We remain 100 percent focused on our ongoing fight to end the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), despite the turmoil in the world around us. As you’ll see in a new video we co-produced with Standing Rock, a strong coalition among South Dakota’s tribal nations has formed to get it done.
In the video, you’ll hear from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairwoman Janet Alkire, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier. It’s the first in a planned series that will delve more deeply into the complex issues faced by the tribes in their fight to stop DAPL — a pipeline which continues to operate without a permit for its crossing under Lake Oahe just north of the Standing Rock Nation.
Chairwoman Alkire has been actively relaying tribal concerns directly to Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. She recently returned from a meeting with him, in which she discussed the lack of transparency concerning DAPL’s oil spill response plan for the Missouri River and the terrible safety track record of its parent company, Energy Transfer. As detailed in a press release from the tribe, over a recent 8-year period, nine pipelines owned and controlled by Energy Transfer and its affiliated companies experienced nearly 300 spills — including 50 large ones in vulnerable areas like Lake Oahe.
Until this pipeline has a valid Environmental Impact Statement and federal permit, it is operating in violation of the laws designed to safeguard our people, our delicate water systems, and our sacred homelands. We must keep the pressure on U.S. leaders to do the right thing and shut DAPL down. Please watch our video, stay tuned for the next chapters, and be ready when the time comes to take action together.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with Standing Rock and the entire Oceti Sakowin! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel Lakota People’s Law Project
Lakota People’s Law Project 547 South 7th Street #149 Bismarck, ND 58504-5859
The Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) law and policy center. All donations are tax-deductible.
In 2016 and ‘17, when tens of thousands of people showed up at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, our rallying cry was “mni wiconi” — water is life. Many of us hail from river tribes, and this saying isn’t just some trite slogan for us; it is our reality as Lakota People. We’re all connected by our ties as human beings, just as water systems are connected above and underground. That’s why, in February — in the same spirit as NoDAPL — representatives from many Great Plains tribes gathered together to bring one voice to the halls of power in South Dakota in support of SB 181.
This legislation, proposed by Lakota State Senator Red Dawn Foster, would require our Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources to assemble a task force to study the adoption of a comprehensive and sustainable watershed ecosystems management approach. Please watch our new video, a co-production by Lakota Law and Uniting Resilience, the nonprofit I run with my partner, Felipa De Leon. It depicts highlights from our presentations and the real impression we made on the senators.
Watch: Lakota Law’s Chase Iron Eyes joined a host of Lakota leaders in addressing the SD State Senate about the importance of SB 181.
The day was a victory, though the legislation didn’t pass this go-round. The senators listened closely and showed real appreciation for our dedication to achieving environmental justice through legislative channels. Tamar Stands And Looks Back made a presentation in Lakota; Chief John Spotted Tail impressed with his words and ceremonial headdress; Lakota Law’s Madonna Thunder Hawk and Chase Iron Eyes made key points that shook the room; and we also heard from the new Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairwoman, Janet Alkire, and many others. In the end, senators from both parties spoke in favor of Red Dawn’s legislation and encouraged us to come back with the bill next session.
That’s exactly what we’ll do. We’re ready to show the power of tribal unity until the bill passes. This legislation is important, because the groundwater and aquifers that connect Lakota Country must be protected. As a study I did in cooperation with Lakota Law shows, the long history of uranium mining throughout South Dakota means our people often rely on toxic water. That’s not acceptable, and we will change it. I invite you to stay connected with us. Only by working and showing up together can we make the right impressions, overcome historical barriers, and improve the health and safety of our communities.
Wopila tanka — thank you for helping us protect our homelands and water! Monique “Muffie” Mousseau Via the Lakota People’s Law Project
Lakota People’s Law Project 547 South 7th Street #149 Bismarck, ND 58504-5859
The Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) law and policy center. All donations are tax-deductible.
NDN Collective released a damning climate justice report Tuesday on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, the same day as World Water Day.
In a detailed analysis, the Climate Justice Campaign calls on the Biden administration to drain and shut down the pipeline, which the roughly 200-page report argues would protect the nation’s longest river, the Missouri River, and its basin. The report is drawn from court documents, treaties, government documents, news stories, congressional hearings and more.
Engineering and construction flaws of DAPL that threaten tribal sovereignty; and
Six continuous years of failed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers processes.
“The vision of this report is to hold accountable these agencies to their own regulations, to their own laws, to their own climate agendas, but also to support our communities in understanding the regulatory processes and the laws so that we can push against them, or hold these agency accountable to their own laws,” said NDN Collective’s Climate Justice Campaign Director Jade Begay, Diné. Begay also sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Begay noted how the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opted out as a cooperating agency in the environmental review process. This happened after the tribe was repeatedly denied access to information, which the report details.
The tribal nation didn’t immediately respond to Indian Country Today’s attempts for a comment.
NDN Collective Climate Justice Organizer Kailea Frederick, Tahltan and Kaska, said draining and shutting down the pipeline would send a clear message to its operator, Energy Transfer, and other companies like it: It’s not okay to violate treaties or environmental protection laws. People, water and the land must be respected, Frederick said.
“The current routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a blatant suppression of treaty rights and free, prior and informed consent,” Frederick said.
A recent U.N. report states climate change is already “causing widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world” and calls for urgent action to adapt to climate change and to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is actually a conversation on life and death,” Frederick said. “The other voices in the room that continue to try to dominate the conversation are trying to give an illusion that we have more options and more time than we do. And the reality of climate change is that we actually have very few options and we have very limited time to get it right.”
There’s been years of community resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline and recently the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe claimed a legal victory in the case.
Indigenous water protectors and allies blocked the pipeline for months starting in 2016 and were met with violence.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued Energy Transfer over National Environmental Policy Act violations. A district court judge ruled a new Environmental Impact Statement would be required by the company. The Supreme Court denied Energy Transfer’s bid to thwart environmental oversight.
The new environmental impact statement is due in September and a public comment period will open up after that.
NDN Collective will issue a call to action at that time and help the public navigate the public comment requirements because comments must meet strict guidelines that specifically deal with the underwater pipeline crossing on Lake Oahe.
But the possibility of shutting down the pipeline entirely is left up to the executive branch and the Biden administration has so far refused to do so.
Begay questions if the policies and proposals in the Build Back Better Plan and the Green New Deal will be enough to help with a needed paradigm shift.
“The paradigm shift of not consuming as much, staying home more, being more localized, valuing getting around and living our lives without fossil fuels – and plastics,” Begay said.
Frederick said “we don’t have a choice at this moment in time other than to think about how we’re going to live our lives differently and how we’re going to descale.”
NDN Collective releases Dakota Access Pipeline report on World Water Day. The organization worked on the report for over a year. It offers the most thorough, and critical, analysis of the DAPL project yet. (Courtesy of NDN Collective)
“Indigenous peoples need to see the government acting in good faith and so one action towards that is taking action around DAPL and reducing the flow and eventually abandoning the pipeline. That’s our demand,” Begay said.
The NDN Collective report took more than a year to develop in “consultation with an array of skilled and respected industry Indigenous and non-Indigenous specialists who also possess intimate knowledge of the DAPL.”
“It feels like a very big responsibility to get it right, on many different levels,” Frederick said.
The environmental impact statement requires the public’s participation to determine its contents but the report found that didn’t happen with the DAPL project.
“Previously, through the EIS process, there was a time that they would sit down with tribes and strategize together and this process was called scoping. And with the DAPL process, this did not happen,” Frederick said.
The report is critical of how the Army Corps of Engineers has carried out “flawed” processes.
“The way that the entirety of the DAPL process has gone even just now that this pipeline is operating illegally without the right permitting, it really sets the precedent for the other future types of projects,” Frederick said. “If this specific issue around DAPL is not corrected and if this pipeline is not drained and shut down, that it lets other agencies know or companies know that it’s okay to operate in this way with our people on our lands. And the truth is that it’s not okay. And that it is a true violation of treaties.”
The report states the Army Corps lacks “transparency by continuing to withhold critical technical information requested repeatedly by the Tribes while hiding under the guise of “national security”.
One of the major concerns listed in the report is an “independent third-party.” A contractor that is meant to be neutral in the environmental review process has blatant financial ties to the oil and gas industry through membership in the American Petroleum Institute, according to the report.
The report calls for transparency and diligent assessments on the impact of the DAPL project.
Five key elements are:
1. Challenge the legitimacy of the DAPL on Indian land – Treaty Rights 2. Approval of DAPL continues as modern-day dispossession of Indigenous people 3. Army Corps and the Trump era NEPA 4. Major DAPL routing, engineering, spill risk, and safety issues 5. Failure to adequately address environmental justice
“We feel really grateful that our campaign has been able to steward this report coming out into the world,” Frederick said.
She’s looking forward to seeing how tribes and other organizations utilize the material compiled in the report.
Toward the end of last year, I told you about Gidimt’en Checkpoint — which has rapidly become something akin to a Canadian Standing Rock. Right now, the Wet’suwet’en People are standing strong to protect their yintah, or homelands, and the planet we all share from the Coastal GasLink pipeline. But, just as happened with our own movement against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016-’17, the fossil fuel industry — backed by big banks, the colonial government, and militarized law enforcement — is ignoring their sovereign rights and violently attempting to stamp out Indigenous-led resistance.
After setting up their Gidimt’en Checkpoint blockade, the Wet’suwet’en People have been subject to violent raids by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including the use of sniper rifles and police dogs. 30 people have been arrested, including two elders. In one incident, a chainsaw and axes were used to break into homes and arrest movement leaders, journalists, and legal observers. One CBC TV journalist was jailed for three days, and the home he was removed from was subsequently burned to the ground.
I’ve also authored a blog detailing some of the history of the Wet’suwet’en struggle for justice. Notably, this pipeline crosses unceded lands under the care of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs for time immemorial. Their free and prior and informed consent should be the first requirement before any project threatening their sacred headwaters, Wedzin Kwa, can move forward. Their consent has not been given, and their title to the land has been upheld by Canada’s Supreme Court.
The violence against Wet’suwet’en land protectors must end and their yintah protected. It’s long past time to stop treating Indigenous People protecting their homelands and Unci Maka — our Grandmother Earth — like terrorists and start listening to our calls for environmental justice.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing strong with the Wet’suwet’en! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
ANISHINAABE LANDS — Line 3 is dead. Long live Line 93.
Enbridge’s controversial Line 3 construction project is complete.
“The Line 3 replacement project/Line 93 came into service on Friday, October 1, as expected through N(orth) Dakota and Minnesota,” Juli Kellner, communications specialist for Enbridge, said in an email to Indian Country Today.
And with that, Line 3 will be deactivated, according to Kellner.
After nearly 8 years of Indigenous and citizen opposition that saw numerous protests and arrests in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a string of state, federal and tribal court filings, it appears that the corporate giant has won.
Not so, say Indigenous and non-Native water protectors.
As clean-up begins and more construction accidents come to light, water protectors are claiming victory on a number of fronts.
Members of Indigenous advocacy organizations such as Honor the Earth and the Indigenous Environmental Network as well as tribal grassroots pipeline opponents say that the fight against Line 3 helped focus the world’s attention on what they describe as an untenable corporate push to build fossil fuel infrastructure projects at the expense of the environment.
“Line 3 is a crime against the environment and Indigenous rights, waters and lands and it marks the end of the tar sands era — but not the resistance to it,” said Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth.
LaDuke, a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, praised the actions of water protectors opposing the pipeline.
“Your brave efforts have reshaped the world’s views on the climate crisis that we are in,” she said.
Signs near the Firelight water protector camp along country Highway 2 near Bagley, Minnesota, on Oct. 4, 2021. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
On Oct. 11, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, activists kicked off a week of protests calling out President Joe Biden for failing to stop Line 3, and for failing to meet his promises on addressing climate change and protecting Indigenous treaty rights and lands. On Oct. 14, dozens of Indigenous leaders held a sit-in at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., in an effort to stop extractive fossil fuel industry projects such as Line 3.
The Indigenous Environmental Network issued a statement questioning Enbridge’s rosy outlook on the project.
“Although Enbridge is pushing the message that Line 3 is a done deal and that they followed all the rules and regulations, we can see even at this late date the continuing harm to our lands and waters,” the statement said. “There have been spills, frac-outs and pierced aquifers even to this day.”
Enbridge’s decision to change the name of Line 3 to Line 93 further confirms what water protectors knew all along, said Taysha Martineau, founder of Camp Migizi, a camp for water protectors opposing Line 3.
“We stated from the beginning that this was an entirely new pipeline project,” said Martineau, a citizen of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe.
Although Enbridge has repeatedly framed the pipeline construction as a safety-based replacement project for the 32-inch Line 3, Line 93 is 34 inches wide, allowing it to carry tar sands oil that Line 3 could not.
Leaders of the White Earth and Red Lake Bands of Ojibwe and Line 3 opponents insist that the negative fallout from pipeline construction continues.
Frank Bibeau, attorney for and citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said the pipeline construction exacerbated already low water levels and endangered the health of manoomin or wild rice.
In a unique rights of nature lawsuit filed in White Earth tribal court, tribal citizens accuse the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources of failing to protect the state’s fresh water by allowing Enbridge to pump up to five million gallons of additional water from construction trenches. That case is ongoing.
In January, Enbridge construction crews accidentally pierced an artesian aquifer near Clearbrook, Minnesota, causing the aquifer to lose about 24 million gallons of groundwater. The Department of Natural Resources learned about the accident in June when independent monitors reported seeing water pooling in ditches, according to a report issued by the agency.
“Enbridge began work at the Clearbrook Terminal site in early 2021 but did not follow the construction plans it provided to the DNR,” according to the report.
Enbridge erected a protective boom, shown here on Oct. 4, 2021, around a frac-out of drilling fluid along the Mississippi River near Solway, Minnesota. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
In September, the agency ordered Enbridge to pay $3.32 million in penalties, including $300,000 to pay for loss of groundwater as well as create a restoration plan to stop the groundwater flow within 30 days. The agency is also investigating two additional sites of artesian aquifer breaches by the company, but did not disclose the locations.
The Department of Natural Resources has referred the breaches to the Clearwater County attorney where the company could face criminal charges.
On Oct. 17, the agency reported that Enbridge failed to meet a deadline to clean up the ruptured aquifer near Clearbrook and announced that Enbridge must pay compensation for the additional time it takes to stop the flow of groundwater.
Kellner said the company is working with state and local officials.
“Enbridge is fully cooperating with the Minnesota DNR in correcting uncontrolled groundwater flows at Clearbrook and is working with the DNR as two other locations are being evaluated,” she wrote.
Enbridge tanks sit at the company’s terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, on Oct. 8, 2021, the destination of petroleum products flowing through the newly completed Line 93. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
LaDuke called the company’s failure to meet the deadline alarming.
“If Enbridge can’t meet basic safety requirements, they should not be allowed to operate a pipeline,” she said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future.”
In August, the Minnesota Public Pollution Control Agency reported that Enbridge created 28 spills of drilling mud during the summer. The agency confirmed the spills in response to a letter from Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party lawmakers demanding an accurate account of the spills.
“Our friends have reported frac-outs further down from the headwaters of the Mississippi,” Bibeau said.
“We are looking into doing a thermal imaging flight over the pipeline to see where all the damage is because we don’t think the DNR or the Public Pollution Control Agency is actually investigating these locations,” he said.
Earlier this month, Ron Turney of the Indigenous Environmental Network and members of Honor the Earth took Indian Country Today via canoe to an Enbridge frac-out location near the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Turney, a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has been using a drone camera to monitor the pipeline. The location, near Solway, Minnesota, is not accessible on foot or visible from the road. A large boom surrounded the area where opaque white material appeared to rest on top of the water.
Igniting a movement
On Oct. 2, Honor the Earth sponsored a celebration on Madeline Island in Wisconsin of traditional Ojibwe subsistence food and activities as a means to celebrate water protector victories fighting Line 3.
The event coincided with Treaty Day, a commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of 1854 at the town of LaPointe on Madeline Island. In this treaty, the Ojibwe established reservations in their traditional homelands and retained rights to hunt, fish and gather.
Water protector celebration
Water protectors gathered at Madeline Island in Wisconsin in October 2021.
Madeline Island or Mooningwanekaaning, “home of the yellow-breasted flicker,” is considered a sacred place by Ojibwe and the birthplace of the tribe’s traditional religion.
About 150 people gathered to share traditional activities such as butchering sturgeon, parching wild rice, feasting, dancing, singing and playing lacrosse.
“We used to survive on this island,” said Paul DeMain, a citizen of the Ojibwe and Oneida tribes and an Honor the Earth board member who was among those at the celebration. “To me, it’s a productive fortress, a place of healing.”
DeMain said water protectors were bound to lose in the massively unequal fight with a global corporate giant such as Enbridge. Among the victories, however, was that the fight focused the world’s attention on the impact of ongoing reliance on fossil fuel on climate change and the preservation of the Earth.
“We came here to celebrate our victories over the fossil fuel industry, our survival and to heal our trauma of watching our people get arrested, harassed, beaten and hurt,” DeMain said.
“We came here to show we could feast in camaraderie with the rich, poor, Indigenous and non-Indigenous and work on forging a path ahead.”
This article contains material from The Associated Press.
SALT LAKE CITY — President Joe Biden will expand two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a public lands tug-of-war that has played out over three presidential administrations, the state’s governor said Thursday.
Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, released a statement expressing disappointment in a decision by the administration to expand Bears Ears National Monuments and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which were downsized significantly under President Donald Trump.
They cover vast expanses of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley. The Trump administration cut Bears Ears, on lands considered sacred to Native American tribes, by 85 percent and slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half.
Cox’s statement did not include specifics how much of the monuments Biden plans to restore, and the White House and the U.S. Interior Department declined immediate comment.
Cox noted he had offered to work with the administration on a legislative solution.
“The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” he said in the statement released with other state leaders.
Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma said he is “happy” and “grateful for the advocacy of all those related to protecting Bears Ears and for the Hopi tribe” because it means a lot to the clan memberships.
“For Hopi, this is a significant step forward and the Biden administration did make some commitments to listen to Native America and Biden’s actions does prove that it is happening. We do need to protect these sacred sites that not only the Hopi tribe but other tribes find significant within their history.”
The chairman said he and the vice chairman will be headed to Washington, D.C.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to tour the area before preparing a formal recommendation to President Biden.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also criticized Biden by saying in a tweet Thursday that he “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” and find a permanent solution for the monuments.
“Yet again, Utah’s national monuments are being used as a political football between administrations,” Romney said. “The decision to re-expand the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation … today’s “winner take all” mentality moved us further away from that goal.”
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, applauded Biden’s decision and said she hopes it marks an initial step toward his goal of conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.
Trump’s cuts ironically increased the national attention to Bears Ears, Rokala said. She called on the federal government to increase funding to manage the landscape and handle growing crowds.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, traveled to Utah in April to visit the monuments, becoming the latest federal official to step into what has been a yearslong public lands battle.
Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016. The site was the first to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
The Bears Ears buttes, which overlook a grassy valley, are considered a place of worship for many tribes, according to Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group incudes the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe.
The Trump administration’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. However, activity was limited because of market forces.
Conservative state leaders considered the size of both monuments U.S. government overreach and applauded the reductions.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations sued to restore the monuments’ original boundaries, arguing presidents lack legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. Meanwhile, Republicans argued Democratic presidents have misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what’s necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.
The administration has said the decision to review the monuments was part of an expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “harmful” policies.
NATHAN HOWARD and GILLIAN FLACCUSSat, October 2, 2021, 9:08 AM
STEVENS VILLAGE, Alaska (AP) — In a normal year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon to tide them through the winter would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them.
This year, there are no fish. For the first time in memory, both king and chum salmon have dwindled to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing on the Yukon, even the subsistence harvests that Alaska Natives rely on to fill their freezers and pantries for winter. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its bounty — far from road systems and easy, affordable shopping — are desperate and doubling down on moose and caribou hunts in the waning days of fall.
“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fish camp. “We have to fill that void quickly before winter gets here.”
Opinions on what led to the catastrophe vary, but those studying it generally agree human-caused climate change is playing a role as the river and the Bering Sea warm, altering the food chain in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. Many believe commercial trawling operations that scoop up wild salmon along with their intended catch, as well as competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean, have compounded global warming’s effects on one of North America’s longest rivers.
The assumption that salmon that aren’t fished make it back to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold up because of changes in both the ocean and river environments, said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on Yukon River salmon issues for a decade and is the Alaska Venture Fund’s program director for fisheries and communities.
King, or chinook, salmon have been in decline for more than a decade, but chum salmon were more plentiful until last year. This year, summer chum numbers plummeted and numbers of fall chum — which travel farther upriver — are dangerously low.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What is the one smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point to and stop?’” she said of the collapse. “People are reluctant to point to climate change because there isn’t a clear solution … but it’s probably the biggest factor here.”
Many Alaska Native communities are outraged they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change — and many feel state and federal authorities aren’t doing enough to bring Indigenous voices to the table. The scarcity has made raw strong emotions about who should have the right to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and underscores the powerlessness many Alaska Natives feel as traditional resources dwindle.
The nearly 2,000-mile-long (3,200-kilometer) Yukon River starts in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in both Canada and Alaska as it cuts through the lands of Athabascan, Yup’ik and other tribes.
The crisis is affecting both subsistence fishing in far-flung outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribal members in communities along the lower Yukon and its tributaries.
“In the tribal villages, our people are livid. They’re extremely angry that we are getting penalized for what others are doing,” said P.J. Simon, chairman and chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in the Alaska interior. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. We have a right to have a say in how things are drawn up and divvied up.”
More than a half-dozen Alaska Native groups have petitioned for federal aid, and they want the state’s federal delegation to hold a hearing in Alaska on the salmon crisis. The groups also seek federal funding for more collaborative research on effects that ocean changes are having on returning salmon.
Citing the warming ocean, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy requested a federal disaster declaration for the salmon fishery this month and has helped coordinate airlifts of about 90,000 pounds (41,000 kilograms) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s advisor for rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development.
That’s done little to appease remote villages that are dependent on salmon to get through winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures can dip to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 C) or lower.
Families traditionally spend the summer at fish camps using nets and fish wheels to snag adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to the place where they hatched so they can spawn. The salmon is prepared for storage a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets that are frozen, canned in half-pint jars or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.
Without those options, communities are under intense pressure to find other protein sources. In the Alaska interior, the nearest road system is often dozens of miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snow machine or even airplane to reach a grocery store.
Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many: A gallon (3.8 liters) of milk can cost nearly $10, and a pound of steak was recently $34 in Kaltag, an interior village about 328 air miles (528 kilometers) from Fairbanks. A surge in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately hit Alaska Natives has also made many hesitant to venture far from home.
Instead, villages sent out extra hunting parties during the fall moose season and are looking to the upcoming caribou season to meet their needs. Those who can’t hunt themselves rely on others to share their meat.
“We have to watch our people because there will be some who will have no food about midyear,” said Christina Semaken, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Kaltag, an Alaska interior town of fewer than 100 people. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or chicken.”
Semaken hopes to fish next year, but whether the salmon will come back remains unknown.
Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaska waters to make sure that commercial fisheries aren’t intercepting wild Yukon River salmon. They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure an accurate count of the salmon that escape harvest and make it back to the river’s Canadian headwaters.
Yet changes in the ocean itself might ultimately determine the salmon’s fate.
The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, had unprecedented ice loss in recent years, and its water temperatures are rising. Those shifts are throwing off the timing of the plankton bloom and the distribution of small invertebrates that the fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that’s still being studied, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Researchers have also documented warming temperatures in the river that are unhealthy for salmon, she said.
Because salmon spend time in both rivers and the ocean during their unique life cycle, it’s hard to pin down exactly where these rapid environmental changes are most affecting them — but it’s increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit, Howard said.
“When you dig into all the available data for Yukon River salmon,” she said, “it’s hard to explain it all unless you consider climate change.”
Alaska Natives, meanwhile, are left scrambling to fill a hole in their diet — and in centuries of tradition built around salmon.
On a recent fall day, a small hunting party zoomed along the Yukon River by motorboat, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, for roughly a month in their small community of Stevens Village.
At the end of a long day, they butchered the animals as the Northern Lights blazed a vibrant green across the sky, their headlamps piercing the inky darkness.
The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally host several dozen families harvesting salmon, sharing meals and teaching children how to fish. On this day, it was eerily quiet.
“I don’t really think that there is any kind of bell out there that you can ring loud enough to try to explain that type of connection,” said Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon, to us, is life. Where can you go beyond that?”
A controversial pipeline project in northern Minnesota is complete and oil is scheduled to start flowing this week.
Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project will carry oil as soon as Friday despite months-long protests against it. The Canadian-based company’s president and CEO, Al Monaco, said in a statement that the pipeline “will soon deliver the low-cost and reliable energy that people depend on every day.”
The project was completed despite stiff opposition from tribes, environmentalists and others who argued that the 1,097-mile pipeline — including the 337-mile segment across Minnesota — would violate treaty rights, worsen climate change and risk spills in waters where Native Americans harvest wild rice.
It will carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands, a heavier crude that consumes more energy and generates more carbon dioxide in the refining process than lighter oil.
In a statement, Camp Migizi promised to remain an open camp and to disrupt and stop pipeline work. More than 900 people have been arrested or ticketed at protests along the route since construction began in December.
“We ask that you remember us, as we will still be here, fighting to protect all that is sacred, even if they build line 3,” read the statement.. “Our community that we have built here will still remain, and we ask that you remember that just like all of the Indigenous communities we have come from we are still here, learning, fighting, and healing.”
The main remaining tasks are cleanup and restoration along the route, said Leo Golden, an Enbridge vice president in charge of the project. Some parts have already been restored with crops and native grasses growing on them, he said. But construction mats still need to be removed from wetlands and other cleanup work will continue through next summer.
Golden said officials do not expect to get the final sign-offs from landowners along the route until next summer.
Enbridge said the project was necessary to replace a deteriorating pipeline built in the 1960s, which could carry only half its original volume of oil, and to ensure the reliable delivery of crude to U.S. refineries. Enbridge expects to start running the pipeline at its full capacity of 760,000 barrels per day in mid-October.
Line 3 starts in Alberta, Canada, and clips a corner of North Dakota before crossing Minnesota en route to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The Canadian, North Dakota and Wisconsin segments were finished earlier and the Canadian and Wisconsin legs are already in service.
Water protectors tour an Enbridge Line 3 construction site near Park Rapids, Minnesota, on June 6, 2021. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
The process of filling the line starts in North Dakota on Friday, Golden said. Enbridge puts the cost at $5.3 billion Canadian dollars for the Canadian section and $4 billion U.S. dollars for the work in the U.S.
Opponents have challenged the pipeline’s permits in court to no avail so far. They’ve also unsuccessfully sought to persuade Biden, who canceled a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline soon after taking office, to intervene.
A challenge is still pending in federal court to a permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but that case didn’t block construction. Opponents can still ask the state Supreme Court to review a clean water certification granted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Also, a novel “rights of nature” lawsuit is pending in the White Earth Ojibwe tribal court. It names Manoomin, or wild rice, as one of the plaintiffs. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has asked a federal appeals court to block the case.
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.