Have you heard of a court case called Brackeen v. Haaland? If you’ve followed our communications for any length of time, you likely recognize one of those names. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native Cabinet secretary in U.S. history — is already under legal attack. And it probably won’t surprise you that the powerful entities behind this threat include the State of Texas and lawyers representing Big Oil.
But it’s not just Secretary Haaland being targeted. The suit, which seeks to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act, directly targets Native children and families. And because of the specific legal argument in play, it could also mean the end of tribal mineral rights, gaming revenues, Indian law as we know it, and ultimately our sovereignty as Indigenous nations. It’s not an overstatement to say our entire future could be at stake with a single decision — and that choice will now be made by a conservative-majority Supreme Court.
Right now — even as I drive from South Dakota to Minnesota in support of my Indigenous relatives fighting the Line 3 pipeline — the high court is deciding whether or not to hear this case. We will keep you updated every step of the way. This may well be the most important decision the Supreme Court has ever made in relation to Native justice. Please help us spread the word and stop this unconscionable attack on our Indigenous communities.
Wopila tanka — thank you for helping us stand up to racist colonial law. Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
The first time Inupiaq elder Bobby Schaeffer was old enough to join the community hunt for ugruk, or bearded seal, his dad taught him a critical lesson: always be observant, and always look at the whole picture.
Schaeffer was only 14 then, but he never forgot this advice. He thought of it every spring when he ventured out on to the glacial waters of Alaska’s northwest coast, navigating ice fields and powerful currents, to reach the resting ugruk.
He also thought of it as he began to notice unusual changes in the sea, ones that threatened to interrupt the thousand-year-old Inupiaq tradition that he looked forward to each year.
Decades after his first hunt, Schaeffer’s observations have become a key part of a recently released research project about climate change’s impact on the regional ugruk. The study revealed an unignorable trend: Kotzebue’s seal hunting season has shrunk about one day per year over the last 17 years, primarily due to a decline in sea ice.
It confirmed what Schaeffer and other Kotzebue elders had already suspected.
“We started noticing drastic changes from the time we normally hunt — changes from each decade, starting in the 60s through the 2000s,” Schaeffer said. His village, Kotzebue, sits on the top northwest of Alaska’s Arctic coastline. With a population of just over 3,000 people, it’s considered a hub for other, smaller villages in the region.
A Kotzebue hunter looks out on the sound.
Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2021.
The findings were part of the Ikaagvik Sikukun project, a collaborative effort between University of Alaska in Fairbanks scientists, Inupiat elders, and Kotzebue hunters. Over the course of one and a half years, the team used state of the art satellite imagery, local observations, and traditional Indigenous knowledge to quantify shifts in the surrounding environment.
The combined data determined that sea ice breaks up approximately 22 days earlier than it did in the first years of the study, leading to a shortened hunting season.
It’s a noteworthy development in a region known for its frozen coasts and wintery climate. Like many systems in the area, ugruk hunting is closely linked to a season’s ice conditions. In spring, ugruk follow the melting Chukchi Sea ice edge north towards the Kotzebue Sound. Once there, they rest on floating ice chunks, known as floes, and feed off the area’s abundant fish, shrimp and clams. This is when those in Kotzebue begin their annual hunt.
“We learned from our Kotzebue research partners that hunting ugruk is actually like hunting the right kind of ice,” said Donna Hauser, a marine mammal biologist at the university’s International Arctic Research Center and co-leader of the research project.
The village has already begun adapting to the new conditions. So far, it has mostly affected the hunting process rather than the harvest’s success. The lack of ice means less intensive journeys, and quicker, more frequent trips. The limited habitat also causes seals to gather closer together, making them easier to track and hunt. But while the shorter season hasn’t wiped out the seal harvest, the rapid shift still leaves troubling questions for the coming years.
“Hunters seem to have compensated for the reductions in the amount of time they can hunt ugruk. However, it’s also possible to imagine a future scenario where ice is farther from shore, hunting requires more searching, possibly in big stretches of more dangerous open water, and could result in reduced success in the future,” Hauser said.
Bearded seals sitting on the ice edge in Kotzebue Sound.
“The Arctic works best when it’s cold. The colder, the better. Because everything’s adapted for that, including the opportunities that people need to have for hunting,” said Alex Whiting, Inupiaq, who is the Director of Kotzebue’s Environmental Program.
The ugruk are only a part of the equation. In the interconnected ecosystem of the Arctic, one small adjustment can throw the whole food chain off balance. Schaeffer has also noticed changes in erosion, shellfish, whales, fish, and birds. With less to feed on, the ugruk are skinnier, and therefore provide for fewer families.
“It’s expected to continue to accelerate and get worse. And so it’s going to impact food security, and our way of life,” Whiting said.
Alaskan villages like Kotzebue can be extremely remote. Many aren’t connected to roads, and are only reachable by plane or boat. Even then, harsh weather conditions make transportation unpredictable. This dynamic can lead to unreliable cargo shipments and high grocery prices, heightening the need for subsistence hunting and fishing.
But the ugruk harvest means more than just food security. The tradition has been a part of Inupiat culture since time immemorial, and plays an important role in community bonding and generational ties.
“It’s a challenge for food security, but it’s also a challenge for having maximum opportunities to perpetuate cultural traditions and knowledge to future generations,” Whiting said. “It’s harder to train the next generation with activities that are becoming more difficult or not even happening anymore.”
Schaeffer believes the environmental problems are worsening an already existing disconnect between generations.
“I think the generational gap is probably the biggest problem. We have very few elders left in the community that can remember what they were taught by the elders of the past,” he said. “And now the new generation doesn’t take their children out to hunt as much as they used to.”
Some years the warning signs are more noticeable than others. In 2018 and 2019, the Kotzebue Sound sat empty, free from the ice chunks that usually crowded the surface. They were only 30 miles from the Arctic circle, but it might as well have been hundreds of miles south.
Whiting has been keeping a journal tracking such changes since 2002. In his initial research as the environmental program’s director, he consistently came across written observations from past explorers, anthropologists, and scientists. The entries dated back to the 1900s, but became less frequent overtime. He decided that it could be useful to revive the old practice with his own written recordings, after a dramatic snow storm swept through the village in the middle of summer.
“In the present, what you write about common places and common knowledge is not all that interesting. But as time passes, the information gets more interesting and also more valuable,” he said.
He didn’t have to wait long for his prediction about the journal’s future importance to come true. His daily observations ended up providing ideal qualitative detail to the study’s satellite imagery.
Inupiaq hunter Bobby Schaeffer.
Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2021
Kotzebue input was an essential element of the entire scientific process. In addition to using local recordings and elders’ insights to augment data, the research team worked with the village to craft relevant questions and determine the most pressing concerns.
“It’s a way to hold researchers accountable, because they’ve been coming to the Arctic for decades and just doing their own thing — not being very responsive to the people here or acknowledging us,” Whiting said.
Schaeffer agreed. He was used to scientists coming to Kotzebue without including Indigenous guidance, or even considering the value of traditional knowledge.
“This is unfortunate because we’re the ones that live it. We’ve seen how the damage is done to date. So it’s important for us to be involved,” he said. “We were lucky to get someone like (University of Alaska Fairbanks) on board this time.”
The benefits of the partnership were evident to everyone involved.
“I hope that our research approach, which centered Indigenous-led research questions and perspectives, can be an example for other scientists to learn from and re-examine their own approaches,” Hauser said. “I also think we did better and more complete science as a result of our collaborative approach.”
Hauser sees the project as a promising example for future studies.
“Our Ikaagvik Sikukun research project is ending, but we have built collaborations that will propel some of these questions and issues forward in Kotzebue and other communities as well,” she said.
Despite the program’s success, Schaeffer can’t help but worry what the future holds for his community and the practice that has sustained them for centuries.
“It’s scary to look at it in a negative way, but how else can you look at it unless something is done about it? What are the ugruk going to do to adapt, and what are we going to do to adapt?” he asked. “I guess time will tell.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a former Stanford Rebele Fellow turned special correspondent for Indian Country Today, currently reporting on and producing ICT’s ANCSA 50 project. She grew up in Alaska, and reports on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully.
I have good news for you from the Line 3 front! This past weekend in Minnesota, I joined four members of “the Squad” — U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar — to increase pressure on President Joe Biden to #StopLine3. As a Lakota elder and the former Standing Rock tribal liaison to the Oceti Sakowin camp during the NoDAPL struggle, I deeply understand the heartache my Anishinaabe relatives feel as this toxic pipeline invades their sacred lands and waterways — and I’m extremely grateful to these brave elected leaders for their solidarity.
Our Lakota team at the frontline included our co-director, Chase Iron Eyes, and the Squad was joined by Minn. State Sen. Mary Kunesh (a descendant of Standing Rock). As you know, the Indigenous women leading this fight — like Taysha Martineau of Camp Migizi, Tara Houska of Camp Giniw, and Winona Laduke of Honor the Earth — need all the support we can provide at the frontlines. It’s a meaningful step that the congresswomen, all of whom also signed onto a letter asking the president to intercede at Line 3, gave of their time and energy to visit resistance camps and amplify the struggle.
Notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who decided to run for Congress while at Standing Rock in 2017, and whom I remember vividly as a friendly young woman in blue jeans) was also scheduled to come to the frontlines, but Hurricane Ida forced her to stay home in New York City. The horrific flooding in her borough further highlights humanity’s need to move climate justice to the very top of our priority list — right now, while we still can.
I’m happy to report that we were able to meet face to face with each of the congresswomen and get to know their staffers. We will remain in touch and ready to team up on key issues going forward. In about a week, my colleague and sister in service, Madonna Thunder Hawk, will lead more Lakota elders on a three-day trip to Line 3 to further support Taysha at Camp Migizi. We won’t stop doing whatever it takes to build key alliances and grow this movement to protect Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with our Anishinaabe relatives! Phyllis Young Standing Rock Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Last week, we introduced you to Ruby Montoya, a schoolteacher and NoDAPL resistor being prosecuted as a terrorist by the U.S. government. She’s accused of putting four tiny holes into DAPL pipes before it was carrying oil — and for this, she’s facing the prospect of up to 20 years in federal prison. That’s far from acceptable, and it’s why we’re aiding her defense. Last week, Daphne Silverman, Ruby’s new attorney, submitted a motion to change Ruby’s prior guilty plea to not guilty based on crucial new discoveries. Read on for the details.
Ruby (right) and co-defendant Jessica Reznicek prior to their arrest. In our new video, Ruby and I talk about water protectors being labeled and prosecuted as terrorists.
After initial review of the case, our side has identified a number of major issues that should disqualify Ruby’s original plea. For one thing, the prosecutor and the pipeline company allege that millions of damage was done, but an expert hired by Daphne says it’s less than $50,000. In addition, some charges filed by the prosecutor require the pipeline to have been in use at the time it was allegedly damaged. It was not.
Those distinctions make a world of difference. Without damage over $100,000 to an operational pipe, these charges don’t qualify for federal court — and outside of federal court, there can be no terrorism enhancement. As I mention in our new video, this is eerily reminiscent of how I was treated during my own resistance to DAPL in 2016 and 2017. The government and law enforcement are demonstrating a pattern of deception designed to criminalize constitutionally protected protest, elevate charges, and label citizens who dare to care about the future of Planet Earth as terrorists. It’s infuriating.
If the court labels Ruby a terrorist, she’ll be punished like a career criminal — but Ruby has no criminal history at all. We expect a court decision on the plea change in the next couple months. Meanwhile, Daphne will be investigating, researching, and conducting additional review of the discovery. We hope that, with her expert legal assistance and support from folks like you, the justice system will ultimately treat Ruby with far more fairness than water protectors have come to expect. Stay tuned.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your solidarity with water protectors! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project