set up summer tents.
In 1959, state legislation required all high school-aged students to go to boarding schools in bigger towns around the state and even in the lower 48. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with the signing of the Tobeluck Consent Decree, that a high school was built in Newtok, and over the next few decades the village slowly grew around the school. Today, Newtok’s infrastructure includes the school, a small store, a clinic, a tribal office, an airstrip, and approximately 40 homes connected by a network of boardwalks.
The village is a lively place. During cold winter evenings, the community gathers in the tribal office for bingo nights and traditional Yup’ik dances, sometimes with dancers from other villages. In the summer, adults and elders teach the youth skills such as sewing, beading, and carving. The village still follows a primarily subsistence lifestyle, hunting, fishing, and gathering.
Not long after the village was established, the people of Newtok realized that the distant riverbank was eroding very quickly. In 1983, they received funding from the State of Alaska to have an assessment of the erosion problem. Aerial photographs of the river were compared across 30 years, revealing that the north bank was losing ground at the rate of 19-88 ft per year. As the climate warms, permafrost melts and storm surges increase, destabilizing the ground and increasing the rate of erosion. One longtime resident remarked that as a child she couldn’t see water from her house at the edge of the village, not even if she squinted. Now, the river water laps menacingly just 80 feet from her back porch. Her home will be one of the first to go. To try and hold back the river would be expensive and futile to say the least- it was decided that relocation is the only option.
For more information on the relocation history and progress visit the Newtok Planning Group Website.
Of interest: In November 2015, the Newtok underwent a change in leadership. Paul Charles became president after the current Newtok Village Council and the Village of Newtok filed an injunction against members of the previous council.