The Wishbone Hills coal mine, a controversial project proposed by the Usibelli Mine Company five miles west of the small community of Sutton, Alaska, and Chickaloon Village of the Chickaloon Tribe, is driving a wedge between local community members.
At a contentious September 7 town hall meeting that overflowed the building’s capacity to discuss the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ mining renewal permits for the project, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly favored positively. The borough’s petition cited the mine as a “God given resource.” A Chickaloon Tribal resolution was against, said Ahtna Athabascan/Suqpiat and Chickaloon tribal member Shawna Larson, a spokesperson for Chickaloon Village Coal.
A news story September 8 in the Anchorage Daily News elicited a racist rant in the comments section that ran for at least one day before the newspaper pulled it.
“Chickaloon and Sutton now owe their existence to federal tax money that is given to the ‘Chickaloon Indians’ who, for the most part are less Indian than my dog, and who want nothing more than to leech off of the rest of us,” the comment read. “…This is about a few deciding on the basis of emotionalism and feelings about something that they perceive as a problem without bothering to find out what steps are required to mitigate the problem. We do need the jobs. The needs of the many outweigh the idiocy of the few.”
The comment exposed an underlying racism that has continued through generations in these communities, of which the tribe has bore the brunt, said Larson. “A lot of those folks are descendants of the miners that migrated to the area in the 1930s and so some of that is mining pride.” According to the 2000 census, the population of Mat-Su Borough is 82.8 percent white with an American Indian population of 5.5 percent. The tribe is the third largest employer in the borough.
The borough’s mayor, Larry DeVilbiss, supports the project, as do community members who want the 75 to 125 jobs that Usibelli says the operation will bring. Those opposed include the tribe, property owners, and hunters in the area.
Pamela Miller, executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics said the mine poses a severe threat. “Coal dust is very much a threat to the health of people, and children and elders are especially vulnerable,” Miller said. Neighborhoods have sprung up since the original remote mine went into operation, and since the last small scale mining in the 1980s, and now lie within a half mile of the proposed project.
“The Chickaloon Tribal School is very close, so the tribe is very concerned about their children’s health,” Miller said. “Very fine coal dust can lodge very deep in the lungs and cause long-term damage and respiratory symptoms. We’ve also seen the divisiveness pitting community member against community member. The displays of racism towards the tribe are very disturbing to watch, and I think are the most troubling about this issue.”
Usibelli “has a number of good relationships with people in Sutton, both Native and non-Native,” said their spokesperson Lorali Simon. “We listen to people’s concerns and will do our best to reasonably accommodate them. Our mining permit is very comprehensive on environmental protections. Most people have not read the 3,100 page permit, so they do not fully understand how comprehensive it is.”
A resident who lives near their current Healy mining operation said Usibelli is a good neighbor. “Usibelli’s operation here has gone beyond what they have to do to restore mined areas. They’ve involved school classes planting trees and getting lessons in ecology, and they’re good to the community and their workers,” said Healy resident Judy Starkey-Saylor, who does not work for the mine. Starkey-Saylor said she is unaware of the current controversy, “But I do have concerns about the way I’ve heard the Chickaloon people have been treated in the past.”
The Ahtna once thrived in temperatures 90 degrees in the summer to 60 below in the winter. They trapped, followed caribou herds, and the return of the salmon. “Chickaloon Village was a central trading point,” Larson said. “There is an understanding among our people that Creator put us here to take care of the land, animals, forest and each other. I was taught stewardship is our responsibility from my grandparents, who were taught the same by their ancestors.”
The first white expedition through Chickaloon in the late 1880s found a vein of high quality coal, and the non-Native population soared to some 3,000. “Oral history tells us that at time of contact there were about 800 people here,” Larson said. “After the mine pulled out in 1922 less than 40 indigenous people remained.”
Outside laws enforced by game wardens controlled when they could hunt or fish. Over harvest by non-Natives reduced animal populations. Industrialization drove them away. Sewage, toxic coal tailings, and hazardous wastes washed into the rivers decimating the salmon. The rapid diet changes predisposed them to illnesses seen today in alarmingly high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. “The introduction of foreign foods also caused an incredible disconnect with the symbiotic relationship with the land and animals that had always been a crucial part of our cultural identity,” said Larson.
Perhaps the hardest hit were their women, matriarchal leaders who became little more than property of the men who arrived to work in Chickaloon, Larson said. “My great-great-grandfather, a 30-year-old from Arkansas found my great-great-grandmother playing in the woods when she was 13. He dragged her out, married her, and subjected her to a life of abuse. She later shot and killed him after a particularly brutal attack. Her story is not unique.”
When the original mine shut down in 1922, the Chickaloon had lost much of their tribal identities, cultural roles, and their relationship with the natural world. “Our environmental department is restoring traditional lands, streams, and habitats after years of resource exploitation with no foresight for future inhabitants. We still struggle to maintain a balance between the environment and economic development because we have an intimate understanding of how thoughtless resource extraction can impact our environment and its inhabitants,” Larson said. “To further complicate matters, our people have had to deal with territorial law, racism and discrimination, statehood, federal government, local government, and other laws and regulations that impact us today.”
Though the tribe has worked hard to re-unify and recover from these years of trauma, “internalized oppression, colonization, and generational trauma continue to manifest themselves today in a variety of ways among our people,” Larson said.
The tribe is addressing these issues. Chickaloon Village has the only tribally owned and operated school in Alaska, where they teach their history, culture, language, and traditional values. The health department focuses on physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually nourishing and restoring their people.
“I am sad to say we are still working to develop positive relationships within the borough, particularly with the borough assembly and with the Sutton community council,” Larson said. “Our tribe continues to suffer from racism and oppression and we fight every day to protect our environment, our culture, and our future generations.
“Our people have spent the last hundred years trying to recover from this. We are asking to be given a chance to keep our culture and our traditional way of life,” Larson said. “The mine propitiates the historical trauma through destroying our land, the blasting will scare away the moose that we eat and use in ceremony, it will pollute the stream and destroy our salmon stocks that are just finally bringing back.”
What is happening here has played out throughout Alaska. Gold, silver, copper and coal mines are located on rivers that carry tailings or wastes. Tribal communities need rivers, too, for water, sustenance, and ceremony. Where there is or was a mine there likely is, or once was, a tribal community.