Young Alaskan Sees Changing Way of Life Matthew Gilbert could have a front-row seat on climate change if he chooses to stay and watch. The 28-year-old lives in Arctic Village, Alaska, where village elders point to evidence of climate warming.

Young Alaskan Sees Changing Way of Life

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Matthew Gilbert lives in one of America's most remote places Arctic Village. It's in Alaska's far north and borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For decades, the native Alaskans there fought to keep the refuge free from oil drilling. Now, the 28-year-old carries on the traditional of environmentalism. Libby Casey reports from member station KUAC about what Matthew Gilbert is doing to fight global warming.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LIBBY CASEY: No roads connect Arctic Village to the outside world, and at this time of year only one plane lands daily. Matthew Gilbert has spent most of his life here. Every day, he walks over to his grandparents' house to have coffee and to help with chores.

Mr. MATTHEW GILBERT (Resident, Arctic Village, Alaska): My grandparents raised me. My grandma took care of me and made sure I brush my teeth and stuff.

CASEY: His grandmother, Mary(ph), bakes bread by a crackling wood stove while his grandfather, Reverend Trimble Gilbert, welcomes visitors.

Reverend TRIMBLE GILBERT (Resident, Arctic Village, Alaska): You should eat some bread down there, grease bread. I had a couple before you come in.

CASEY: Trimble Gilbert is 72 years old and a respected elder among the Gwich'in Athabascan, or Caribou People. His tribe has always relied on the caribou, and now, Gilbert says, the wildlife depends on them.

Rev. GILBERT: That animal, they can't talk for themselves, but we can talk for them. So that's what the old people said, you have to say something for the animal.

CASEY: A few years ago, Trimble Gilbert told his grandson that martens, weasel-like animals, were coming closer to the village than they ever had before. Elders said it was because of so many forest fires, which they blamed on the land drying out. Matthew wanted to find out why it was happening.

Mr. GILBERT: I got to know how much my Gwich'in people know about the earth and the weather, and they know a lot about the littlest stuff to the biggest stuff.

CASEY: The summer after he finished college, Matthew got two grants from environmental groups. They paid him to interview elders and hunters about how Alaska was changing. He consulted scientists and read reports, but he was unprepared for the wealth of his own people's knowledge.

Mr. GILBERT: Just graduated from college, I thought I knew everything, and you know, they quickly humbled me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: How so?

Mr. GILBERT: I felt like traditional knowledge could fill in, like, holes and gaps here and there. You know, that's how I thought of it when I first approached it, but then I was quickly proven wrong when I was talking to the traditional leaders like my grandpa.

CASEY: Matthew gave the elders maps and had them sketch out migration routes and waterfowl habitat. They showed him how their hunting camps and traplines were moving.

Mr. GILBERT: Native people out there in rural areas of Alaska are year-round observers, you know? I mean, if there's a new plant coming in or a new animal, they'll be the first to see it, and they'll notice, like, subtle things, you know, like changes in blueberries, whereas some scientist in an office in Fairbanks, they're not going to notice something like that, you know, no matter how good their satellite is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: We go outside, where Matthew points out the kinds of things elders were noticing, things he says show how the earth is warming up.

Mr. GILBERT: We're looking at a lake down by the end of the airport where my friends and I used to hunt for pike, and my grandpa used to shoot ducks from there. But as you can see, it's drying out. You see bushes all over the lake area. You see those bushes? That shows you that there's land there. So this is a subsistence lake that we're going to lose, like, maybe in the next 10 years or so.

CASEY: If the lakes dry up, the fish go, the migratory birds and the caribou move on, and that throws the Gwich'in lifestyle into doubt.

(Soundbite of snowmobile engine)

CASEY: To get anywhere outside the village, Matthew jumps on his snowmobile. The Gwich'in used the frozen rivers and lakes as super-highways. But in recent years, Matthew says the spring breakup has been erratic.

Mr. GILBERT: Ice conditions are getting a lot less predictable because of global warming. My grandpa's trying to send a message out to all the guys to be careful when they go out. You have to cross over to get anywhere, like to get animals, timber, anything.

CASEY: Matthew rides five miles out to the best place to gather firewood, the base of Thaa it'sii, or Ground Squirrel Mountain. With fuel prices above $8 a gallon, everyone chops their own wood. He wades through thigh-deep snow to find the right trees.

Mr. GILBERT: Native people, at least from my upbringing, we don't usually like to make noise when we're out in the woods. We know that chainsaw's necessary, but we like to stay quiet. I guess it's a sign of respect or something.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

Mr. GILBERT: It's a real workout.

CASEY: Matthew loads the dry spruce onto a toboggan hooked to his snowmobile.

(Soundbite of heavy breathing)

Mr. GILBERT: It's a full-time job to live here because it takes all your energy to get wood, get water, because you have to go down to the river, and you have to bring a bucket and fill up a tank, and you have to get a caribou, which is just as hard as getting wood, and you have to do stuff like that almost every week, sometimes every day.

CASEY: Matthew's cabin doesn't have running water, much less Internet. His grandfather, Trimble Gilbert, says he knows it's hard for young people to stay in the village, but he hopes Matthew does.

Rev. GILBERT: He tried to learn from the elders. That's where he got that education, from hanging around with them. I'm pretty sure he's going use it. He's going to learn more and more traditionally, and then we need him so he can help his own people.

CASEY: Matthew doesn't say anything when his grandfather finishes speaking. It's a lot of weight on a young man's shoulders. He's one of only about 15 college graduates in the village of 150 people.

Matthew misses the ease of big cities, their exotic restaurants and fresh vegetables. He wants to travel and see the world and hopes to start a master's program in rural development in the fall. But he says maybe he can take correspondence classes and stay at home because if he left, there are a lot of things he'd miss.

Mr. GILBERT: A lot of freedom, you know? I mean, your playground's like the sky's the limit, you know, and I realized that a couple years ago, you know? I was like, I'm really thankful I grew up Arctic Village.

CASEY: It's a world that Matthew Gilbert hopes is around forever. For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey in Arctic Village.

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