JUNEAU, Alaska—The call to action came the morning of August 31.
Tlingit artist Doug Chilton received a request to bring his custom 30-foot, fiberglass canoe from Juneau, Alaska, to Bismarck, N.D., where he will join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other paddlers protesting the construction of the $3.8 billion, four-state oil pipeline that will cross the Missouri River.
Fears that the project will destroy burial grounds and contaminate drinking water for thousands of tribal members quickly resonated with Chilton.
Chilton felt honored, but could this 51-year-old and his paddling partner, Deandre King, cover nearly 2,800 miles of highway and back road travel in time for the September 7 event?
That night, Chilton and King were on their way.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Chilton said after covering the first 1,800 miles armed with a banner stating Alaskans Stand with Standing Rock. “It really wasn’t. But when you think about the impact this could have on the environment, this is something we had to do.
“To stand with them is one thing, but when you start thinking about the impact and the possibilities that are there, it takes on a whole different meaning.”
During a rest in the Seattle area, Chilton learned of a fall 2013 spill in northwestern North Dakota, considered among the largest inland oil spills.
Chilton says sensitivities toward environmental contamination run deep for many Alaskans, especially those who recall the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill.
On that day, the tanker grounded on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The hull ruptured and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into these waters.
Closer to his Juneau home, many tribal and commercial fishing groups in the state’s southeast region worry about several Canadian mines under development. These British Columbia mines sit in watersheds near lucrative fishing streams that begin in Canada and flow into Southeast Alaska. One mistake with toxic waste disposal, they say, and U.S. waters face contamination.
Tribal and fishing groups have sought help from the U.S. Department of State under the Boundary Waters Treaty, with no success.
Canadian officials have said there is nothing to worry about, just two years after the Mount Polley mine damn collapsed unleashing 32 million cubic yards of waste into area creeks and streams. No waste hit U.S. waters, but fears persist.
This, Chilton says, is why he and other Alaska Native groups understand the fears of those in North Dakota.
“We understand the effect a mistake can have,” Chilton said. “We’ve seen it happen and it could happen again—here or there.”
Chilton has the support of the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and President Richard Peterson, who provided Chilton with a tribal flag for personal delivery.
“Tlingit and Haida are water people—it is the essence of our way of life in Southeast Alaska and why our hearts are hurting for our Standing Rock Sioux brothers and sisters,” Peterson said. “Our traditional values teach us that we are stewards of the air, land, and sea. Right now our very own river systems, watersheds, and ecosystems in Southeast Alaska are being threatened by Canadian mining activities upriver from us.
“Standing in solidarity with each other is how we as Alaska Native and American Indian people can ensure our voices will be heard when our tribal sovereignty is not being recognized and treaties are being violated. That’s why Central Council Tlingit & Haida fully supported Doug’s canoe journey and asked that he deliver our tribal flag to the Standing Rock Sioux.”
Chilton first heard the sweeping call for paddlers from Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II. Later friends in the Seattle area called Chilton directly and asked if he would join them on a trip to North Dakota.
Chilton quickly began planning a trip.
Leaving Juneau, accessible only by boat or plane, however, first meant taking a six-hour overnight ferry ride north to border town Skagway before he could begin driving.
From there a two-day trip through the Yukon Territory, then British Columbia and into Washington ensued.
By the time he arrived, Chilton had filled his half-ton GMC truck five times—at about $105 a refill—and needed new wheel bearings for his dual-axle trailer.
Chilton and his clan nephew King likely traveled farther than anyone to reach Bismarck, about 2,800 miles. That’s almost akin to driving from Los Angeles to New York City, but not nearly as direct.
Still, Chilton says he views himself as no different from paddlers who traveled just a few miles.
“I don’t think I thought about recognition, whether it’s local or national, but for us. It’s the significance of being out there in the water and unity you have,” he said. “For us, it’s always significant to be out there pulling together.”