Returning to Fort Yukon by Paul Thompson

Returning to Fort Yukon

Fort Yukon

Fort Yukon

In October 2014, after many years away, I returned for a visit to Fort Yukon, Alaska, where I had lived for several years.  The day I arrived a fundraising event was being held for a woman with cancer with whom I had worked with the school district in the past.  I learned that various other people I had known had died of cancer or currently had cancer.  Another thing I learned soon after arriving in Fort Yukon was that there was a moratorium on taking salmon from the Yukon River.  When I lived in Fort Yukon, people used fish wheels to catch salmon, which was an important source of food.  When I visited the nearby village of Venetie a few days later, I learned about the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.  This group was formed in 1997 by seventy-three Canadian First Nation and Alaska Native Tribes that live along the Yukon River and its tributaries. The goal of the Watershed Council is to have all of the water in the Yukon River watershed be drinkable within fifty years.

On the Watershed Council website, there are many reports, presentations, and video recordings of meetings giving information about the Council’s work.  Progress is being made on cleaning the watershed, which has suffered much pollution from the Yukon Gold Rush beginning in 1896, through the construction of the Alaska Highway through Canada and Alaska during World War II, and the construction and operation of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line of radars during the Cold War.  These radars were deployed across the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic to detect incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.  In 2011, one of the founders of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, Clarence Alexander, who in 1997 was first chief of Fort Yukon, received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama, in part for his work on the Council.  It was noted that Alexander had worked extensively to clean up the Yukon River, resulting in the closure of numerous open-burning dumps and the removal or recycling of millions pounds of waste.

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(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Although one might think that high rates of cancer among Alaska Natives might be due, at least in part, to such river pollution, when I asked a biomedical researcher in Fairbanks, I was told that one of the main factors was the atmospheric nuclear weapon testing that took part during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Radioactive fallout deposited on the Alaskan Arctic tundra was absorbed very efficiently by lichen, the main food of the caribou.  The caribou, in turn are a main part of the diet of Alaska Natives living in the Arctic.  Cancer researchers, though, that I spoke with did not think that this radioactive fallout alone could explain the high cancer rates.

In January 2016, I attended a presentation at Dartmouth College given by Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Okalik Eegeesiak, both Canadian Inuits.  Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a former Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), spoke about her memoir, The Right to Be Cold:  One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet.  Okalik Eegeesiak is the current chair of the ICC.  From their presentation and from reading Watt-Cloutier’s memoir, I learned that another cause of the high rates of cancer and other illnesses among Inuit and other residents of the Arctic and sub-Arctic are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) which are created around the world, but which through wind and ocean currents wind up in the Arctic food web, contaminating water and the environment more generally.

The ICC has studied food security extensively.  Another aspect of food security related to water is the changing thickness, extent, formation, and breakup of sea ice.

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The image above is from the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska. 2015. Alaskan Inuit Food Security Conceptual Framework: How to Assess the Arctic From an Inuit Perspective. Technical Report. Anchorage, AK.

Pollution in the Yukon River Watershed, and throughout the Arctic, is making the water undrinkable, contaminating the food supply, and causing cancer.  Aside from pollution, global warming is having an effect on Arctic sea ice, which is also affecting food security.

Paul Thompson received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked in the field of information studies for over 25 years. He has published numerous papers, journal articles, and book chapters, and has served as a reviewer for various conferences, journals, and the National Science Foundation. From 1986-1988, he was an assistant professor at Drexel University’s College of Information Studies. From 1988-1993, he was a member of PRC, Inc.’s (now part of Northrop Grumman) artificial intelligence development group, where he conducted research in natural language understanding and information retrieval. From 1993 until 2001, he worked for West Publishing Company (now West Group), conducting research on natural language understanding, information retrieval, machine learning / text categorization, and text mining. After joining Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and Institute for Security, Technology, and Society in 2001, he continued his earlier research and began new research in the areas of semantic hacking, the application of Semantic Web technology to sensor networks, and question answering. He is currently an instructor in the Department of Genetics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.  His current research focus is in predicting health outcomes, computational linguistics, and information retrieval.

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