By Libby Casey
From Ethiopia to the Himalayas to Alaska, indigenous people are experiencing the affects of a changing climate. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is sharing their experiences in an exhibit called, “Conversations with the Earth.” And it includes photos and stories from Alaska’s Arctic Village.
French photographer Nicolas Villaume traveled far to take the pictures in the Smithsonian exhibit Conversations with the Earth. His stops included Brazil, Peru and India. But one of the most unique places, he says, was Arctic Village, on the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
When you look at it on the map, it’s a long way. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful, it’s nature, you know, ooh, a pure state of nature.
Villaume documented the local ecosystems of 15 tribal communities in more than a dozen countries and how people are coping with climate change.
The whole idea of Conversations with the Earth is to try to bring the voices, and to bring the conversations to the other people. So that’s why in some moments also we also do some recordings of the voices. So it’s all dealing with proximity of people, trust, and they explain what they see what they experience.
One of the Alaskans profiled is Gwich’in leader Sarah James. The exhibit shows a big, close-up portrait of her looking directly into the camera – and at the viewer – through her thin glasses. Silvery hair frames her face. You can also hear her story, in her own words, by pressing a button near the photo.
James was recently in Washington for the exhibit’s opening and said she likes the way the global exhibit comes together.
As a whole it’s very nicely done. And the story along with it is really really good because as you go into the exhibit it just goes on and on and how these people see climate change and global warming, how it’s affecting them, and they’re always looking for a solution too. I thought that was really good when they’re looking at solution.
One photo shows the grand winter landscape of Arctic Village, dotted in the foreground with leaning trees.
They call it a drunken tree in Alaska because a lot of the permafrost is melting under it, and it’s not standing up straight anymore, lot of trees.
Nicolas Villaume had some adventures getting the pictures, like going out on a caribou hunt. One photo shows Gwich’in hunter Jimmy John warming himself by the fire at his winter camp. The embers crackle and snowflakes pop in the foreground. You can feel how cold it is. A nearby tent glows, lit from within, against the dark blue sky.
SARAH: I grew up living in that kind of wall tent we call it. And we put a little stove in there, you’ll see it later. We cook in there. But if it’s really cold, like they were out 30 below that means, his back is pretty cold. But front is warm, that’s what it is right now.
NICHOLAS; And the problem is it’s very hot when you put some wood but in the middle of the night the no wood’s burning. Then you’re freezing. You wake up with some ice around you. Those guys are tough. Me I’m a Frenchman, it was stronger but really a great experience.
And despite the cold of late winter in Arctic Village, Villaume found warmth:
The heart of the people, they keep you warm, and the caribou meat also keep you warm. You eat caribou meat in the morning, the afternoon, the night. It’s very nutritive. Big stuff.
The Gwich’in call themselves the caribou people, and they say their way of life – and the caribou on which they survive – are threatened by climate change. As lakes dry up plant life dies, and the caribou may change their migration patterns. So the Arctic Village community opened itself up to Nicolas Villaume and his camera as a way to spread the word.
In total he documents six ecosystems in the Smithsonian exhibit. Another is the Zanskari people in the Himalayas who have become, in Villaume’s words, “climate refugees” as they move in search of fresh water.
And the problem there is a glacier melting, and the community have to change the traditional village, abandon the traditional village, they have to abandon their traditional village and settle in different places. Imagine the changes in mind, in the way of behaving. And the way of knowing your environment, you have to move and adapt. It’s kind of a climate refuge in a way. It’s going to be more and more like that.
Villaume says it’s important to him as a photographer not to just take from his subjects, so he’s shared the photos with them. And the indigenous communities are equal partners in the exhibit.
All of them hope he’s not documenting a way of life that’s on its way out. They hope instead that it’s capturing a moment in their stories of survival.
“Conversations with the Earth” is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian until January.