The Heat Is Online

Melting Permafrost Unearths Sacred Graves

Waking the Dead, Rousing Taboo
In Northwest Canada, Thawing Permafrost Is Unearthing Ancestral Graves

The Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2001

HERSCHEL ISLAND, Yukon -- A coffin has erupted from the earth, splitting open and revealing the last possessions of a former life: a bone; a tangle of maroon clothes covered by shadows; dusty black shoes, their soles peeling, the nails that once held them together unbound.

Here on Herschel Island, a windy mound of land off the northwestern tip of Canada, graves are pushing up from the ground as the ice within the carpet of permafrost melts, churning the soil beneath it into a muddy soup, spitting up foreign contents, sending whole hill slopes sliding downward. On a far tip of this island an entire grave site one day got up and slipped into the sea.

Arctic permafrost once meant "permanently" frozen land. Now it is melting, prompting a worldwide debate on whether the cause is global warming that will bring environmental havoc in the future.

But for the Inuvialuit, the westernmost of Canada's Inuit people, there is an immediate and haunting concern: what to do about their ancestors who are no longer resting beneath the ground. The dead can't bury the dead.

The older generation of Inuvialuit believes that anyone who touches the possessions of the dead after they are buried will be cursed. Some in the younger generation, many years removed from traditional life, are wrestling with both sides of the issue. They want to maintain tradition, but they also do not want to sit back while their ancestors' bones lie uncovered on melting ground.

"Spiritually, we were told never to be around grave sites," says Andy Tardiff, a park ranger, whose ancestors once lived here. "It's a taboo even for us to touch graves. It's a taboo. But we can't leave it the way it is."

There are four graveyards on the island, which is now a national park and inhabited by only a few rangers in the summer. One graveyard is for the police who used to live here and one is for whalers. Two Inuvialuit graveyards date to 1895.

The police graves have long been repaired, the original wooden markers replaced with stone, and the ground reinforced to prevent erosion. In 1986, the Yukon government also replaced the markers of the whalers.

No repairs were made on the Inuvialuit graveyards, which are now in the poorest condition. The government now says that the decision "was a mistake, especially when tourists were tampering with graves," Tardiff said. "It's too bad. That's 14 years of nothing."

Today, the Inuvialuit community is discussing whether the old taboos fit modern life, which has taken the people off the island to homes on the mainland.

"Today's generation, my generation and my father's generation question how strong are those beliefs," said Richard Gordon, senior park ranger for Herschel Island, who feels connected to both the traditional and contemporary cultures. "I might say, let's move the graves. But it is really a touch-and-go situation."

Emma Dick, 75, an elder who lives in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, a two-hour seaplane flight from Herschel, said that something should be done. Her grandmother is buried there on top of a hill, or what used to be the top of a hill. "There should be work to fix them up. It is so sad to see," said Dick, as she sat in her house in Inuvik. "At least they should be covered up. I feel sad because they were humans. It's sad to see the coffins."

Wayne Pollard, professor of geography at McGill University in Montreal, who began studying Herschel Island in 1988, says the island's landscapes are some of the world's most vulnerable to climate change.

"If it were simply coastal erosion and the graves dropping into the ocean and disappearing, that wouldn't be a problem," he said. "Because as I understand it, the Inuvialuit are quite comfortable with the idea of bodies being returned to the environment, as part of the natural cycle that they accept in life." But most often the graves do not reach the sea.

Pollard went back to Herschel Island this summer to examine the disturbance of graves. "The grave site is in one of the worst conceivable locations that one could ever put a grave site -- that area has only an active layer [of permafrost] of about one meter," or a bit more than a yard, Pollard said. "So anything that brings about an increase in this seasonal thawing has a high potential to start impacting on the zones where there's lots of ice."

There is also a stream carrying sediment and depositing it on the graves. "At the same time, the slope immediately above it is being acted upon by gravity," Pollard said. "And we have these little shallow landslides that are pushing some of the bodies in the graves up and exposing them."

A group of scientists is studying the melting of the permafrost. Until measurements have been taken for a few years, they are not supposed to say whether the problem is caused by human-created global warming, rather than some other phenomenon, Gordon said. But, he added: "We all know one way or another it is connected to global warming. You can see it happening on a day-to-day basis."

The grave sites are all that are left on the island of a once-thriving Inuvialuit community. Now, the island is mostly deserted, with only the few park rangers as summer residents. Tourists come in by plane to hike, camp and watch birds.

The earliest inhabitants were probably the Thule people. It is believed that these ancestors of today's Inuvialuit walked across the Bering land bridge from Siberia about 9,000 years ago. Oral tradition says the Thule were there to witness the creation of the island.

A sheet of ice pushed north, scraping the ocean's bottom into a pile of land. The seas later rose around the mound -- modern scientists say the ocean was about 460 feet below its current levels in the middle of the last ice age. The Inuvialuit called the new island "Qikiqtaruk," which means simply the island.

In 1826, John Franklin became the first European to reach the island. He renamed it Herschel, after British astronomer John Herschel.

Soon after Franklin's arrival, whalers came to hunt in the Bering and Beaufort seas. There was a demand for whale oil as well as whale bones, which were used to make corsets. The whalers kept and made bad company, and their rowdiness attracted the attention of the Anglican church, which sent missionaries. Later police arrived on the island to maintain the peace and establish Canadian sovereignty. At the peak, about 1,500 people lived here.

"You know that time when they first started to come, they had no priest," said Peter Thrasher, an elder. "They started drinking. They try to kill each other. Their wives, they lost them to those white people. When that preacher came, just like that, all the bad people stopped."

Storms arose suddenly, sometimes tragically. The one that people most talk about happened on March 7, 1897. Some whalers and some Inuvialuit were playing baseball. A blizzard came from nowhere. When it had passed, five frozen corpses were found. One man lay dead only 100 yards from his house.

Over the years, disease took its toll as well. During the 100 years after their first contact with Europeans, many of the island people died from exposure to new diseases: flu, smallpox and typhoid. "The flu epidemic killed hundreds of people," Tardiff said. A rash of smallpox nearly killed the rest: "In 1902, people noticed people rubbing their backs in the snow, making the snow red."

Given this history, some scientists who visited the island are concerned that moving the graves might release diseases that were buried with the dead. "People were buried in permafrost so their flesh is frozen in time," Gordon said. "When that great epidemic happened with the flu, is that going to be released back into the atmosphere?"

On a recent day, the Beaufort Sea was restless. There was a wet chill blowing as Tardiff pulled on his big rubber boots and stepped into his motorboat to ferry passengers across the cove into what could be Hades, where grave sites were moving.

At the shore, Tardiff turned off the motor and tied the boat to a rock. He began to ascend the hillside. Coffins were above the ground in various states of undress, as if the graveyards had been caught in an invisible storm that picked them up, then set them down as it pleased. A coffin sitting on this slope one day could move five feet away the next.

Before contact with Europeans, the native people built wooden burial platforms on which bodies were placed so that the souls could commune with the moon. Some of the platforms were more than six feet high. "Now, everything is down. After the big flus, they buried everybody," Tardiff said.

He walked over the slushy ground, like stepping in a knee-deep, icy swamp. He stopped near what appeared to be tumbling wooden boxes, not drawing too close, out of respect. "This is what happens when the actual hill site comes down. It forces the casket up with the bones and the shoes. But it's taboo to touch them."