Hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era: Goal is to ransack the Earth

 

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A thermal image of Hurricane Maria captured by satellite on Sept. 20 at 2:12 a.m. EDT. The image showed very cold cloud top temperatures in the powerful thunderstorms in Maria’s eyewall. Maria’s eye was just east of the American Virgin Islands, and its northwestern quadrant stretched over Puerto Rico. (NASA photo)

A corrupted word, a corrupted government

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

 

Let’s play with a word and an idea. “Hegemony” means the dominance of one political group over all others. That, at this moment, is the Republican brand. President Donald J. Trump, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a conservative, if not Republican, court system that will judge the law and Constitution for years to come. Hegemony.

But that word has been corrupted. Once the Greek word, “hegemon,” meant to lead. But the root word “heg” in English later became to seek, or better, to “sack,” as in ransack.

So hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era. The goal is to ransack (instead of lead). Ransack the government. Or at least the idea of government.

There is no better example of hegemony than the debate about the climate. The Republican brand from top to bottom is bent on grabbing as much natural resource loot that can be carried away in short period of time.

Except this: Hegemony is an illusion. What seems like absolute power is not.

This should be easily evident from hurricanes, fires, and other growing climate threats. You would think this is the moment for a pause (at the very least). A time out to examine what’s going on around the world and then a consideration about what should be done.

But the Republican brand, including the people who manage federal Indian programs, are willfully hostile to facts.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that natural disasters have tripled in number and the damage caused by them have increased five-fold. “Today, there is scientific proof that climate change is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the intensity and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean and by many other phenomena around the world,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres after a tour of Dominica. That island, including the Kalinago Indian Territory, was hit with successive category five hurricanes. “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree,” said Guterres, who flew by helicopter over some of the most affected areas, including Kalinago Territory.

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Two hurricanes destroyed much of Dominica. (United Nations photo)

And Puerto Rico still waits for clean water, sanitation, electricity, and basic infrastructure more than a month after its storms. Yet President Trump told reporters Thursday: “I’d say it was a 10” as he described the federal government’s response. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. You look at the number. I mean, this was — I think it was worse than Katrina.”

The governor of Puerto Rico has a different take. “Recognizing that we’re in this together – US citizens in Texas, US citizens in Florida, US citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – we need equal treatment,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “We need all the resources so we can get out of the emergency and of course the resources to rebuild.”

We know, yes, know, that climate change will leave parts of the earth uninhabitable (as we have already seen in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington and Louisiana.) How many times can you rebuild when storm after storm wipes out the life you know? How do we as a country, as a species, decide when we can no longer rebuild or stay? I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian city of Ahvaz where temperatures last summer reached 129 degrees. When will it become too hot, 130? 132? What’s the number that we just hit before we leave?

Who will be the next climate refugees?

Already in Puerto Rico that demographic transformation is occurring. “It could potentially be a very large migration to the continental United States,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University historian, immigration expert, and author on large-scale population shifts, which includes a forthcoming book on climate refugees in Scientific American. “Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess. Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates.”

Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents. Think of the magnitude of so many people, half a million or more, moving to Florida, Texas or any other state. Only then will the fecklessness of Congress be clear.

So much of the debate now only focuses on the “relocation.” But Indian Country (that’s had too many experiences with forced relocation) knows that’s only the beginning of the governmental and social costs. There will be costs ranging from demands for behavioral health to increased joblessness and poverty. The fact of hundreds of thousands of American refugees should be seen as a dangerous crisis worthy of our immediate attention.

Right now we don’t even think of Californians as climate refugees, but we should. At least 100,000 people were evacuated and nearly 6,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. And this number will grow and it ought to raise more questions about where humans can and should live.

“An increasing body of research finds that the hot and dry conditions that created the California drought were brought on in part by human-caused warming,” writes Georgina Gustin in Inside Climate News.  “Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.

California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more “fuel aridity” — drier tree canopies, grasses and brush that can burn.”

Gustin writes that research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University projects more extreme drought and extreme flooding. “If global carbon emissions continue at a high level, extreme dry periods will double, the study finds—going from about five extreme dry “events” during the decade of the 1930s, to about 10 per decade by the 2070s.  Extreme wet periods will increase from about 4 to about 15 over the same periods, roughly tripling.”

Again, raising the question of where people can be? Think of the tension about immigration now — and multiply that by a factor of ten or a hundred to get a sense of the scale ahead.

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The failure of coal

There is another dimension to hegemony — or the lack of that in the federal government. Cities, states, tribes, corporations, and individuals, are ignoring the ransacking of the climate and moving forward with a global community focused on solutions. Markets are exercising power, too.

One example of that is the Trump administration’s failure to revive the coal industry. This was one of Donald J. Trump’s main campaign promises. The chief executive of a private coal company, Robert Murray, sums up the illogic. Just a week ago he said on the PBS’ News Hour: “We do not have a climate change problem” and 4,000 scientists told him that “mankind is not affecting climate change.” Murray’s former lobbyist has been nominated as the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Administration. Already the EPA has proposed rolling back the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the new coal regulations (or more likely, non-regulations) will still be challenged through the regulatory process and in court.

And its the markets for coal that are dictating the terms of surrender. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal consumption picked up after President Trump’s election but has started to decline again. “The recent decline in production was a result of weaker demand for steam coal, about half of which is mined in Wyoming and Montana. Production of metallurgical coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and makes up about 8% of total U.S. coal production, increased for the third consecutive quarter,” the EIA reported. “Demand for steam coal, which in the first half of 2017 made up more than 90% of U.S. coal production, is driven by coal-fired electricity generation. In recent years, coal has lost part of its electricity generation share to other fuels, but it still accounted for 30% of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the first half of 2017 compared with natural gas and renewables (including hydro) at 31% and 20%, respectively.”

And the jobs that were promised? There are now under 60,000 people employed nationwide by the coal industry. And about a thousand jobs, at most, were created since Trump took office. By comparison during that same time frame one of the fastest growing jobs, wind turbine service technician, created 4,800 new jobs at an average salary of $52,260. But the big numbers are in health care (where we should be growing jobs) an industry that created 384,000 new jobs as home health aides in the last year.

Hegemony? No.

But Congress acts as if it has all the power over nature. The budget the Senate just passed would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Instead of a pause, and a rethink of climate policies, there is a hurry up and drill mentality. (Even if you love oil: Why now? Why not wait until it’s worth something? The answer is because it will never again be that valuable. The era of extraction is over.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an interesting position. She’s fought hard for Medicaid and for the Alaska Native medical system. She deserves credit for that. But the budget she now champions could undo all of that work because the generous tax cuts will have to be eventually paid for by cutting from social programs, especially Medicaid. And what will the new costs be for more development in the Arctic in terms of subsistence hunting and fishing, potential relocation, higher health costs, and increased strain on the environment?

A group of elders from the Bering Sea recently published a report on their Ecosystem and Climate Change. “The cold, rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for coastal Yupik and Inupiaq peoples, who have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years,” the report said. “But this unique ecosystem is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to climate change … climate warming is leading to change in seasonal ice, altering the abundance, timing,  and distribution of important species. The loss of sea ice is in turn causing a dramatic increase in ship traffic through these highly sensitive and important areas.”

How do we change course? How do get a pause? One way is to wait until it’s too late.

In Dominica there is a forced rethinking that followed the hurricanes. Roosevelt Skerrit, the country’s prime minister,  recently put it this way: “Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total. And so we have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future. We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it. Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”

A shining example, yes, but at a cost that has been extraordinary and painful. The price of hegemony.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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** Updated to reflect Senate passing a budget.

The new deal for tribes: Resource extraction & toxic waste (minus the jobs)

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No coal here. The Native Village of Tyonek, Alaska, celebrated the suspension of a project by PacRim Coal. The tribal community is located some 45 miles west of Anchorage. PacRim estimated the project would have mined some 242 million tons of coal. (Trahant file photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it’s in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it’s a market that’s going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

graph of U.S. net electricity generation and coal production, as explained in the article text

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (much like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe president L. Jace Killsback said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out.  The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek.  The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

#NativeVote16 – Overdue national debate about pipelines and ‘sound science’

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The federal government’s 2014 climate change assessment puts the Standing Rock dispute in context with this paragraph about the Great Plains. “Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy. In parts of the region, this will constrain development, stress natural resources, and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs.” (Trahant photo)
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

On Friday I tweeted: “What an extraordinary day, the federal government has a pulse.” The United States finally weighed in on what many of us believe is the most important issue in the country right now: The question of how this nation will address climate change.

And pulse or not this remains an unsettled question. But at least last week the federal government took one small step toward the right answer.

Let’s back up. The Standing Rock Tribe filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the agency did not adequately consult with the tribe as required law. On Friday U.S. District Judge James Boasberg disagreed, saying that the Tribe had not demonstrated that an injunction was warranted to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The most remarkable section of the ruling, however, was the background of the case.  “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land.”

The only regulatory role for the federal government in this case “concerns construction activities in federally regulated waters at hundreds of discrete places along the pipeline route. The Corps needed to permit this activity under the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act – and sometimes both. For DAPL, accordingly, it permitted these activities under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 12.”

In other words — as a public policy — there is no public debate about this pipeline except in the context of water.

Several minutes after the court ruling three federal agencies issued their own statement.

“We appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.  However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain.”

So the Department of the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior acted to “reconsider” previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site and its approval. “The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution,” the statement said. “In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

The statement also called for a serious discussion on tribal consultation about such projects. (More about that later.)

So what does this all mean? It means there will be a quick review (who knows what quick means in Fed-speak) about the underground water crossing of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation.

And, if the federal government has a pulse, it also has the ability to keep a secret. There is no way this was a rushed decision. This had to be debated at the White House level because so many multiple federal agencies were involved (it’s interesting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy did not join in on this statement.)

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The idea that the water crossing needs a second look is a entry point into a larger question, how important are water resources in the era of climate change?

I suspect the oil and pipeline industry already knows the answer. A news release from the National Association of Manufacturers said “President Obama has crossed the line.” This decision “sets a bad precedent that could threaten future infrastructure projects.” The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now was even gloomier in its assessment. “Should the Administration ultimately stop this construction,  it would set a horrific precedent.  No sane American company would dare expend years of effort and billions of dollars weaving through an onerous regulatory process receiving all necessary permits and agreements, only to be faced with additional regulatory impediments and be shutdown halfway through completion of its project.”

This is too rich. A federal judge (in a ruling the industry liked) said the process was not onerous. In fact it’s the opposite because domestic oil pipelines require no general approval from the federal government.

The Midwest Alliance went on to say: “We hope and trust that the government will base its final decision on sound science and engineering, not political winds or pressure.”

And that is exactly where the country ought to start the conversation, using sound science.

The federal government’s best science comes from the U.S. Global Research Program. In its most recent report, it says “climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline is such a challenge. The industry’s own promotions say this pipeline will move more oil to markets faster, eventually moving 570,000 barrels a day. Instead of reducing consumption, it makes it easier and cheaper for Americans to have more.

Yet at the same time the United States has promised the rest of the world that we will use slow down our use of oil and reduce our carbon impact. The official goal is to limit the increase (not reverse) global warming to “well below” 2 degrees centigrade. That will not happen with more, cheaper oil.

Again, consider the Federal Government’s best science. It says: “Climate change challenges the idea of hydrologic stationarity, which assumes that the statistical characteristics of hydrologic data are constant over time—in other words, that water dynamics of the future can be expected to be similar to those of the past. Climate change means that this assumption may not hold for all cases, undermining fundamental paradigms of water resource management and infrastructure design.” My translation: We need to protect water as the most important resource on the planet.

That same report says in order to protect basic human needs there needs to be “a safeguarding of natural assets, promoting resilience in urban and rural areas, decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth, and encouraging sustainable production and consumption patterns.”

The sound science is clear. We need to make sure that water is treated as the nation’s most important natural resource. Water is life. That’s not politics. It’s science.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#NativeVote16 – A graphic guide to the Republican National Convention

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#NativeVote16 – Press release: Nisqually Leaders Applaud President Obama’s Honoring of Billy Frank, Jr.

 

Fish Wars
Billy Frank, Jr.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                   

 

Nisqually Leaders Applaud President Obama’s Honoring of Billy Frank, Jr.

 

NISQUALLY, WA (11/16/15)—Leaders of the Nisqually Indian Tribe rejoiced at today’s naming of Billy Frank Jr., late Nisqually tribal leader, as one of 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. The awards will be presented at the White House on November 24th.

President Obama said, “I look forward to presenting these 17 distinguished Americans with our nation’s highest civilian honor. From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans.”

The President’s announcement said, “Billy Frank, Jr. was a tireless advocate for Indian treaty rights and environmental stewardship, whose activism paved the way for the “Boldt decision,” which reaffirmed tribal co-management of salmon resources in the state of Washington. Frank led effective “fish-ins,” which were modeled after sit-ins of the civil rights movement, during the tribal “fish wars” of the 1960s and 1970s. His magnetic personality and tireless advocacy over more than five decades made him a revered figure both domestically and abroad. Frank was the recipient of many awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement. Frank left in his wake an Indian Country strengthened by greater sovereignty and a nation fortified by his example of service to one’s community, his humility, and his dedication to the principles of human rights and environmental sustainability.”

Nisqually Tribal Chairman Farron McCloud said, “Billy Frank, Jr. was one of the greatest leaders in the history of the Pacific Northwest. His roots ran deep in our tribal heritage and his charisma, courage, vision and heartfelt connection with the land and the natural resources  he loved so dearly inspired people near and far for many years. His legacy will live on for generations and the benefits of his life’s work will be felt forever. Speaking on behalf of the entire Nisqually Tribe, I thank President Obama for remembering our great leader with this magnificent honor.”

William Frank, III,  son of Billy Frank, Jr. and Vice Chairman of the Nisqually Tribe, said, “My Dad was a man who won many awards and honors, and he would have been humbled by this great honor. But all the great things he did, throughout his life, were done for the good of his people and for the living heritage of our ancestors. He stood up, tall and strong, against the oppression our people faced, and went to jail for it many times. He served in the Marine Corps in the Korean War, then came back to fight again. He fought so our people could maintain the lifestyle we have known for thousands of years. Then he fought to bring us together, to establish true cooperation with other governments for the benefit of the salmon, so they will be here for future generations. My Dad was a warrior. He was a wise and gifted leader. He was a fisherman.”

Billy Frank, Jr. was born in 1931 to Willie and Angeline Frank on March 9, 1931, at Nisqually. He passed away from natural causes, also at Nisqually, on May 5, 2014. Among his many achievements he had served as Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years.

Other recipients of the Medal of Freedom announced today include baseball great Yogi Berra (posthumous), public servant Bonnie Carroll, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (posthumous), music producer Emilio Estefan, singer Gloria Estefan, Congressman Lee Hamilton, space pioneer Katherine G. Johnson, baseball great Willie Mays, Senator Barbara Mikulski, conductor Itzhak Perlman, former EPA Director William Ruckelshaus, theater composer Stephen Sondheim, film director Steven Spielberg, singer Barbra Striesand, singer James Taylor, and civil rights leader Minru Yasui (posthumous).

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The Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek Native Village

Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, explains the significance of land donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy.
Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, explains the significance of land donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy.

Culturally significant land represents rebuilding of a tribal land base

MARK TRAHANT

TYONEK, Alaska — This is a great day for Al Goozmer. So the tribal president wants to show us everything in this village of about 200 people.

We start at the airstrip where there’s a new fire station. A mural painted in vivid colors proclaims, “TUBUGHNA: The Beach People.”

Then he shows us the tribal garden growing fresh produce. A few vegetables are already sprouting inside the greenhouse. But this is just a beginning, Goozmer said, “I asked them to look into putting another garden on the other side, that is going to be dealing, primarily, with our native berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and all the other berries here.”

But the real gem is ahead. We’re on our way to visit a piece of land that’s being donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy. The land is a couple of miles from the village. On the way, between the beach and a high bank of soil, Goozmer picks up a clump of earth, and explains how the land evolved over time.

He is that passionate about the land.

“I have a son who was 36-years-old and I never have seen him until he was 36. When we first met, we just fell into each other’s arms and cried and cried. It was just an awesome, awesome thing,” Goozmer said. “This is the same thing with the land. Our land, it was traditionally our land for the past thousand years, is coming back into tribal government, tribal hands. It’s like meeting your long lost relative again and reuniting with them.”

Goozmer starts his telling of the story with a coal mine that has been proposed by PacRim Coal. The land is near a deportation point for the minerals that would be shipped out. It’s a 160-acre parcel that had been homesteaded and was later donated to the Catholic Church. Then, in 2008, instead of selling the land for development (for what Goozmer calls “boo koo bucks”) title was purchased from the church by The Nature Conservancy for $400,000. The Nature Conservancy has now donated that land back to its first owners with support from the Great Land Trust. The deal includes a conservation easement, limiting development and allowing  tribal members use of the land for subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry-picking.

The return of such a parcel to an Alaska Native village is historic because the idea of tribal lands in Alaska is growing in both importance and inevitability. However a discovery a couple of years ago made this particular site even more important: It’s a rich cultural and archaeological site showing significant evidence about how Tubughna people have lived for the past thousand years.

“When we learned of the deep cultural significance of this place to the Tebughna people, we realized that the people of the Native Village of Tyonek would be its best long-term stewards,” said Rand Hagenstein, Alaska state director for The Nature Conservancy.

The formal title for this land is now, Etnen Bunkda, or Mother of the Earth.  It comes from the Dena’ina name for the region. There is evidence of several homes from different periods of time, demonstrating a long arc of history for Tebughna as residents.

The site also includes a number of cold storage pits. These were the first refrigerators, deep holes once lined with grass and bark to preserve salmon and other foods for winter consumption. The Mother of the Earth site is a clear example of the Tebughna reliance on fish for a thousand years.

“Land managers do not fully take into consideration the fact that indigenous people have a whole cultural identity that’s related to land and subsistence, an appreciation for what the land provides,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. So the agencies responsible for making decisions about land, fish and game did not get the subsistence connection to the land. “The Chuitt River is one of the last rivers in the entire Cook Inlet that still has habitat for King Salmon. And that would have been impacted by the coal project,” Miller said.

The Native American Rights Fund represents the village in the land transfer.

In addition to subsistence, the transfer of this land adds to the larger Alaska debate about tribal lands. This agreement recognizes the possibility of the land being taken into trust by the Interior Department once that process is open.

“For us to again have a land base is just awesome. We have our identity refocused and reconnected back to the land of who we are,” said Goozmer. The village was once a part of the Moquawkie Indian Reservation.

However, he said, “the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act took away our ability to own land.”

Instead the land title was conveyed to regional and village corporations. “So we became shareholders instead of land owners. The corporations … are the owners and we have shares, but it’s not the same.” But the transfer of such a significant piece of land is a step in a new direction. “For us, as Natives, to be land owners intricately tied to the land, its resources, its animals, and what it produces, this is our grocery store and our pharmacy,” Goozmer said. “Hopefully this is just a beginning to get our identity back and reconnect us to the land.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Working with Alaska’s tribes to restore salmon runs

  
Mike Williams and his granddaughter Megan at a hunting and fishing rights rally last year in Anchorage. (Williams family photo.)

New inter-tribal fish commission formed to give Alaska tribes a say



MARK TRAHANT

Alaska reminds me of Washington state. Let me qualify that. Alaska reminds me of Washington state before the mid-1970s. Back then the region was deeply divided over treaty rights, salmon, and even the definition of what it meant to be an American Indian in modern times. 

The official state government machine, ranging from biological reviews to law enforcement, was geared up to obliterate any tribal claims to salmon fishing. The clashes were not just legal; many were violent and tragic.

But then Boldt happened. Federal courts upheld the treaty rights of Native people. As author and professor Charles Wilkinson wrote: “The truest and most profound fact about the Boldt decision is that it was conceived and accomplished by Indian people. The transcendent meaning of the Boldt decision was to uphold the treaty rights of Northwest tribes, but it was also a national case about national obligations and values. The decision was a gift to all of America.”

The 1974 ruling by U.S. District Judge George Boldt did something else. It established tribes as “co-managers” of the salmon. So tribes and intertribal organizations organized and invested millions of dollars on salmon habitat recovery, management, and even law enforcement to make certain that the tribal side of the bargain was met.  Most important: Tribes gained a meaningful say about wildlife management. Salmon are still under significant threat, but river after river is also showing improvement.

Alaska’s story is a bit different — even as it evolves. The newly created state of Alaska took charge of fish and game in 1960. And a few years later the state began to close traditional fisheries claiming conservation. Instead of a treaty document that outlined a clear tribal right to hunt and fish, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ended the formal protection of aboriginal rights. However in 1980 Congress enacted a subsistence title to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The new federal law was supposed to protect customary subsistence uses by Alaska Natives. 

But the definition of that “protection” was assumed by the state and federal governments with little meaningful role for Alaska Natives. And when Native voices did rise, the state’s reaction was mostly litigation or criminal enforcement.

On May 5, 2015, 28 tribes on the Kuskokwim River started down another path, assuming co-management of fish in the river system by creating a Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. It’s modeled on the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, an organization that was led for many years by the legendary Billy Frank Jr. (Frank is really an American hero. He went from being a “getting arrested guy” during the fish wars to a wise elder who was widely respected.) Mike Williams, Sr. of Akiak, was elected chairman of the new commission.

“The people of the Kuskokwim River are no longer satisfied with serving in an advisory role to state and fishery managers,”  says a news release from the new commission. “The message, Kuskokwim River tribes and rural residents desire a “meaningful role” in the management of fish and wildlife as it is expressed by Congress in section 801 (5) of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, a role that until now most Western Alaskans agree has been meaningless.

I am convinced that co-management works. In Washington, Oregon and in Idaho there are salmon streams that would have gone extinct without a broader, more comprehensive management approach. Even small tribes hire people to work on habitat restoration or protecting baby salmon from predators. And it’s hard to understate the importance of creating natural resource jobs because it gives Native people a new purpose, working on the land to improve wildlife.

“My thoughts go to my ancestors that have managed our resources for over 10,000 years. They have done a great job in making sure we have food security,” said Chairman Williams. “We have traditional science and knowledge as we live right where they always fished. In recent times, the federal and state governments have begun to manage our resources. The policy is coming from far away.”

Williams said that there have been too many advisory boards that many Native people felt were wastes of time because they weren’t followed up with cooperation. 

“I sat down for many hours with my uncle, the Late Joe Lomack, Traditional Chief, on the climate and natural resource issues,” Williams said.  “We got very concerned on the reports about Chinook disappearing up north then the Yukon River and then our Kuskokwim River. Now that we have established our Fish Commissions, both in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, we have a structure in place to start to engage our involvement in a meaningful ways to help manage our resources instead of always giving advice.”

This is the moment when Alaska should embrace this approach. For too many years the state has spent significant resources litigating against a tribal say instead of listening. This is both expensive and ineffective.  On the other hand, a meaningful role for tribes on wildlife issues has proven to be successful in Washington and other Northwest states.

It’s time for Alaska to deliver this gift to America.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts go to trahantreports.com or, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.