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The island community of Chenega: Earthquake, tsunami, oil spill ... What's next?

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Small islands offer a laboratory to analyse how communities react to drastic environmental change. In particular, the small islands of Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska present a unique case study to explore how island dwellers cope with and learn from both natural and man-made disasters. This article analyses the multiple disasters faced by the island community of Chenega in the twentieth century. From an earthquake and tsunami in 1964 to an oil spill in 1989, I study how the Alutiiq people of Chenega reacted to drastic change. In addition to analysing decisions on whether to rebuild or relocate, I also investigate how the disaster affected the Alutiiq’s livelihood: commercial fishing. As the twentieth century rolled into the twenty-first, the small island community once again drew upon its experiences with disaster to cope with significant environmental change. With rising sea levels threatening the rebuilt Chenega village and declining fish populations endangering Alutiiq livelihood, tribal leaders summoned the experiences of their elders and forbears to construct a plan for the coming decades. For at least the third time in less than fifty years, changing environmental conditions forced the Alutiiq to address pressing questions about relocation and rebuilding and the future of their tribal and island identity. Ultimately, I argue that the Alutiiq used their experiences with mid-century natural disasters to react cooperatively and creatively to late twentieth and early twenty-first century manmade disasters and hazards.
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Keywords: Alutiiq; Chenega; earthquake; oil; tsunami

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2015

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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