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Gold fever ails Alaska borders

Posted: May 15, 2014 - 11:11pm

Around 300 people packed the Juneau Arts and Culture Center Wednesday night to hear author and National Geographic explorer Wade Davis, Tahltan first nation leaders, and Tlingit and Haida leaders speak on the sacred headwaters of the Stikine, Skeena and Nass rivers. The conversation led way to the threats posed to fish and Native ways of life by “the gold-rush mentality” of Canadian industrial development.

One major result of the Tahltan leaders’ visit was a Tlingit, Haida and Tahltan commitment to dissolve the “imaginary line” of the boundary and to work together on transboundary mines and other issues.

“It’s time for us to realize that (boundary line) is something that can no longer keep us apart,” Richard Peterson, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President, said. “We’re not going to let other people divide us anymore.”

Peterson said he is known as pro-development, but “not at the sake of our resources.”

“The impact (of Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, or KSM, a proposed gold, copper, silver and molybdenum mine on the transboundary Unuk River) is going to be for hundreds and hundreds of years, if not thousands of years,” Peterson said. “As Native people, we’re not just here working for ourselves today. We’re always thinking about generations down.”

Peterson said he and other Alaska natives felt dismissed by Seabridge Gold, KSM’s proponent, at a meeting last year.

“When our people get up and talk about our history, our culture, our concerns, at least have the dignity and respect to shut up and listen … these are million-dollar-suit people, and they sat in a room of people and they looked down on us. They were condescending and rude. And I will never forget that. I will keep my eyes, my ears and my heart open, but … I know what they think of me, and I know what they think of our people,” he said.

Tahltan Central Council President Annita McPhee said so much development is happening in British Columbia that the Tahltan can’t even keep track of it all. At any given time, around 250 exploration permits are active on Tahltan land, she said.

Of 15 megaprojects, “some we’re saying ‘yes’ to, some we’re definitely saying ‘no’ to, and some we don’t know enough about,” she said. “We’re trying so hard to keep up with this massive gold rush mentality that’s happening on our land.”

She also said when she asked a Seabridge representative what other nations the company was dealing with, he only mentioned Canadian ones.

“It’s upsetting,” she said. “There you go. That’s a perfect example of secular, colonized thinking, because that boundary is there, and that’s all they care about.”

She said she will convey Tlingit and Haida concerns to others in Canada.

Tahltan elder Mary Dennis also spoke. Dennis, along with more than a dozen other Tahltan elders, was arrested about 10 years ago while protesting Shell Oil Company’s proposed fracking project in the sacred headwaters. After years of opposition from the Tahltan and Davis, Shell voluntarily withdrew.

Now, the Tahltan are fighting Fortune Minerals Limited’s proposed coal mine in the same location.

“Our people say ‘absolutely not,’” McPhee said. “They want to explore and build a coal mine in the headwaters, and they’re not backing off. We don’t want our watershed destroyed. It’s a very sacred place to us.”

In his talk, Davis spoke on the sacred headwaters and Imperial Metals Corporation’s Red Chris Mine.

The Red Chris is located on the Todagin Plateau, a place that is “less a mountain than a great massif in the sky,” Davis said, adding that it’s a wildlife sanctuary home to “the greatest population of stone sheep in the world,” as well as an “incredible concentration” of grizzlies, black bears, wolverines and wolves.

Before Red Chris, the government recognized the area’s importance as a wildlife habitat. First Nations weren’t even allowed to hunt there with rifles, Davis said. But soon, one of its nearby lakes will contain 300 million tons of tailings.

Ketchikan Indian Community member John Morris Jr. spoke on the formation of a tribal transboundary group, which aims to create intergovernmental cooperation and accountability for downstream pollution.

“It’s not only the Stikine, it’s all the transboundary rivers,” he said. “Water doesn’t see a line.”

He said he’s especially concerned about KSM.

“I think we can do it, but we’re going to need everybody’s support,” he said. “Tribal and nontribal people as well. … it’s the good fight. The protection of salmon and traditional ways of life.”

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or by email at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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