On the morning of Nov. 8, Esau Sinnok voted in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. For the 19-year-old from Shishmaref, Alaska, voting was a deeply personal experience. “The leaders that we elect today are the ones who will lead us in this climate change movement, who will make decisions that will affect not only my generation but the future generation,” Sinnok told Arctic Deeply, shortly after he cast his vote.
The inhabitants of his village of Shishmaref – an Iñupiat community on Sarichef, a barrier island on the west coast of Alaska – voted in August to relocate to the mainland. Shishmaref is facing evacuation, as shrinking sea ice and thawing permafrost along its coast have made the shoreline more vulnerable to erosion.
Sinnok has been a powerful voice in his community since he was young. He represented his community at the United Nations climate summit in Paris last year and is an Arctic Youth Ambassador with the U.S. Department of the Interior. Sinnok had just finished high school at the time of the relocation vote and is now in his first year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This summer, he was one of 10 people selected by the White House as a Champion of Change for Climate Equity.
Arctic Deeply spoke with Sinnok on Nov. 8 as part of our project highlighting the work of emerging leaders in the Arctic.
Arctic Deeply: What are you working on?
Esau Sinnok: I’m currently studying at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, majoring in tribal management and rural development, with a concentration in community health and wellness. I want to learn how to manage the tribe and run budgets to become an effective leader, hopefully go back to Shishmaref, run as the president of the tribal council and help out with the relocation efforts.
As part of the rural development program, we focus on community health and wellness, which will help me get a better understanding of the wellbeing of Shishmaref and other rural communities all across Alaska. I want to run for governor of Alaska by the year 2030, when I become eligible. If not then, definitely in 2034 or 2038.
Arctic Deeply: Could you tell me a bit more about the relocation?
Sinnok: Ever since the 1950s and 1960s, Shishmaref has been feeling the effects of climate change. We’ve lost a huge amount of land since then and keep losing more because of coastal erosion, storm surges and flooding. In the next few decades, Shishmaref will disappear under water. It is one of 231 communities across Alaska being drastically affected by climate change.
Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?
Sinnok: My uncle Norman was, and still is, the biggest motivation for me. I grew up with him; I remember going hunting and egg hunting with him, and visiting him with my grandparents in Fairbanks when he used to live here. He made my childhood awesome. But on June 2, 2007, together with a few friends, he went out on snow machines to the mainland. When they were coming back, my uncle Norman fell through the ice and lost his life. My grandfather told us that the ice used to be frozen up where he fell through. So climate change affects me and my family personally.
The cries and voices of my people, the 600 people living in Shishmaref, need to be heard. We will soon be without a home. It’s crazy to think that your one and only home will be under water in the next two or three decades. I feel very passionate about telling my story, because it needs to be told. Our voices need to be heard and climate change needs to be addressed, not only in this state, but nationwide and all over the world. The leaders that we elect today are the ones who will lead us in this climate change movement, who will make decisions that will affect not only my generation but future generations.
Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?
Sinnok: I’d like to see more renewable energy in villages in rural communities, so they can rely less on fossil fuels to heat their homes or to power the electricity in their schools. Transitioning to renewable energy is the only smart decision, not only for my future but for the next seven generations. Whenever I make decisions, I always think of the next seven generations, the next leaders, the next Esau Sinnok Juniors.
I’d like to see an end to discussions about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore drilling. Our 10,000-year-old culture has been living off the land and the sea. An oil spill would put our diet, our identity, on hold because the animals and the fields would be greatly affected.
I’d also like to see the implementation of language revitalization programs so that the diverse native languages of Alaska, such as Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Alutiiq, can be learned and earned from.
We need to address alcohol substance abuse, child and sexual abuse, so that the future generations don’t have find themselves in that environment any more, but rather grow up in a healthy, peaceful and safe environment.
This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more here:
Sixteen Young Leaders Who Will Influence the Future of the Arctic