The Yakutat Forelands, a pristine wilderness characterized by thriving forests, wetlands, streams and wildlife, borders the Pacific Ocean on the edge of southeastern Alaska. Located south of the city of Yakutat, these Forelands have been home to the indigenous Tlingit people for countless generations. Scientific evidence has traced their ancestry in the area back 10,000 years, while the natives claim they have occupied the region “since time immemorial” (ANHCM). For thousands of years the Tlingit have sustained their people from the abundance of life in the Yakutat Forelands, and as a result, have cultivated a strong relationship with the land and the animals that inhabit it. The Yakutat Forelands is a sacred land for the Tlingit people because of their rich ancestral history in the region and the land’s nourishing generosity.
Unlike most tribes in the United Sates, the Tlingit have the rare privilege of living on the same land that their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years. Tlingit culture is rooted in forming a deep connection with ancestors, with ancestor worship being a central sacred obligation (Emmons, 288). The Tlingit people believe that after death the spirit of a human lives on and that it is essential to keep these spirits happy. In many Tlingit rituals, in order to please the spirits of their ancestors, the names of the dead are called out and sacrifices are offered in the form of food, clothing, and tobacco (Emmons, 308). Memorial totem poles and house names are also created as a means of honoring ancestors (Emmons, 304). The strong communion between the Tlingit people and their ancestors is inherently strengthened by the fact that the Tlingit live on ancestral lands. The Yakutat Forelands contain numerous ancient village sites and burial grounds that provide a physical gateway to invaluable Tlingit treasures and closeness to their ancestors and rich past.
The deep sense of sacrality that the Tlingit tribe feels for the Yakutat Forelands also stems from the seemingly limitless materials and sustenance that the land provides for the people (CCTHITA). One of the most bountiful available resources to the Tlingit is the forest. Teeming with great cedar, spruce and hemlock trees, the forest provides materials for endless Tlingit necessities: canoes, houses, baskets, hunting tools, ceremonial hats, mats, weavings, etc. The forest also provides a wide variety of food sources for the Tlingit: cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries, bears, wolves, lynx, birds, foxes and moose. The Tlingit people also derive sustenance from the Pacific Ocean and the streams that feed into it. From these waters the Tlingit people harvest fish, whales, sea lions and shellfish (Emmons). The Tlingit people are eternally grateful for the life the Yakutat Forelands provides for them, and thus they regard it as a sacred place. Every natural resource adds to the spiritual importance of the land, but there is one treasure in the Yakutat Forelands that is the most sacred and significant for the Tlingit people: salmon.
Each summer, thousands of salmon flood the rivers and streams of the Forelands in order to spawn, making salmon the most abundant species in the region (ADFG). As a result, salmon has been a staple in the Tlingit diet for thousands of years and has become their most valuable natural resource (Emmons, 103). According to the Tlingit, animals possess a spirit and only differ from humans in physical form. In fact, the name Tlingit translates to “human beings” and was chosen by the people so that they could distinguish man from animal. Their belief in the indistinguishable spirits between animals and humans has led the Tlingit to consider salmon to be a powerful and sacred tribe that deserves great respect. In order to show their reverence, the Tlingit people appeal to the salmon spirits before capture and after the fish’s death. It is believed that if the people do not propitiate the salmon spirits, then the fish will not return to spawn in the rivers the following season (Emmons, 102). Salmon hunting is still a large part of the Tlingit culture today, with 89 percent of the households in Yakutat harvesting salmon for subsistence (SEACC, mining). Without salmon, the livelihood of the Tlingit tribe would be greatly threatened. The salmon’s ability to nourish and preserve the Tlingit tribe makes it incredibly sacred to the people.
In the past few decades, the amazing natural resources of the Yakutat Forelands, which support the Tlingit culture and lifestyle, are becoming an economic opportunity for outsiders. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Forelands were used as a logging resource (SitNews). By cutting down trees, loggers were eliminating one of the major resources that made the land so bountiful and sacred for the Tlingit people. Pollution from pulp mills also contaminated air and water resources, which threatened the future of the Tlingit’s sacred salmon and other animals. Upset by the desecration of their lands, the Tlingit people, along with the help of environmental groups such as The Sierra Club and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, compelled Congress to designate the Forelands as a “Land Use Designation II” through the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act. This congressional designation prohibits logging and related road developments in a given area (SitNews). As a result, the Tlingit people saved their sacred land from being spoiled. Unfortunately, this victory was overshadowed by the fact that there is more than just trees to be exploited in the Yakutat Forelands.
In 2009, a mining company named Geohedral LLC, staked more than 100 placer claims that covered over 91 square miles of the Yakutat Forelands. The company intended to use the area for gold and iron strip mining, claiming that the area contained $34 billion of gold (SEACC). For the Tlingit, this potential mining operation was a disaster for numerous reasons. Firstly, some of the proposed mining locations coincided with known ancestral village sites and burial grounds (Sacred Sites). The disturbance of these sites would be an immense dishonor to the spirits of the Tlingit buried there and a tragedy for the Tlingit people who worship and revere those ancestors. Another source of anxiety from the proposed project was pollution. Mining operations have the potential to contaminate the soil and the water sources around them by introducing chemicals and heavy metals into the environment. If soil and water contamination were to occur in the Forelands, the entire ecosystem would be poisoned. Water pollution and increased sediment loads in rivers and streams from mining would endanger the lives of thousands of salmon and thus the Tlingit people who depend on them for survival (SEACC, mining). The Tlingit feared that their abundant life source that is the Yakutat Forelands would be devastated, and that they would lose the land and the resources that they hold as sacred.
Forced to fight for their land once more, the Tlingit people and other citizens of Yakutat collected over 450 signatures on petitions that opposed any mining activity or development in the area. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and The Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp (ANB) also passed resolutions that opposed mining in the Forelands (SitNews). Protests of the proposed mining activity continued until 2010, when the Bureau of Land Management forfeited the mineral claims after Geohedral failed to pay mining fees (Sacred Sites). It is unclear why Geohedral did not meet their payments, but speculated possibilities include bankruptcy, failure to get mining permits, false estimates of the mineral worth in the area, and pressure from the indigenous people (KCAW).
Regardless as to why Geohedral pulled out of their mining project, the important fact is that the Tlingit people were able to save their sacred land. However, the struggle is not over yet. There are still no regulations in place for mining in the Yakutat Forelands, leaving the area vulnerable to future mining projects. Consequently, the future of the Yakutat Forelands is undecided. However, one thing is for certain: the Tlingit people will never stop fighting for their sacred land, because if they do, they stand to lose an integral part of their culture and themselves.