Traditional Wisdom and the Dilemma of Fossil Fuels in Alaska
by Evon Peter 2005 publication of Native Movement

(This contribution is an edited version of an essay that the author recently wrote to help facilitate dialogue on this subject.)

I just read the words of a Gwich'in elder speaking to my grandmother in our language back in a late 1970's interview.

He spoke of how powerful our medicine people once were. He spoke of the traditional knowledge and wisdom of our people, how we were once very aware and conscious of ourselves and the world around us. He spoke of how the younger generation is no longer listening to the wisdom of the old ways when he tries to share it with them.

The elder spoke of how this was placing us in a difficult situation that would become worse hi the future. He spoke of how we no longer prayed, instead lived day-to-day, gave up too easily, and had little substance. This was said in the late 1970s.

When I look at where we are today within the Native community, I see that what the elders had foreseen is true. They tried to explain to us what would come if we began to take life for granted; falling prey to alcohol and drugs, thinking only of ourselves, and loosing connection with the land and the Creator.

Rather than adhering to the ways of traditional knowledge and wisdom, we struggle to work through the challenges we face trying to use western values of individualism, greed, materialism, corporate hierarchy, short sightedness, and exploitation of mother earth and each other. Although this is not the case for all of our people, it is the way in which many of our institutions, such as Native corporations and some tribal governments, approach the challenges our communities face.

Elders have said that there will come a time when we will have to live from the land once again. Although most of our peoples have never been fully separated from life on the land, we have become comfortable with some western ways that are not sustainable for the future generations.

At the same time the environment that we live within, the waters we drink, the air we breathe, and the animals that give themselves to us are being depleted and/or contaminated. The time has come for us to heal ourselves and in that process begin to apply the traditional wisdom of our people to the challenges we face.

I am writing these things now because we have time to make wise decisions for future generations and ourselves that will ease the suffering our people encounter. It is with love of our peoples that I write. I do not know all things, but I would like to share this perspective. We must prepare for a time of transition. The alternative is to face crisis greater than what we see around us today. There are many things that are important in this discussion, but for now I will only write about one pressing situation, the issue of fossil fuels in Alaska (oil, gas, propane, diesel, coal, etc.).

The way of life most of us have become comfortable with in the last 50 or so years is based on the use of fossil fuels. We rely on gas, diesel, or coal for our snow-machines, four wheelers, cars, boats, planes, electric generators, home heating, refrigerators, water pumping, and shipping of supplies to name a few. For most of the younger generation we have known no other way of life, yet our peoples have survived for thousands of years without these things.

The reality we face is that fossil fuels are a limited resource that will be running out at the current rates of global consumption within a generation or two. While the supply of oil may not end in our generation, it is much wiser to transition off a dependence on fossil fuels now for reasons of environmental and human health. These are very serious issues for communities around the world.

The issue of oil exploration and development is a huge issue for our peoples. It is too big of a topic to write about in detail, but I will raise some important points. It was oil that accelerated passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. That Act essentially took nearly all of our traditional lands and resources from us, while at the same time dividing our peoples into corporate entities, and forcing us to assimilate into the western model of development.

The only reasons the United States passed ANCSA was because Congress knew that the purchase of Alaska from Russia through the Treaty of Cession in 1867 was illegitimate and because the oil industry needed a right-of-way for the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

ANCSA is also an illegitimate agreement because it is not a treaty between nations of people; Congress simply declared its right to take our lands and to make it seem like a benefit to our peoples. Having said that, I understand there were some Alaska Native people who openly accepted the deal thinking that it was better for us than what had happened to tribes in the continental United States. The Indigenous peoples there were either killed or forced onto reservations, often away from their traditional lands. However, ANCSA proved to be no better for Alaska Natives than any other policies the U.S. practiced towards Indigenous Peoples.

The result of both the Treaty of Cession and ANCSA is that hundreds of millions of dollars in natural resources (oil, salmon, timber, gold, metals, etc.) have been and continue to be extracted from Alaska every year.

The primary beneficiaries of these extractions are not our peoples and many of the major beneficiaries do not even live in Alaska. If there were any justice in this equation, at a bare minimum our people would have excellent housing, education, health care, rights to a subsistence way of life, and much more. If the acts of Congress were fair and just we would be among the financially wealthiest peoples in the world. However, the opposite is true. We have limited housing, poor western education, schools being cut from our villages, limited health care, high levels of poverty and extinguished hunting and fishing rights. While a few of our people benefit some from the corporations and industry, the vast majority struggles to live in the western social and economic system.

On top of all of this, the Alaska Native community is bearing the environmental burden as these extractive industries pollute waters, lands, air, and animals. The salmon population has declined, as have the caribou and moose in several areas. The development has shifted the traditional areas of some animals, leaving villages with difficult access to their traditional foods. Other Alaska Native communities are nearly completely surrounded by cities and/or industrial development, severely impacting access to traditional survival.

The burning of fossil fuels is also causing rapid global warming, which is beginning to have a major impact on our ways of life as well. The melting of sea ice and glaciers, drying of tundra that leads to out-of-control wildfires, land erosion, and the possible extinction of some animal species are effects of global warming. We cannot ignore the role our production and use of fossil fuels play in the reality of climate change.

The modern lifestyle in nearly all of our villages is dependent on fossil fuels. Whether it is airplanes to fly in supplies, gas to haul wood and hunt, or diesel to power electricity, it is dependence on fossil fuels. There are several questions that need to be asked. How will people live in the villages once we no longer have gas and oil? What should we be doing to make the transition to a more sustainable way of life? Should we confront the issue now or leave a tougher problem for our children?

Once the global peak production of fossil fuels is reached, which may be in the next few years, the price of fossil fuels will steadily increase. Global peak production is when we have extracted the first half of fossil fuels that exist in the world, leaving the second half which is harder to extract and requires greater processing. What does this mean for villages?

Most villages already pay high prices to fly, barge, or truck in fossil fuels. At the same time, most of our villages do not have an economy that can support the current prices. What I see happening already is that tribal and/or city governments are struggling to raise the funds, through local billing, grants, and subsidies, to pay the expense of fossil fuels. This is causing stress for individuals and families as they try to pay bills. It is also causing tension within the community and towards leaders who are pressured to solve the problem. The problem is only going to get worse if we don't address the bigger issue, which is that fossil fuels are going to become too expensive for us to afford and they will eventually run out.

Our elders teach us that we need to think of the future generations and that we need to respect our relationships with the land, animals, and spirits. Our spirituality teaches us how we maintain our relationships, not only with one another, but also with all of creation, all our relations. There is wisdom in this approach to life.

We depend on water, air, food, and shelter for our survival. So it makes sense that we should consider those things being available for future generations a necessity in the decisions we make today. Unfortunately, availability is not the only issue. We also need to consider accessibility and contamination. In parts of the continental United States the waters have already been polluted so drastically that it is not safe to drink from the water sources and people are warned not to eat more than a fish a week. Is this the future we want our children and grandchildren to face?

We have not lost the traditional knowledge and wisdom of our peoples. We all carry within us the connection to our ancestors and to future generations. Through a process of healing and re-learning we can resituate ourselves as people of strong spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. Our people possess a strong will to survive and adapt to difficult situations, we have demonstrated this throughout history. In being honest with ourselves and true to our understandings I am certain we can apply traditional wisdom to resolve the challenges that lie before us. It is in fact something I think we should be celebrating, a return to being healthy nations of people that understand the importance of our relations with one another, the land, and the spirits. We need to let go of this era of drugs, alcohol, suicide, domestic violence, and taking life for granted. We should let people know that the spirit of our people is growing once again.

Our people are also forgiving. From the time the Russians enslaved portions of the Unungan people to the injustices perpetuated by the United States, our people have been oppressed and controlled by other nations of people. As part of liberating ourselves from oppression we must have compassion for those who now call these lands their home as well. We do not expect them to go back to the lands that they or their ancestors came from. Many of them understand the historic and current injustices against Indigenous peoples and support a more respectful relationship between all. The challenge is to let go of the harmful values, unsustainable ways of life, and injustices while nurturing a healing in our relationships.

We must transition to a sustainable way of life once again. This is what many of our elders understood long ago. We should begin making the transition in a conscious way, rather than be forced by disasters into a way of life we are not prepared to handle. It is a transition into a healthy and sustainable way of life for us and for many generations into the future. It is our responsibility to our children, grandchildren, and to their grandchildren to make the transition in our lifetime.

The transition will not be easy and it will require us to let go of the unsustainable practices we have become accustomed to having. It will also require us to become physically, spiritually, and mentally healthy, as our ancestors were in the past.

The strategy for transition must be based on a few principles and understandings:

We cannot expect to become healthy and sustainable overnight. It will take time for us to heal ourselves and become comfortable with having to work hard with our bodies. We will also have to make time to prepare tools, switch to sustainable energy sources, and re-learn some of the traditional ways of life.

We must actively make the transition to living a life without the use of fossil fuels. The sooner we make the transition the better for future generations.

We need to ensure that clean and accessible sources of food, water, and shelter are available for future generations. For most of our communities this means access to foods such as caribou, whales, seal, berries, moose, ducks, geese, salmon and other fish. We also want the animals to be healthy and waters clean so that people do not become ill when they consume them. For some communities there is also the possibility of doing some farming of agricultural food like potatoes.

We will need healthy relations within our communities and between our communities. We will need to rely on each other more as we become more localized and interdependent. It is important for us to treat one another with respect and fairness.

Western paying jobs based on government subsidy or unsustainable practices such as mining will not solve the long-term problems our communities face, but they can be used in the short term to support the transition. As an elder once told me, "A hundred thousand dollars will do you no good out on the land in fifty below weather and it doesn't even burn good." Community economics can be based more on trade as it was traditionally. Some cash income may be necessary in each community, but not in the amounts that are used today to support unsustainable practices.

The transition to a healthy and sustainable way of life will most likely take a number of years. Each community has a unique situation and therefore a unique set of challenges they will need to address. There is no one solution for all communities, but there are some initial steps and actions that are applicable to all.

Conservation of energy and minimizing the current use of fossil fuels. Since many of our communities are already struggling to pay for fossil fuels it makes the most sense to conserve and minimize use. An intelligent decision would be to have diesel generators running for a minimal number of hours each day when it is most useful. Also, only using snow-machines, four wheelers, and boats when really needed to fulfill a necessary task to survive.

Invest in renewable energy such as solar, wind, and mini-hydro. It is clear that renewable energy will not be able to power villages with 24-hour electricity, but as fossil fuels become inaccessible it will be a relief to have some electricity available during times of sun, wind, and/or flowing currents. Perhaps if funding is saved from conservation it can be used to invest in renewable energy infrastructure.

Begin to heal ourselves, our families, and our communities. It will be important to be healthy, both able to think clearly and carry out physical tasks. A good start might be to pray in the morning and take a walk every day until it becomes a practice.

Begin to re-learn traditional ways of life and new sustainable practices. It is wise to re-learn traditional ways for hunting, water harvesting, food storage, and shelter building. Also, depending on the environment and what types of foods people desire, it might be good to begin learning to do some farming.

Work to prevent any new unsustainable extraction of resources from the land, such as oil drilling and gold mining. There is already too much mining and drilling occurring in Alaska. We have contaminated enough land, animals, and waters already. To pursue these forms of business is unwise because it will most likely only benefit one generation of people while at the same time make the land, animals, sky and waters less livable for the future generations.

Begin to use the resources available to us for support of the transition to health and sustainability. We have resources available to us from the federal government, Native corporations, foundations, and individual donors that can be used for the transition. For example, rather than pay out individual dividends from the corporations we could choose (vote) to invest in renewable energy for the villages.

As I write I am living among the Dine (Navajo) people in northern Arizona. The people here are also facing similar situations. Alaska is my first home and I carry deep love for our land and all our peoples. I hope that people will focus on the issues our people face, this is not about any one of us. It is about the health and well being of future generations.

In every passing day I am thinking of Alaska and the time when I bring my family home. In the meantime, I am busy trying to apply these understandings in my life here, where I am living now. This is the most important thing any one of us can do, work within the community where we are living. Every community needs healthy and loving people to provide leadership. I am thankful for those who are stepping up to lead even when things become difficult.

I want to particularly give thanks to those fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and offshore areas from oil exploration and development.

I also want to let the younger generation know that our people and leaders are thinking of them and the challenges they face. It is not an easy time to be growing up Native in many of our communities. We have the capacity to change this for the coming generations.

Considering we went without electricity for thousands of years, I have faith that we can make it through these changing times. I remember before electricity people were visiting, playing games, dancing together, telling stories, and passing on traditional skills.

We need to change our way of life once again to adapt to the situation we are confronting.

I pray for the well being of all people everyday.

It is with love that I share my thoughts.

Mahsi Choo.

Evon Peter is Former Chief of the Neetsaii Gwich'in and the Chair of Native Movement. Native Movement is a non-profit dedicated to the vision of Strong and Healthy Indigenous Nations. The full essay and other information can be obtained by emailing Native Movement

News From Indian Country May 30, 2005