For a few dozen Alaskan Iñupiat natives, it is possible to see Russia from their house. Just below the Arctic Circle lie two land masses between Russia and Alaska, the Diomede Islands. Small, rugged, and surrounded by ice and harsh seas, the islands are located off the Alaskan coast in the middle of the Bering Strait. Little Diomede is considered Alaskan territory, while Big Diomede, the Russian island, has remained uninhabited since the Cold War.
Thousands of years ago, the Bering land bridge served as a crucial passage for trade and exploration. When the Soviet government imposed strict rules against Americans crossing the Bering Strait in the 1930s, the Diomede Islands were unexpectedly caught in the middle, and the border between the two islands was re-dubbed the "Ice Curtain" by the late 1940s. Until that point, residents typically did not regard the border as significant, since it was not imposed until 1867, thousands of years after native settlement on the islands.
While the challenges of modernization, isolation, and climate change threaten their way of life, Diomede residents still enjoy and participate in their Native culture. The unique synthesis of Native, American, and Russian influences creates a fascinating and complex dynamic that makes one wonder what life in the Diomede Islands is really like.
Big Diomede and Little Diomede are two neighboring islands located in the center of the Bering Strait. The border between Russia and America lies in the gap between the two islands, which is just over 2 miles wide. Big Diomede is Russian territory, and Little Diomede is considered a part of Alaska.
While the two islands are only a little over two miles apart, the International Date Line lies in the narrow passage between them, putting Big Diomede almost an entire day ahead of its American counterpart. The islands are colloquially called "Yesterday and Tomorrow Island" for this reason. The islands are actually about 20 hours apart.
The Iñupiaq people indigenous to the Diomede Islands live on a subsistence diet primarily comprised of seal, walrus, polar bear, whale, and crab. In addition to being a primary source of food, hunting is also an important social rite. While some modern adjustments have been made, such as home electricity and a limited Wi-Fi connection, Diomede residents generally adhere to their traditional lifestyle: drying hides and living off the land. There is a push to preserve the Iñupiaq language, which is undocumented and only spoken by eight to ten elders.
As the shrinking census numbers suggest, it is difficult to live a modern life in a place as remote as Diomede. Outside factors like climate change and border conflict contribute to this difficulty, and the pressures of modernization are a major challenge facing the future of Diomede, especially when it comes to the younger generation.
Although Diomede traditions are still practiced, kids who grow up on Diomede are not entirely isolated from modern fixtures like video games and the internet. Their access is limited, but exposure to the outside world has made kids aware of their isolation. It is not unlikely that the younger generation will eventually leave the island.
Tribal leader Robert Soolook has a realistic and understanding perspective on the matter. When asked about the looming threat of relocation, he told National Geographic, "I'm sure they would vote [to] move... But like all animals, or any human who lives on Earth, [we] are adaptable."