Part 1 of this series on 21st Century Native American genocide focused on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the caribou, and the Gwich’in. Part 2 is focused further south in Alaska in the Bristol Bay watershed where there is yet another potential Trump devastation of a First Nation’s traditional culture and way of life. The Northern Dynasty Mining Company (Pebble Limited Partnership aka Pebble) wants to develop the world’s largest open pit copper and gold mine in the midst of the Bristol Bay Watershed.
There is nothing like Alaska’s Bristol Bay. It is a fully functioning, vast untouched watershed of winding streams and rivers, wetlands, tundra, forests and home to a variety of birds, terrestrial animals and the world’s largest concentration (nearly 50 percent) of salmon (including all five North American species: Sockeye, Chinook, Chum, Coho and Pink Salmon). It is also the home of the Yup’ik and Dena’ina Native Americans.
The mine could destroy up to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes which make up this ecosystem, and with it the Yup’ik and Dena’ina cultures.
Bristol Bay is the homeland of the Yup’ik and Dena’ina. They have lived on the north bank of the Naknek River, at the northeastern end of Bristol Bay for at least 6,000 years. They consider the salmon their kin and have religious, mythological and practical relationships with them. They practice a first salmon ceremony paying homage to the first salmon caught in the spring and the renewal of their cycle of life. The rivers are blessed annually purifying the water of contamination preparing it for the return of the salmon. Their way of life, like the Gwich’in and the caribou, is interconnected with and dependent upon a continued relationship with wild creatures: salmon.
In 2014, back when the EPA was concerned with environmental protection, the agency in response to an application from Pebble, undertook a peer reviewed study of the impacts this proposed mining would have on the Bristol Bay ecosystem and the salmon in particular. The study concluded that developing a 15 square mile footprint (including destruction of more than six square miles of wetlands), building both a 270 megawatt power plant and 190 mile long natural gas pipe line, and the annual discharge of billions of gallons of waste water into adjacent rivers would cause severe loss of salmon habitat (and of course salmon).
EPA placed restrictions on the proposed mine. Pebble sued and before the court could resolve the matter it was 2016. Enter Donald Trump, the Pruitt EPA, and a renewed Pebble application to develop the mine, without any discussion with those sovereign nations dependent on the salmon for an ancient way of life.
Our relationship with American Indians is obviously complex. The Tribes were the victims of an American genocide and have a trust relationship with the U.S. government which recognizes them as sovereign nations entitled to nation-to-nation consultation for projects like Bristol Bay (and ANWR) which impinge on their sovereignty. In this case, while the land proposed by Pebble for the mine is owned by the State of Alaska, the federal government (EPA and Army Corps of Engineers) because of the Clean Water Act (CWA), has jurisdiction over the permitting process.
American Indian nations have been recognized as sovereign since their first interaction with European settlers. The United States has recognized this unique political status since the time of conquest and treaties. Consequently,when a federal agency reviews a project on tribal land, or one that impacts tribal land, or is of religious and/or cultural importance to that Tribe, it must engage in a nation-to-nation consultation. The Bristol Bay water shed is located on tribal lands. The salmon are of cultural and religious significance to the Yup’ik and Dena’ina Nations. The consultation process to date has “somehow” been overlooked.
While it’s important to acknowledge that in accordance with the law there was a “scoping” process (public input to determine what the draft Environmental Impact Statement should include) inviting testimony from all stakeholders including commercial and sport fishers, the tourist industry, environmentalists and Native Americans. This process did not acknowledge or make room for Native American sovereign nations meeting as equal entities with the U.S. government.
The stain of Native American genocide, like slavery, can never be erased from America’s past. It can however, be acknowledged and eased by treating our First Nations with the sovereign respect they are entitled to. 28 other Native Nations from all parts of Alaska joined with the Yup’ik and Dena’ina in opposing the development of the mine as destructive of the salmon and an anathema to Native life. Clearly, in their view, preserving the pristine nature of the Bristol Bay salmon runs is essential to preserving their way of life, which like the Gwichin’in and the caribou, is being threatened by the rapacious desires of U.S. industrial development.
The fates of ANWR and Bristol Bay under Trump are scheduled to be resolved respectively in 2019 and 2020. We can all participate in preserving both these natural places and the cultures of the peoples who for generations have lived in harmony with them. We can do this by telling our elected federal representatives we want them to support both the sovereignty of Native Alaskans and the wonder of these remaining wild places with which they live harmoniously.