Vi Waghiyi, an environmental justice advocate, mother, and grandmother who grew up in Savoonga, has been appointed to a federal advisory council on environmental justice.
“It is an honor, not only as a Sivuqaq Yupik grandmother and Native Village of Savoonga tribal citizen, but as an Arctic Indigenous person who has been working on environmental health and justice issues going on 19 years,” she told listeners.
Waghiyi’s home community of Savoonga has fought against pollution ever since the end of the Cold War. That’s when they learned there could be a connection between the many cases of cancer in her community and military waste on the island. In a 2017 interview with KNOM, Waghiyi shared that several members of her family have died from or struggled with cancer – including both herself and her father.
The community’s struggle led to a cleanup effort costing $123 million dollars, after polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), organochlorine, pesticides, mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals were found on the island.
Waghiyi recently described how people in the Far North can be at the receiving end of pollution created elsewhere.
“Even though we don’t have manufacturers or chemical plants, we are finding them in our backyards, in our lands and waters, in our bodies, and in our most sacred traditional foods that have sustained our people for millennia,” she said.
This means, across the Arctic, common subsistence foods are polluted. That’s in part due to jet streams that seem perfectly situated to scoop up polluted air and drop particles from across the world into the Arctic. Thanks to the process of ‘bioaccumulation’, that pollution lingers. Much of the Indigenous subsistence diet comes from animals at the top of the food chain. As those mammals eat smaller creatures, each with small amounts of toxins in them, the chemicals accumulate in the larger animals, making the meat and fat toxic for human consumption.
The advisory council was established to confront environmental injustices. With diverse participants, their hope is historically marginalized communities that have seen more pollution may have greater input. It will offer recommendations on climate change mitigation and resilience, toxins, pesticides, pollution reduction in overburdened communities, and tribal and Indigenous issues.
“It is so important because a lot of times we are never at the table when decisions are being made for us miles and miles away. This will ensure that we have a voice at the White House,” Waghiyi said.
Image at top: Viola “Vi” Waghiyi stands in front of the record wall during a visit to KNOM.