Native Alaska Village of Point Lay Hailed for Stewardship of 35,000 Walruses

Corey Accardo, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMMLThis is what 35,000 walruses look like when they do not have sea ice to rest on in the open water.

This is what 35,000 walruses look like when they do not have sea ice to rest on in the open water.


Indian Country Today



With 35,000 walruses camped out on the edge of town, the 250-population Native village of Point Lay, Alaska has been thrust onto the world stage.

And, true to their custom, the residents have stepped up—not to bask in their potential 15 minutes of fame, but to embrace their traditional role as environmental stewards.

“These locals, these people, without a lot of funding or anything, have taken on this stewardship and protection of the haulout,” said Joel Garlich-Miller, a walrus specialist for the Marine Mammals Management department of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a telephone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “They’re front-line conservationists.”

The walruses began arriving in mid-September, as they had been for the past few years. You can hear them from the village, residents said in a 2012 community workshop held with Garlich-Miller, community elders and an array of scientists. It is common for walruses to “haul out,” as it’s called, and take a break from feeding in the open sea, usually by pulling themselves onto ice floes. But with the summer ice extent dwindling drastically in the Arctic, a growing number have had to settle for land.

RELATED: Video: Watch Thousands of Walruses Forced Onto Alaskan Shores by Climate Change

This has been happening off and on for years, but of late it has become much more pronounced. On September 30, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted their annual flyover to observe Alaska’s marine wildlife from the air. Catching sight of the mass of walruses clustered onto a sliver of northwestern Alaska coast, they snapped some spectacular photos and posted them on the web, noting that a lack of sea ice had forced walruses onto land.

With all the attention being paid to climate change over the past couple of weeks, between the People’s Climate March of September 21 and the United Nations Climate Summit two days later, the world’s attention was riveted. The sea ice had reached its lowest extent for the year a couple of weeks earlier, on September 17, the sixth-lowest minimum on record, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the WWF’s Arctic program, in a statement on September 18. “The sharp decline of Arctic sea ice over the last decade means major changes for wildlife and communities alike. Today’s news about the sea ice minimum is yet another reminder of the urgent need to ratchet down global greenhouse gas emissions—the main human factor driving massive climate change.”

The walrus, Garlich-Miller explained, is “typically considered an ice-dependent species.” They are not suited to an open-water lifestyle and must periodically haul out to rest.

“Traditionally during the summer months, broken sea ice has persisted through the Chukchi Sea during the entire summer, and walruses have typically remained offshore,” he said in a conference call with reporters on October 1.


Photo: Corey Accardo, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML
Photo: Corey Accardo, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML


But in recent years, Garlich-Muller said, the Chukchi Sea has become entirely ice-free by the end of summer. The number of walruses seen on shore has been growing. Nowadays, he said, tens of thousands of walruses haul out regularly in Russia as well. Numerous researchers have been monitoring this since its exacerbation, but the phenomenon of land haulouts is nothing new. What is new is the extent of their use of land, researchers said.

“Walrus have always hauled out on land, in small numbers in Alaska, and in much larger groups (tens of thousands) in Russia,” said anthropologist and Arctic researcher Henry Huntington to ICTMN in an e-mail. “The large haulout at Point Lay started in 2007, and has occurred most years since then, except when sea ice has persisted in the Chukchi Sea. So this is a relatively new phenomenon, and is almost certainly related to the loss of summer sea ice (meaning the ice is too far from shallow waters where walrus can feed, so they instead move to land in late summer/early fall when the ice is at is smallest extent).”

The concern now, Garlich-Muller said, is the walruses’ safety. A few problems arise when they’re on land that tend not to plague them on the ice. For one thing, there are more predators lurking. For another, the walruses are in much more crowded conditions, which can facilitate the spread of disease. Moreover, disturbing them causes the potential for stampedes, which could injure or kill the animals, especially the calves. Their vulnerability, Garlich-Muller said, is proportional to the size of the herd.

What disturbs them? Gunfire, aircraft, predators such as polar and grizzly bears, and human activity. Minimizing disturbance has become a major focus of the USFWS office in Alaska over the past few years, Garlich-Miller told reporters.

This is where Point Lay comes in.

“Some of the best and most successful conservation efforts that we’ve seen to date have occurred at the local level,” Garlich-Miller told reporters on October 1. “The community of Point Lay in particular has shown a great stewardship ethic at the haulout. They’ve sort of taken it under their wing. They’ve worked with the local flights in and out of their community to reroute aircraft landing and takeoff routes. The community, when walruses are present they work with their tribal members not to motor by the haulout with boats. They’ve changed their hunting patterns—although they are a subsistence-hunting community and legally entitled to hunt walruses, they’ve refrained from hunting at these large haulouts, where disturbance events can lead to lots of unnecessary mortality.”

Point Lay officials fended off reporters’ requests for visits and interviews. They were too busy protecting the herd.

“The Native VIllage of Point Lay IRA Council respectfully declines any interviews at this present time,” the village’s offices said in an e-mail to Indian Country Today Media Network. “We, as a tribe, did not wish for this event to be so widely publicized. Our community is a small, close knit, subsistence only community.”

Regardless, they remain the unsung heroes of the walrus haulout.



A Village Invents a Language All Its Own

Linguist Carmel O'Shannessy, back left, with Gracie White Napaljarri, who is a Warlpiri speaker but children in her extended family speak both Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri. Photo: Noressa White via The New York Times
Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy, back left, with Gracie White Napaljarri, who is a Warlpiri speaker but children in her extended family speak both Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri. Photo: Noressa White via The New York Times

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

Everyone in Lajamanu also speaks “strong” Warlpiri, an aboriginal language unrelated to English and shared with about 4,000 people in several Australian villages. Many also speak Kriol, an English-based creole developed in the late 19th century and widely spoken in northern Australia among aboriginal people of many different native languages.

Lajamanu parents are happy to have their children learn English for use in the wider world, but eager to preserve Warlpiri as the language of their culture.

Lajamanu’s isolation may have something to do with the creation of a new way of speaking. The village is about 550 miles south of Darwin, and the nearest commercial center is Katherine, about 340 miles north. There are no completely paved roads.

An airplane, one of seven owned by Lajamanu Air, a community-managed airline, lands on the village’s dirt airstrip twice a week carrying mail from Katherine, and once a week a truck brings food and supplies sold in the village’s only store. A diesel generator and a solar energy plant supply electricity.

The village was established by the Australian government in 1948, without the consent of the people who would inhabit it. The native affairs branch of the federal government, concerned about overcrowding and drought in Yuendumu, forcibly removed 550 people from there to what would become Lajamanu. At least twice, the group walked all the way back to Yuendumu, only to be retransported when they arrived.

Contact with English is quite recent. “These people were hunters and gatherers, roaming over a territory,” said Dr. O’Shannessy. “But then along came white people, cattle stations, mines, and so on. People were kind of forced to stop hunting and gathering.”

By the 1970s, villagers had resigned themselves to their new home, and the Lajamanu Council had been set up as a self-governing community authority, the first in the Northern Territory. In the 2006 census, almost half the population was under 20, and the Australian government estimates that by 2026 the number of indigenous people 15 to 64 will increase to 650 from about 440 today.

Dr. O’Shannessy, who started investigating the language in 2002, spends three to eight weeks a year in Lajamanu. She speaks and understands both Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri, but is not fluent.

People in Lajamanu often engage in what linguists call code-switching, mixing languages together or changing from one to another as they speak. And many words in Light Warlpiri are derived from English or Kriol.

But Light Warlpiri is not simply a combination of words from different languages. Peter Bakker, an associate professor of linguistics at Aarhus University in Denmark who has published widely on language development, says Light Warlpiri cannot be a pidgin, because a pidgin has no native speakers. Nor can it be a creole, because a creole is a new language that combines two separate tongues.

“These young people have developed something entirely new,” he said. “Light Warlpiri is clearly a mother tongue.”

Dr. O’Shannessy offers this example, spoken by a 4-year-old: Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria. (We also saw worms at my house.)

It is easy enough to see several nouns derived from English. But the -ria ending on “aus” (house) means “in” or “at,” and it comes from Warlpiri. The -m ending on the verb “si” (see) indicates that the event is either happening now or has already happened, a “present or past but not future” tense that does not exist in English or Warlpiri. This is a way of talking so different from either Walpiri or Kriol that it constitutes a new language.

The development of the language, Dr. O’Shannessy says, was a two-step process. It began with parents using baby talk with their children in a combination of the three languages. But then the children took that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations to the syntax, especially in the use of verb structures, that are not present in any of the source languages.

Why a new language developed at this time and in this place is not entirely clear. It was not a case of people needing to communicate when they have no common language, a situation that can give rise to pidgin or creole.

Dr. Bakker says that new languages are discovered from time to time, but until now no one has been there at the beginning to see a language develop from children’s speech.

Dr. O’Shannessy suggests that subtle forces may be at work. “I think that identity plays a role,” she said. “After children created the new system, it has since become a marker of their identity as being young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community.”

The language is now so well established among young people that there is some question about the survival of strong Warlpiri. “How long the kids will keep multilingualism, I don’t know,” Dr. O’Shannessy said. “The elders would like to preserve Warlpiri, but I’m not sure it will be. Light Warlpiri seems quite robust.”