OPINION: Speaking up on subsistence, even in the face of an industrial juggernaut

This opinion piece was written by Seth Kantner and was originally published by Anchorage Daily News on April 29, 2022.

This spring along the river, I heard from friends that construction on the proposed Ambler Industrial Road had started. Rumor said bulldozers were plowing toward our villages.

This is not correct. The Biden administration proposed to suspend the project right-of-way permits, to review them. Federal leaders acknowledged that there must be more tribal consultation.

It is true that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is attempting to push forward, to convince us that this terrible damage to our land is a foregone conclusion.

The bulldozers are not coming yet. There’s still an opportunity to keep it that way. Now is the time to speak against this threat to Alaska’s land and waters, and our subsistence way of life. It’s also a good time to ask for less destructive local projects, and jobs — as our state is about to receive billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds.

Yes, it is uncomfortable to speak out. It brings up hopeless, “why-bother” feelings. It seems as if Outsiders never listen. I’ve spent years writing about this. But, I found out a strange thing recently: A few people are listening. They want to hear what we say.

These people in power can stop all surface and subsurface activities on federal lands along the road corridor. They can ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke Clean Water Act permits to stop activities on state lands, too — until the true effects on caribou migrations, water quality, fish and subsistence itself can be determined.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American appointed by a president to lead the Department of Interior. She met with stakeholders to discuss management of public lands — including the proposed Ambler Road.

I didn’t know what to say. I scribbled thoughts, erased them. Our region is so complex, subsistence and the future so intertwined. I was allotted only a few minutes. The following is an excerpt of what I shared with her:

Madame Secretary.

I came down from the Arctic on behalf of friends and neighbors not able to speak out on issues that threaten our homeland.

I was raised in Inupiaq culture, and have spent my life in the chasm between the Native and white worlds — between the wild and the human one, also. From this vantage point, I work to understand life in northern rural communities.

In the 1970s, the National Park Service and other agency people came, preparing for the Lands Claims Act, and we heard a strange new word. “Subsistence.” They said we lived “subsistence.” At that time local people faced many fears from Outsiders, unknown rules, and changes coming north. Those threats — and new threats — still greatly affect our lives. Today, the biggest threat is the Ambler Road.

Now, in these intervening decades, a blizzard of change has swept over us. Modern houses, electricity, airplanes, TVs, phones, store-bought food and computers. Even our real blizzards have changed: The weather is unrecognizable, the ice and permafrost are melting, and the caribou herd has shrunk to half its former size.

Our trust in our knowledge of the land is melting, too. Two weeks from today will be three years since my lifelong friend and brother from Ambler drowned under the ice. The river was open where it used to freeze.

All my life, villagers have questioned, “What should we teach our kids?” Often they didn’t teach us the old ways. Now those kids are my age. We are holding iPhones in one hand. We have hunting rifles in the other. We know this land, this ice, but we no longer know if we can trust our traditional knowledge.

Think about America — everything that has happened in hundreds of years — all that is happening in a few decades here. We are behind you, and we are in front of you. We are in a storm. We need your help to not make this storm worse.

America’s plan to make the environment cleaner should not be accomplished by bulldozing into the Brooks Range, building giant copper mines at the headwaters of our clean rivers. Polluting our food and water and fish, disrupting the caribou herd we count on for food.

This plan would bring a flood of people north — increasing resource conflicts for Indigenous people hunting and fishing on this land. Worse — what the EIS does not talk about — are the true effects this larger tidal wave of technology would have on what remains of traditional subsistence.

You won’t hear this from Trilogy Metals or the corporations. They are profit-motivated, and claim that subsistence, the land, and waters won’t be compromised. This is simply not true.

There are many reasons why you don’t hear from local people. People feel like a bomb is being dropped on us, and Outsiders only allow us to state what color of paint we prefer on the bomb. And those questions come from strangers. They use strange words. They have a clock ticking. And Indigenous people and rural residents are expected to follow their rules.

In the past, people spoke out against the road, only to watch the right-of-way be granted anyway. Villagers now stay silent or say little. They don’t trust speaking out.

This is just us — local people. Also, there is the land, and the animals. They are part of who we are here. The natural world is experiencing this blizzard, too. Suffering. Needing protection. And not able to speak the right language to be understood.

I know you understand some of this. I’m sorry to ask more of you. We need you to put these pieces together — to know how wrong for all of us this Ambler Road would be.

Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel “Ordinary Wolves” and most recently the nonfiction book “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou.” He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.

Photo credit: Seth Kantner