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Environmental Justice Series: Viola (“Vi”) Waghiyi

Safer States believes that issues of environmental, economic and racial justice intersect at their core, and require combined solutions to get at root causes of these critical problems.

Featured this month in our spotlight justice series:  excerpts from an interview with Vi Waghiyi of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)

Tell us a little about yourself.  What motivated you to become involved with ACAT and its mission?

I am a Yupik grandmother and a mother of 4 sons, from Savoonga, Alaska on Sivuqaq also known as St. Lawrence Island. Our Island is located in the northern Bering Sea where we can actually see Russia from our window!

I have worked with ACAT for over 17 years now. My family and I live in Anchorage, Alaska where ACATs office is located. What initially drew me in happened in October 2002 when ACAT did a press release about the high PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) levels in the blood of our people and their links to health harms including cancer. I read the newspaper article and it really touched and moved me. I accepted a job offer left on my answering machine the same week, this is when my path began with no experience in this field. I believe the creator had a role for me to learn to use my voice to advocate for my family, our Sivuqaq people and those who are not granted opportunities to voice the injustices disproportionately harming communities like mine.  My people have 4 to 10 times higher levels of PCBs than people living in the Lower 48 states.  My dad died of cancer and my mom died from the complications associated with her cancer. My older brother and I are both cancer survivors. There are two formerly used defense sites (FUDS), Air Force bases, that were built beginning in the late 1940s on our island during the cold war because of our proximity to Russia. The larger base at Northeast Cape had hundreds of military personnel and civilians. Before, during and after the military occupied Northeast Cape, it was a important traditional hunting and fishing location and camp. At its peak a community of up to 130 people lived and worked there which included a tribal council. Now those families are displaced because of the military contamination. I lived there every summer for 5 years with my family and my father worked at the base.

In our culture, we honor our elders and our children. Our elders are our foundation and our children are the future. We do this work to ensure that the existence of our Yupik people, our culture, our traditions and way of life will continue. We have high rates of health disparities that we attribute to the toxic exposures from the hazardous waste abandoned and buried after the two bases were closed. We experience intergenerational trauma that people do not want to talk about. Most people outside of our Island do not know our history.

Our community-based research, in partnership with our communities, has helped to address the environmental and health problems caused by the hazardous wastes left by the military. We are experiencing health disparities such as high rates of cancers and other illnesses that were never seen before in our communities prior to the military occupation of our Island.

Western science is finally starting to recognize our traditional ecological knowledge which is science based, knowledge passed on for many generations, including how to predict the weather, the migration patterns of wildlife, the vast knowledge required to survive in what some people call the most harshest  location on the planet. However, we are discredited by agency officials when we speak about the knowledge of our health, the health disparities that we witness and attribute to the military toxics. ACAT did extensive research in the beginning of this project to find experts such as Dr. David Carpenter who is a world-renowned expert about the health effects of contaminants. We have a great team of academic scientists that respect our people, our culture and way of life. We have established the trust of our people and have mutual respect and a long history of working in collaboration to hold the military accountable.  Pam Miller (ACAT director) and I make a great team. She is a scientist and I share the story of my people and the struggles we’ve faced. We work together for solutions. My people are story tellers. I speak from the heart to advocate for our health and well-being. If we’ve moved one person to take action, we’ve made a difference.

I’ve challenged myself to learn as much as I can as it is personal and directly affects my family and because we’re up against the military and the chemical industry. The Arctic has become a hemispheric sink for Persistent Organic Pollutants, (POPs), toxic chemicals manufactured by multi-national corporations that are transported to the north on wind and ocean currents and concentrate in the fish and marine mammals we rely on for our sustenance, our traditional foods. These persistent chemicals accumulate in the sea ice and glaciers, in the permafrost. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. And as the ice melts, the chemicals are released into our coastal waters and we have even greater exposures.  It is unethical for corporations like Dow, 3M, Monsanto, BASF who are driven by greed, to produce over 100,000 chemicals and not take our public health into account. The most harmed are communities like mine. Arctic Indigenous Peoples have some of the highest levels of persistent pollutants than any population on earth. We are being contaminated without our consent. Our children are exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals even before they are born. Our traditional foods, our lands and water, the wildlife that have sustained our people for many generations, are now so loaded with toxic chemicals such as PCBs and other POPs that they are killing us. However it is important to make people aware that our people feel the benefits of our traditional foods out weigh the risks, it is our identity, our being as Sivuqaq Yupik People.

I have come to learn that the military is the largest polluter on the planet. There are 700 formerly used defense sites in Alaska and thousands throughout the world. The contaminated military sites will never be fully cleaned up and they will continue to cause harm for generations. There is not enough money to right these wrongs. It’s all going to wars we shouldn’t be in.

What are the most challenging aspects of this work?

One of the big challenges we face in rural Alaska are the distances and cost of travel among our communities. There are 229 federally recognized tribes. Most are off the road system and you can only reach them by air or by boat. A lot of the work we do are with rural communities.  Most people don’t have internet or computers, so when we have weekly calls with our Sivuqaq staff phone lines may be down, cell phones sometimes don’t work, the internet service can be sketchy. We still depend on fax machines in this day and age. It’s what we have to do the work with these communities.

Our ancestors and elders have overcome so much. There used to be 20,000 of us in 32 communities on our Island, and now we have two communities and about 1,500 of us.  We are still here. Our ancestors were fierce warriors who overcame invasions, tuberculosis and other epidemics, generational historical trauma, and yet we are still here.  The fight against toxic chemicals and the similar effects of climate change are our biggest fights today. We can’t see or taste toxic chemicals, yet they are killing our people.

My work is very personal and difficult. I go home to the Island often for work and have family there including my brothers and their families, uncles, aunts and many cousins. ACAT is a small but fierce woman-led organization. The majority of our board members are Alaska Native women. In my community we have clans—my clan is known to be quiet and humble. I had to learn to speak up and be a voice for my community, our region, Alaska and the Arctic. I had to learn quickly because of what we are up against.  We might not see the results of the work we do in our lifetimes. It takes a lot of time to do what is necessary to change the system of laws so that they protect us, to strengthen and update broken system of environmental, health, and chemical laws. But this is very important to protect Arctic Indigenous Peoples, Native Americans, people of color and low income communities whose health and wellbeing are harmed the most. Many chemical and military complexes are built adjacent to our communities, or our hunting, fishing or food gathering locations without consulting our leadership and communities. I am driven to make meaning changes to protect the health and wellbeing of my sons, my grandchildren, our communities and future generations who have a right to clean air, clean water and toxic free food and is necessary to address the injustices so many of our communities face.


What gives you hope?

We have many challenges, however we celebrate the gains that we achieve. I can’t see myself doing anything else as much as I’ve come to learn, and I never knew there was so much injustice globally.  I now know. I’m where I’m supposed to be and it’s my calling.  I still have hope because there are more good people in the world than the few driven by corporate greed and profit. This work is personal and difficult. To win this fight will take all of us. People need to know, for example, that our children are exposed to toxic flame retardants from products in our homes, from carpet padding, furniture, electronics, and toys. Our children have a higher body burden of toxic flame retardants than adults. When a woman becomes pregnant, her womb is her child’s first environment. We work to educate mothers about how to prevent toxic exposures so that she can protect the health and well-being of her children. We must work together to find solutions to what is happening and change policies to protect our children. Together we are stronger.

For the work I do in Geneva, Switzerland at the United Nations Stockholm Convention, an international legally binding treaty, I have to leave my family for weeks at a time. We bring an Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Delegation to the convention and are instrumental in helping to ban POPs. This benefits everyone on the planet.  I started traveling when my youngest son Sivu was 4 years old which was very difficult.  Now he’s 22 and has come to learn the work that I do protects him, his brothers and our family. His older brother Qaayaq has learned to speak up when he sees injustice.  It will take all of us to stand up to protect our health and well-being and our future generations.

I’d like to thank and acknowledge Annie Alowa a former health aide from my community who tirelessly worked to hold the military accountable for 20 years. She inspires me. In her words, “I Will Fight Until I Melt.” Annie died from cancer in 1998 and we are continuing her work. “Qerngughulluta iknaqataghaghtukut” Together we are stronger


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