President Obama is due to visit Alaska on Monday (August 31st) for an international conference on climate change and the future of the Arctic. High on the agenda is Russia’s military build-up there. With sea ice melting, America’s border with Russia has become more vulnerable and the Ukraine crisis has worsened relations. At their closest point, these two antagonistic countries are less than three miles apart separated by two islands — one Russian, one American. Humphrey Hawksley was given rare access to the remote United States island of Little Diomedes and found that the tiny Eskimo community had a vision far removed from trumpeting American sovereignty.
The Island of Little Diomede rises out of the Bering Sea, tall, isolated, its steep sides covered in green plants, grey rocks and faded wooden crosses of village burial sites. Mist comes and goes in seconds amid flocks of birds so thick that as they dart back and forth they lighten and darken the sky.
“When the birds fly like that, it means the walrus might be coming,” says John Ahkvaluk, pointing out to sea where in the distance a boat is speeding across the water. “See. They’re out hunting them already.”
The walrus is a huge brown sea mammal that people here have hunted for centuries. They eat the meat, make boats and clothes from the skin and carve its ivory tusks into weapons and ornaments.
“I doubt they’ll get them.” The skin around John’s weathered face tightens as he looks. “They’re too close to the line.”
Just over a mile out is the Russian border that runs between us and then the edge of territory controlled by the Kremlin – the treeless, lower and wider sister island of Big Diomede. “I hate those people over there,” mutters John as we make our way down the hillside. Some years back, chasing a whale, he ended up being detained by Russian troops.
There are no cars or roads on Little Diomede. Rusted machinery is strewn along its rocky shoreline that’s whipped by the sea. Raised walkways link small, clapboard homes clustering up the hillside. Less than eighty people live here. A polar bear’s skull sits on a ledge outside one home. The skin of a grey seal stretches between wooden poles and nearby drying meat hangs on a line. This is a rugged and self-contained place – pretty inaccessible, too. A helicopter flies in once or twice a week — if the weather allows. Sometimes not for a month or more.
The natives of the Bering Strait region see themselves as one people and the border as an irritant. It was first drawn up in 1867 when America bought Alaska from a cash-strapped Tsarist Russia. But no-one took much notice until the Cold War when it was suddenly closed.
Families lived on both sides and when the Ice Curtain — as it’s called – came down they were divided them overnight. Yet, uneasily, the islanders found themselves being championed as patriotic Americans and excellent Christians in the frontline against Satanic communism – an unpopular political point here because just about everyone has relatives across the border.
“I’m not Russian and I don’t feel American,” says Andrew Milligrock, the gruff-speaking elderly president of the tribal council whom we bump into on our way down to the shoreline. “Whoever comes along and buys your country makes you one of them. Next time it’ll be Japan and they’ll try and make me Japanese.”
The hunters’ boat is back and we help haul it in. There’s no pier. Knee deep in water we pull it onto a narrow shingle beach. Spent cartridges roll around on the bottom amid an air of disappointment. They took some shots, but the walrus are now swimming in Russian waters.
“That border breaks our hearts,” says one hunter, Robert Soolook, dressed in a camouflage jacket with a large knife on his belt. “We’ve been hunting here for thousands of years, before the English came, the Americans, the Russians, before any governments and regulations separated us from the marine life and our families.” He picks up his rifle from inside the boat, jumps onto a rock and aims towards the Russian island. He waves to military observation posts on the ridge just over two miles away. “They’re watching us, so we can watch them,” he says defiantly, firing two shots into the water.
The next evening, the birds are out again and more walrus are sighted. Robert and his fellow hunters set off. With John and others, we take a second boat and head towards Russia. John, creased with concentration, searches into the late night summer sun, then shakes his head. “No luck. The walrus have gone across again.”
I notice then looking from the boat back onto the village that on this last outpost of American soil — as it stands face to face with a rival power – no national flag is flying, when in most of the country the Stars and Stripes are everywhere.
“Oh, we don’t need any of that,” says John when I ask him, water spraying up into our faces. “It’s no big deal. We know who we are; what we’re up against.”
“But you’re a loyal American, aren’t you?”
He turns sharply too me. “No actually. I’m a native of these islands. I’m an Eskimo. I’m not an American”