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Native Village Life Drastically Changed by Exxon Valdez Spill

March 24, 1991

CHENEGA BAY, Alaska (AP) _ Before the nation’s worst oil spill two years ago, freezers in this Aleut village were stocked with all the food its 80 residents could catch, kill or gather.

Now, canned foods and packaged goods are flown in from Anchorage. A village lifestyle that traditionally had revolved around a subsistence culture is breaking down. Families are no longer able to hunt and fish together.

″I have two sons and two daughters. My husband used to take our oldest son out and hunt with him. That hasn’t happened at all,″ said Gail Evanoff, vice president of the village corporation.

Once abundant waterfowl, crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, seals and other wildlife that formed the basis of the local diet are rare, villagers say.

″We have gone 100 percent from a subsistence lifestyle to a cash economy,″ Evanoff said.

″Our lifestyle, our way of life, everything’s kind of ruined,″ said Paul Kompkoff Sr. His son, Paul, must travel all day to find one seal, the father said.

Villagers say subsistence living is more than a way to obtain food. It is at the heart of the spiritual and cultural makeup of their lives and was handed down for hundreds of years from their Aleut ancestors.

″If we can’t gain back a part of it,″ said Elenore McMullen, chief of the nearby Aleut village of Port Graham, ″there’s going to be no one to teach it and share it.″

Chenega Bay, Tatitlek and several other villages in and near Prince William Sound were among the hardest hit by the mass of heavy crude oil that washed onto shores in the sound and the northern Gulf of Alaska.

Nearly 11 million gallons of oil spewed from the tanker Exxon Valdez when it went aground March 24, 1989, causing the country’s biggest oil spill.

″It doesn’t all just snap back like a rubber band,″ said Ernie Piper, the state’s oil spill coordinator.

Chenega is among the five Aleut villages and one regional Aleut corporation that have sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from Exxon. Aleuts are one of three major native Alaskan groups in the state; the other two are Eskimos and Indians.

Private lawsuits are not precluded under the $1 billion out-of-court settlement between Exxon and the state of Alaska and the federal government announced earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

So far, while Exxon has partially compensated fishermen, fish processors and others affected by the spill, there have been no such payments to the Aleut villages, said Lloyd Miller, an attorney representing them.

But people here say it’s not the issue of dollars and cents that riles and saddens them.

″There is no way you can put a dollar figure on the loss the people here have experienced in the last two years - and the years ahead,″ Evanoff says.

″One cannot replace a way of life with a case of canned beans,″ Miller said.

The spill was not the first time Chenega was drastically changed by outside events.

In 1964, when the Good Friday earthquake struck Alaska, 131 people statewide were killed, including 123 from the tsunami that followed the quake. Twenty-three of those were from Chenega.

The village temporarily disbanded, with survivors moving elsewhere. They later decided to found a new village in 1984.

Chenega residents say that no matter how the cleanup goes this summer, the impact of the spill will live on.

″It’s definitely not over by a long shot,″ says Chenega Corp. president Chuck Totemoff. ″Not for us.″

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