This is a great day for Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, in Alaska. So the tribal president wants to show us everything in this village of about 200 people.
We start at the airstrip where there’s a new fire station. A mural painted in vivid colors proclaims, “TUBUGHNA: The Beach People.”
Then he shows us the tribal garden growing fresh produce. A few vegetables are already sprouting inside the greenhouse. But this is just a beginning, Goozmer said, “I asked them to look into putting another garden on the other side, that is going to be dealing, primarily, with our native berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and all the other berries here.”
But the real gem is ahead. We’re on our way to visit a piece of land that’s being donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy. The land is a couple of miles from the village. On the way, between the beach and a high bank of soil, Goozmer picks up a clump of earth, and explains how the land evolved over time.
He is that passionate about the land.
“I have a son who was 36-years-old and I never have seen him until he was 36. When we first met, we just fell into each other’s arms and cried and cried. It was just an awesome, awesome thing,” Goozmer said. “This is the same thing with the land. Our land, it was traditionally our land for the past thousand years, is coming back into tribal government, tribal hands. It’s like meeting your long lost relative again and reuniting with them.”
Goozmer starts his telling of the story with a coal mine that has been proposed by PacRim Coal. The land is near a deportation point for the minerals that would be shipped out. It’s a 160-acre parcel that had been homesteaded and was later donated to the Catholic Church. Then, in 2008, instead of selling the land for development (for what Goozmer calls “boo koo bucks") title was conveyed by the church to The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy has now donated that land back to its first owners with support from the Great Land Trust. The deal includes a conservation easement, limiting development and allowing tribal members use of the land for subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry-picking.
The return of such a parcel to an Alaska Native village is historic because the idea of tribal lands in Alaska is growing in both importance and inevitability. However a discovery a couple of years ago made this particular site even more important: It’s a rich cultural and archaeological site showing significant evidence about how Tubughna people have lived for the past thousand years.
“When we learned of the deep cultural significance of this place to the Tebughna people, we realized that the people of the Native Village of Tyonek would be its best long-term stewards,” said Rand Hagenstein, Alaska state director for The Nature Conservancy.
The formal title for this land is now, Etnen Bunkda, or Mother of the Earth. It comes from the Dena’ina name for the region. There is evidence of several homes from different periods of time, demonstrating a long arc of history for Tebughna as residents.
The site also includes a number of cold storage pits. These were the first refrigerators, deep holes once lined with grass and bark to preserve salmon and other foods for winter consumption. The Mother of the Earth site is a clear example of the Tebughna reliance on fish for a thousand years.
“Land managers do not fully take into consideration the fact that indigenous people have a whole cultural identity that’s related to land and subsistence, an appreciation for what the land provides,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. So the agencies responsible for making decisions about land, fish and game did not get the subsistence connection to the land. “The Chuitt River is one of the last rivers in the entire Cook Inlet that still has habitat for King Salmon. And that would have been impacted by the coal project,” Miller said.
The Native American Rights Fund represents the village in the land transfer.
In addition to subsistence, the transfer of this land adds to the larger Alaska debate about tribal lands. This agreement recognizes the possibility of the land being taken into trust by the Interior Department once that process is open.
“For us to again have a land base is just awesome. We have our identity refocused and reconnected back to the land of who we are,” said Goozmer. The village was once a part of the Moquawkie Indian Reservation.
However, he said, “the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act took away our ability to own land.”
Instead the land title was conveyed to regional and village corporations. “So we became shareholders instead of land owners. The corporations … are the owners and we have shares, but it’s not the same.” But the transfer of such a significant piece of land is a step in a new direction. “For us, as Natives, to be land owners intricately tied to the land, its resources, its animals, and what it produces, this is our grocery store and our pharmacy,” Goozmer said. “Hopefully this is just a beginning to get our identity back and reconnect us to the land.”
Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.