November 4, 2011
Prospects of a New Coal Mine in Chickaloon Village
Belden C. Lane claims that a landscape exists often “beyond [the] capacity of language” (72). The Ahtna people’s fight to keep Usibelli from putting in a coal mine on their sacred land on Wishbone Hill, outside of Sutton, Alaska, is representative of this difficulty in of conveying the significance of land. There are many different parties in this area with a diversity of wants, needs, and concerns for the land, many of which are at odds with one another. In their attempt to fight for the importance of preserving this place, the Ahtna are forced to be very conscientious with their choice of language. In order to be able to participate in a productive dialogue, none of the diversity of concerns, be them environmental, economic, or sacred, can be forgotten.
In 1916 a coal mine entered this community that was in and out of activity until the 1980s. Many of the miners and their surviving families, who moved to the Sutton area in this time period for the mine are still around. The arrival of these outsiders as well as the impacts of the mine greatly changed the nature of the Chickaloon Village. The mine left many detrimental impacts on both the environment and the health of the Ahtna. Before the mine, there were 800 Ahtna people in this area and after the mine officially closed, only 40 indigenous people remained (Hansen). The arrival of these miners also brought the loss of “much of their tribal identities, cultural roles, and their relationship with the natural world” (Hansen). Over- harvesting decreased animal populations, rivers were polluted, salmon populations destroyed, and this loss of food combined with the introduction of foreign foods led to many health issues for the Ahtna. Gender dynamics were also affected, as many of the matriarchal leaders became mere property of the new men who arrived (Hansen). The tribe is still working hard to recover from this trauma. The threat of a new coal mine on Wishbone Hill therefore has many weighty and foreshadowed negative implications.
Shawna Larson, a tribal member explains, “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” (Hansen). However, her voice is just one of a few who are fighting the new mine. For many others, the prospects of a new mine offer the promise of jobs and a far more promising new future. Many, especially descendents of miners who moved to the region for the old mines, see these jobs as the best thing that could happen to this area (Hansen). The animosity between these two sides has flared up a sense of racism towards Chickaloon Village. One local claimed “We do need jobs. The needs of the many outweigh the idiocy of the few” (Hansen). They are unable to see the significance of the concerns of the Ahtna, and this comes out in serious animosity between parties. Terri Hansen comments that the “displays of racism towards the tribe are very disturbing to watch, and…are the most troubling about this issue (Hansen).
As a strategic move, the Ahtna are not using the sacredness of the land as their official cause behind fighting for the land. They are more overtly voicing issue with the potential for social, health, economic, and environmental issues that could accompany the mine. The mine is within a half-mile of many homes (Hansen) and there is a road to the mine across the street from the Ya Ne Dah Ah children’s School. “Coal dust is very much a threat to the health of people, and children and elders are especially vulnerable,” one local explains (Hansen). They also claim that property values will go down with the coal mine. The Mat Valley Coalition, an organization concerned with preserving the future of this valley explained the impacts of coal mining on Chickaloon as: “destroy[ing] our clean air and plentiful water supply, chang[ing] our trails into roads for 50 ton coal trucks, spoil[ing] our quality of life, decimat[ing] the area moose populations, shrink[ing] our property values, [and] ruin[ing] the local businesses that depend on a clean and peaceful environment” (matvalley.org). The environmental impacts are also extremely tied up in the spiritual and cultural impacts. The presence of salmon is tied up in traditional ways eating and hunting moose is tied up in ritual, further complicating the implications of environmental degradation.
The conflict around whether or not these concerns outweigh the potential for financial benefit does not just exist between indigenous and non-indigenous people, but also exists within the indigenous community itself. The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (CVTC) is fighting the mine. However, there is another organization that, through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), allows Natives to receive money from Alaska resource extraction projects. ANCSA advocates within the tribe therefore want a new coal mine because they would be able to benefit financially beyond the potential for jobs. In this regard, the coal is seen as a “God given resource” (Hansen). Members of the same families fall on both sides of this debate. Pamela Miller, an activist for Alaska Community Action, commented, on “the divisiveness pitting community member against community member” (Hansen).
Another interesting dynamic is that Chickaloon is recognized as a sovereign government by the federal government but not by the Alaskan government (Baker “Chickaloon”). This means that they do not receive state funding, and therefore that they have to be especially careful with how they operate in the world, as their legitimacy as a nation is not fully protected. If they are not recognized as a real tribe, it makes claiming the importance of ritual and tradition especially complicated and sensitive. It appears that they recognize this complication, as the sacred nature of the land is not the main argument used publicly to protect it.
As activist and worker at the Ya Ne Dah Ah School, Amelia Baker, explained that “the dominant messaging about the coal mine is not about the sacredness of the land because this kind of discourse tends to turn off the general, conservative [population]… the movement here to stop the mine has focused on the coal mine’s affects on health and on property values, because the coalition wants to attract the general public. But really, the land here IS sacred and this mine threatens that. All land is sacred but this system has coerced people into thinking that jobs and money are the most high of values, even to the point that environmental organizers feel that they can not talk about the inherent sacredness of land without losing supporters” (Baker “Re:…”). Perhaps it is also not an especially helpful argument because so many people are deeply attached to the use of the land for different purposes. The land is sacred to the Ahtna who wish to stop the coal mine for its inherent sacredness in their culture. It is sacred to environmentalists because of its natural resources. It is sacred to the Ahtna and others who wish to mine it because of the “God given resources.” The word “sacred” is therefore very touchy. It is important land to all of these people for different reasons that lead to conflicting ways to use it.
The question of what makes land sacred is very interesting. Many people can claim a right to using the same piece of land for different reasons. Mircea Eliade writes that “the sacred is saturated with being” (Eliade 12). However, when a piece of land is saturated with lots of different ways of being, complications ensue. Nonetheless, the precedence of ecological, health, and community damage that coal mining has already done in this very community cannot be ignored in the decisions in how this land is to be used in the future.
Baker, Amelia. “Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.” Paper, University of California Santa Cruz, 27 Aug. 2011. Print.
Baker, Amelia. “Re: Wishbone Hill.” Message to Author. 2 Nov. 2011. E-mail.
“Chickaloon Coal Leases Announced.” Mat Valley Coalition. matvalley.org. 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred & the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc., 1987. Print.
Hansen, Terri. “Proposed Alaska Coal Mine Divides Alaska Communities, Elicits Racist Rant.” Indian Country. 19 September 2011. Web 4 November 2011. <http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/09/proposed-alaska-coal- mine-divides-alaska-communities-elicits-racist-rant/>
Lane, Belden C. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.” Religion and American Culture. Vol. 11(1). University of California Press, 2001. Print.
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