This is the second part in a series on developing a de facto Tlingit tribal nation in southeast Alaska. In part one of this series I explored why we should use ANCSA Village Corporations to develop resilient local economies. In short, a resilient, local, economy serves the needs of the Tlingit first. The western economy has not served our people well. In this part, we will look at some interesting demographics in our Alaska Native communities and discuss how municipal governments can be used and why they should be used to further the interests of the Tlingit people. To illustrate I will walk through how this strategy can be applied to the city of Yakutat’s opposition to mining activity in their region that would disrupt the local economy and way of life.
To start, here are some interesting demographic statistics from the 2000 Census:
Area: 38.6 square miles
Percentage Alaskan Native: 82%
Area: 8.7 square miles
Percentage Alaskan Native: 60.5%
Area: 9,459 square miles (that’s right. Nine thousand four hundred fifty-nine square miles)
Percentage Alaskan Native: 39.5%
Area: 14.2 square miles
Percentage Alaskan Native: 67%
We are specifically prohibited, under ANCSA, from forming a territorial tribal nation in Alaska. The reason for this is simple: resource control. The specific purpose of ANCSA was to settle land claims by Alaska Natives to pave the way for resource extraction; specifically oil extraction via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The last thing that those in power (legislators at the state and federal level and oil and mining companies) wanted in Alaska was a competing political and economic system standing in the way. Therefore, ANCSA was formed in such a way that:
The best way to describe this is as political horse trading, and this is the way American politics works. Those in power vie for more. The economic consequences of this reorganization of Tlingit life were explored in the previous article. We exhibit dismal rates of poverty in our communities. This is a fact of rural life in all of Alaska. There was a time when the Tlingit people used the resources around them to directly address their needs and wants, and the land was bountiful and rich. These days we must ask permission of the State to fish our territorial clan waters, and the jobs and wealth provided by our Village and Regional corporations largely bypass the Tlingit people in our communities.
Economically, ANCSA and the American economy have left our communities in the dark. Just as important, we have been politically left in the dark as well. While we have honorable representatives and senators in the Alaska State Congress, our ability to control our own affairs has been greatly hampered. How, for instance, do we push for protection of our Alaska Native interests at the local level? The answer is to look at those existing political institutions that we do control, or could with just a little bit of effort.
Looking at the 2000 census data above, we represent a total of 60% of the population in the towns of Angoon, Hoonah, Yakutat, and Kake which count under their jurisdiction over 9,500 square miles of territory. Add to this other towns and villages in southeast Alaska with majority Tlingit populations with less land such as Klawock and Klukwan. Then there are communities in which we are a minority such as Wrangell, Ketchikan and Juneau. Then there are our Haida brothers and sisters in Hydaburg, and our Tsimshian brothers and sisters in Metlakatla. Cumulatively we are a political force to be reckoned with throughout southeast Alaska; and our presence has been felt.
The idea I propose here is to start thinking of the municipal governments in these communities as decentralized arms of the Tlingit Nation and use them to protect Tlingit interests throughout southeast Alaska. By virtue of the workings of small town democracy, this is already the case. So I offer the case of mining claims by Geohedral LLC around Yakutat as an example of how we can take this a step or two further and protect our interests through a decentralized response from various Tlingit controlled or Tlingit allied institutions.
Geoheral LLC is a mining company based in Oklahoma City which has made a 60,000 acre mining claim in the Yakutat Forelands. The Alaska Native Brotherhood and National Congress of American Indians have already come out in opposition to the claim. The entire area is culturally significant to the Tlingit people and the fish and game the region produces has supported the people of Yakutat, white and native alike, for generations. The impact (pdf link) on the regions fishing industry would be devastating. Essentially, this mining project would destroy the local, sustainable, resilient fish and game based economy and replace it with one that serves the needs of outsiders rather than that of the people of Yakutat. While there may be short term gains in the local economy, many have questioned whether it is worth it to give up the resources that have sustained us for hundreds (if not thousands) of years for a short term pay off. Additionally, there are severe social consequences to such an abrupt change in the small town Alaska way of life. Have a look at Village Street in Juneau for an example.
What is to be done? 450 out of Yakutat’s 600 residents have signed petitions opposing mining development. Fortunately for them, Yakutat is a unified city-borough that is the largest in the world by area and the mining claim falls well within its jurisdiction. Yakutat’s city government, if it represents the will of the people, could make life a living hell for Geohedral. An outright ban on mining within the city and borough would be convenient, though it may not hold up in court. If not, who cares? It will certainly buy time for Yakutat and draw more attention to the issue. If the people of Yakutat have the will, then their city government can be used as a tool to hamper Geohedral at every turn. Let’s put all those miles of red tape and city bureaucracy to good use for once! Have you ever tried to get an occupancy permit from a city government that doesn’t want you to have one? Hell, have you ever tried to get an occupancy permit from a city government that DOES want you to have one? I envision spontaneous city government holidays and odd hours of operation for public utilities and any other place Geohedral would need to go to conduct business prior to the beginning of mining operations. Of course, the city could get sued if it goes too far. But the point is to send a message, and delay and bog down the mining company as long as possible while the issue is elevated to a regional and state level. Then it is time to call in the tribe.
Fortunately for the people of Yakutat, the Tlingit people think of Yakutat as one of their villages. It has been occupied by the Tlingit since before contact with Europeans and its bears a Tlingit name. The clans that occupy the region have a rich history and legitimate claims of ownership over the region. It is reasonable to believe that an attack on the Tlingit of Yakutat leaves all of the Tlingit vulnerable. With the city government of Yakutat employed in stalling and harassing tactics against Geohedral, the question becomes, how many Tlingits does it take to shut down a mining operation in one of our own communities? And we certainly wouldn’t be alone. Yakutat is only 40% Tlingit and 75% of the town has signed the petition voicing opposition to mining activity. An alliance with commercial and sports fishermen, charter boat operators and hunters would create a solid base of support in the community to launch a campaign of disruption. How many skiffs does it take to block a bay? How many bodies and cars does it take to occupy and block the critical spaces between the Yakutat airport and the nearest hotel? What would happen if every employee of the utility companies in the city walked off the job? What would happen if the people of Yakutat knew ahead of time and were prepared? The Tlingits of Yakutat, in control of their city government and in alliance with their neighboring Kwaans and clans could fight and win a war against Geohedral without a single casualty inflicted on either side. The question is whether we have the political will to begin thinking of ourselves as a nation, and start acting like one.