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Healer, Charismatic Leader and Advocate
Annie was born, in 1925, the daughter of Horst and Olga Akeya. She was born in Savoonga, a Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island located in the northern Bering Sea forty miles from Russia. She grew up there with 5 sisters and 3 brothers – Agatha Mokiyuk (nee Akeya), Barbara Kogassagoon (nee Akeya), Helen Kiyukhook (nee Akeya), Lila Akeya, Sarah Tate (nee Akeya), Alexander Akeya, Calvin Akeya and David Akeya. She married in 1944 to Jackson. He died 1 year later. In 1945 she married Nelson Alowa. Their children are Christina, Jeannette, Julius, Richard, Roland, Rose, Sheldon and Timothy.
During the summer the family spent most of their time at their hunting and trapping camp, known as Tamniq. Alowa loved to cook and was always cooking, for everyone. Picking berries and sewing were two of her favorite pastimes. She was known for her skill as a traditional skin sewer and as an artist for her doll making.
Education was very important to Alowa and always made her children take their school work to camp. Her daughter Christine said, “She was a hard teacher”.
During the period 1955-1956, Alowa became a midwife, tending women in childbirth. She was first trained by Harriet Penayah, another healer in her Savoonga community. Her first training was at the hospital in Kotzebue. Beginning in 1971 she received training by the Norton Sound Health Corporation in Nome through the Community Health Aide Program (CHAP). At first village healers on St. Lawrence Island worked largely on their own as midwives. They were first responders for all health issues. They identified tuberculosis and treated accidental injuries and other health problems suffered in the community. Later when telephone service was installed, the health aides received more immediate support from physicians in Nome.
Alowa moved to Northeast Cape, St. Lawrence Island from 1963 to 1970 and continued her work as a community health aide, while maintaining a paying job at the Air Force base. She received no compensation for being a health aide. Annie worked as a health aide for thirteen years. First she served as a volunteer traditional healer; and (later) as a Village Health Aide for Savoonga.
In 1952, the U.S. Air Force established a base at Northeast Cape on the Island. When the military vacated Northeast Cape in 1972, they left at least thirty-four polluted sites in a nine-mile-square area which included a building complex, transformers, and large bales of copper wire left behind on the surface. She later learned other hazardous materials were buried at the site, including asbestos, PCBs, pesticides, solvents, lead-based paint, fuel tanks, and barrels full of lubricants and fuel. Two decades later Alowa began to notice serious health problems among Island residents who lived, worked, and harvested marine mammals, greens, berries, fish, and reindeer from the Northeast Cape area. For the first time, she began to see cancer among her people as well as significant increases in low birth-weight infants and miscarriages.
She became concerned these hazardous materials posed a long-term health risk for island residents and began to address these concerns with the Alaska delegation. Alowa attempted for twenty years to get the military to clean up Northeast Cape to no avail. When she visited friends and family in Anchorage, she went to the government for assistance to appeal for help. She was repeatedly sent from one state and federal agency to another without a hearing. Eventually Alowa met Pamela Miller in spring of 1997 at a Greenpeace-sponsored environmental health conference. That summer, Greenpeace flew her and Pam from Savoonga by helicopter to Northeast Cape to examine the abandoned military site and to take environmental samples and photographs.
In 1982, government contractors noted that one of several barrel dumps contained more than 29,500 rusted drums; they reported miles of wire littering the landscape which had trapped and killed reindeer by starvation. Much of the contamination at Northeast Cape was caused by transformers and fuels, including large volume spills from accidental puncturing of above ground storage tanks. The government contractors reported at least 220,000 gallons of spilt fuels, as well as heavy metals, asbestos, solvents, and PCBs (a known carcinogen).
In 1998, after Miller founded Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), Alowa went with Miller to meet with a colonel of the Army Corps of Engineers to urge him to clean up the site. Seventy-three year old Alowa spoke quietly but eloquently about the thirteen people in her village who died of cancer in the past few years, all of whom had lived and gathered wild foods from the Northeast Cape area. But the colonel was inattentive and rudely dismissed her concerns. As he rushed them out the door, he stated that St. Lawrence Island was low on the list for cleanup. Before Alowa returned home to Savoonga, she and Miller discussed strategies to get the abandoned site cleaned up. Following her year of work to raise attention and awareness the Northeast Cape sure went from near the bottom of the priorities list for cleanup to the top. Although there is much yet to be done to restore the lands and waters at Northeast Cape, the Corps has spent $123 million on the cleanup thus far. This would not have been done without Alowa’s work.
As part of their strategy, she participated in a December 1998 conference at a Mat-Su Valley venue sponsored by the Alaska Women’s Environmental Network (AWEN). She described the plight of her people. During the conference, she became seriously ill and had to leave. A week later at an Anchorage hospital, Alowa was diagnosed with liver cancer; her previously diagnosed breast cancer was still in remission. Preparing to go home to die surrounded by family, she realized she probably would never return to Anchorage; so she asked Miller to interview her about her concerns. Miller videotaped her as she sat at a kitchen table sipping tea and telling her story. Alowa listed the names of the families who were dying of cancer—those who hunted and fished at Northeast Cape. She asked that the agencies come to Northeast Cape and clean it up, but warned that her people and agency officials should avoid conflict and work together to make things right. She acknowledged that she had cancer, as her family was one of those who are from the Northeast Cape area, but she did not give up trying to get help for her community, even though she knew that she was dying. She said to Miller during the interview, “I will fight until I melt.”
Miller was unwilling to accept that Alowa was going to die so she put the videotape in her top desk drawer. The next two months, she kept contact with Alowa by calling on the phone to her in Savoonga. When Miller called two weeks before Alowa died, she said, “I was just thinking of you.” Miller asked “What were you thinking? Alowa replied, “Keep it up, Miller!”
Alowa’s spiritual faith, perseverance, and hope even in the face of overwhelming odds served as a catalyst for her community, and Miller, to move to protect the people of St. Lawrence Island and other Alaska Native villages from the effects of environmental contaminants. Alowa continues to serve as an impetus for action, both during unrelenting challenges and through joyful successes, as her spirit lives on in people’s hearts.
She serves as a role model to her daughter Chris (Alowa) Seppilu. When Chris learned that her mother was being considered for the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, she said, “My brothers and I want the work of my mother to continue on. We are grateful that word got around about the need for a cleanup. She fought hard for this and got it going. In my mother’s own words, ‘I will fight until I melt.’”
Alowa is a role model of faith, perseverance, and hope to other Indigenous women because her story and video have been passed on to Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and First Nations in Canada, as well as to Indigenous women in Greenland, South and Central America, the Pacific Islands, Russia, Europe, and Africa. Representatives from all of these groups have participated in gatherings where her story was told, and they have taken that story to their communities. These empowered Indigenous women are making changes for good in their own communities, regions, and countries while they also prompt officials of the United Nations to protect the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities throughout the world.
Alowa continues to have an impact on women of all ages in her community—even those women who were too young to know her before she died. Those who have been empowered directly or indirectly by her have taken up her mantle to work toward justice, health, and wellbeing for their people now and for future generations. They are members of the St. Lawrence Island Restoration and Advisory Board that provides counsel to the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the Corps’ mandate to clean up the military toxics on the Island. They serve on the Working Group that advises ACAT’s research team. Some are employed by ACAT as Community Health Researchers on St. Lawrence Island, and others serve as staff members in Anchorage for ACAT. They participate in women’s talking circles that focus on justice and human rights issue. To seek justice, health, and wellbeing for their people, the women in Alowa’s community have traveled to speak with policymakers and other activists in Juneau, Washington D.C., New York City and Europe for United Nations meetings, and Vieques (Puerto Rico). During peaceful demonstrations in Anchorage, the women from her community sometimes hold up signs that say “I will fight until I melt.”
Vi Waghiyi is from Savoonga. She works for ACAT in Anchorage as the Environmental Health and Justice Program Director. Vi said, “It’s an honor to continue Annie’s work. What keeps me going is that she fought hard for our people. She still inspires all of us.”
Miller said, “It’s like Annie is sitting on my shoulder and urging me on. ‘Keep it up, Miller! What an inspiration. Yes, I can still see her eyes all lit up with energy and sometimes with just a touch of mischief; like when she saw that I was having trouble keeping up with her when we were walking across the tundra at Northeast Cape.”
Alowa serves also as a role model to the professional women of ACAT, AWEN, and other organizations; she demonstrated how a combination of quiet perseverance, spiritual faith, and inner strength is an effective method for advocacy in the face of overwhelming resistance.
When asked about Alowa, Lorraine Eckstein, ACAT’s Research Anthropologist, said, “I remember her well! I only met her three times; she was soft spoken and unpretentious. A couple of times when she came to Anchorage, we took her to eat at a Mongolian barbeque, and I sat across from her at the table. I found I was hanging on her every word. She reminded me of a certain nun (Sister of Mercy) who taught my college psychology classes. Now I know that Annie was a wife and mother of eight children, but both of these women – in spite of their unassuming manners – made me want to sit up, pay close attention, and go change the world. Not many people have that effect on me”.
In spring 1999, ACAT produced a short video of Annie’s interview entitled “I Will Fight Until I Melt.” By 2001, ACAT had disturbed 350 copies of the tape and ACAT spoke to members of a variety of federal agency staff members in Washington D.C. using the video to get attention to environmental health and justice issues in Alaska. As a result:
1) The people of St. Lawrence Island were galvanized by Annie’s work, after watching her two-decade effort to help her people that culminated in success at the time of her premature death. As they grieved for her, they actively supported the community-based research and advocacy inspired by Alowa and initiated by ACAT;
2) The Army Corps of Engineers prioritized the military sites on St. Lawrence Island to be cleaned up;
3) Other Alaska Native communities sought assistance from ACAT with military toxics;
4) The Special Assistant to Secretary of the Interior was inspired to support the United Nations’ treaty to identify specific persistent organic pollutants for global elimination; and
5) Leslie Campbell of the Centers for Disease Control used the video to train agency staff about environmental health and justice issues;
In autumn of 1999, ACAT staff was inspired by Alowa’s legacy to initiate community-based research and in 2000 ACAT received a four-year grant to collaborate with the people of St. Lawrence Island under the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) program entitled Environmental Justice Partnerships for Communications. Since that time, the NIEHS has supported the community-based participatory research with Annie’s people. ACAT’s current five-year project (Protecting the Health of Future Generations) addresses endocrine-disrupting chemicals in collaboration with the St. Lawrence Island community and faculty at two universities. ACAT’s research team includes residents of the Island community and faculty at two universities.
YouTube video of Annie during interview and the responses she elicited in her people, community researchers, university researchers, and /ACAT’s staff and board. https://youtu.be/CvhEfxLE9A0
CLEANING UP A LEGACY OF POLLUTION ON AN ALASKAN ISLAND (August 3, 2015; by Kirk Johnson. The New York Times. The article gives an overview of the clean up work on St. Lawrence Island with helpful photos, and mentions Annie Alowa as a crusader who succeeded in getting attention to the contaminated sites by “refusing to be quiet about it.” Here is a quote from the article:
“Annie Alowa, who lived in Savoonga and died of cancer in 1999, led a one-woman crusade to clean up Northeast Cape, mainly by refusing to be quiet about it. When newer technology made the old listening devices obsolete and the base closed in 1972, barrels of chemicals sat in the elements for decades or were simply plowed under. Ms. Alowa’s rallying cry helped spur the creation in 1997 of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, which works to clean up military sites by involving residents like Ms. Waghiyi, the group’s environmental health and justice program director.”
As part of the article in the New York Times, a slide show is included and a 4-1/2 minute video entitled Science at the End of the Earth by Jim Wilson, Kirk Johnson, and Channon Hodge.
The link to the article, slide show, and video is below: