The Alaska Federation of Natives convention is a mix of learning, discovery, and tedium punctuated by controversy and humor. People listen to presentations, discuss issues, and adopt resolutions setting direction for staff. Attendees are delegates from tribes, regional nonprofit and for-profit corporations, villages, and other individuals.
On occasion, speakers expose their vulnerability, share painful truths, or ask for help or understanding. These disclosures sometimes spark hundreds of people to react as one with laughter, admiration or sadness.
October 19 was such a moment.
Two Alaska Native youth introduced a resolution on climate change adopted earlier in the week at the Elders and Youth Conference. The hour-long discussion that followed ended with acclamation for Nanieezh Peter, who is Neets’ail Gwich’in, age 15, and Quannah Chasing Horse Potts, who is Gwich'in and Lakota, age 17. The resolution they brought to the floor calls on the Alaska Federation of Natives to to declare a state of emergency on climate change and to set up a climate change task force to develop climate policies.
Nanieezh Peter read the resolution, which states that Alaska is warming at twice the rate of other parts of the world. Natives are experiencing extreme weather events, melting permafrost, flooding and erosion, “which are resulting in the relocation of entire communities along with devastating the natural habitats of our animal and plant relatives,” Peter read from the resolution.
“In recent years, we have lost community members due to unpredictable and unsafe ice conditions,” the resolution continues. “We have seen the die-off and disease of seals, salmon, migratory birds, shellfish, whales, and polar bears and recognize that these are also our relatives. We, the Alaska Native youth are asking our tribal leaders to consider, as is traditional, the future of their grandchildren and the generations to come,” read Peter.
Quannah Potts added, “We shouldn't have to tell people in charge that we want to survive. It should be our number one right. We should not have to fight for this, but here we are coming to ask for your help.”
Crawford Patkotak is chairman of the board of the Native Arctic Slope Regional Corp. which profits from oil and gas development.
Patkotak said climate change may be cyclical, and not the result of human activities, and adoption of the resolution could lead to regulations limiting hunting.
“We can't be moving on emotion only,” said Patkotak. “We’ve got to have the right balance and make sure we don't hamstring ourselves. That right balance is to not only enhance, protect and live our culture, but prevent unnecessary regulation that would tie our hands up when it comes to developing our own resources.”
He said, “Up north we have some of the cleanest development on the North Slope,” yet “extreme environmentalist action and extreme animal rights groups actions” have threatened both subsistence [traditional sharing of food from nature] and oil development. Leaving oil in the ground would “cripple us economically,” said Patkotak.
He and others urged caution, “Let's be very careful,” about adopting a resolution on climate change, said Patkotak. He suggested adding language that would protect Native rights to develop both renewable and non-renewable resources.
Peter replied, “Coal and oil are really the number one cause of climate change and it [the amendment] would not be supportive of the resolution that we are trying to offer.”
She said, “These companies up North are only thinking about economic growth and we need to be thinking about all of our futures too. Cause I'm sure you guys all have grandchildren or nieces or nephews.”
Tearing up, Peter went on, “It's their futures. It's all of our futures and it's all of our traditions and rights and cultures to keep this land healthy and to keep our people happy. And economic growth and money is not a part of that conversation. It should only be our futures that we are worried about right now because it is urgent and it is now.”
Stepping up to the mic, Potts said, "We are not here to fight with our own people. We are here to stand together. This is a serious issue. I'm worried about our future generations.”
Potts choked up too, saying, "Like we're crying up here. We should not have to cry, you guys. We should not have to come to you worrying about our future generations, our future children and our grandchildren. We should be able to live our ways of life. We are not environmentalists. We are indigenous youth and we do not want to stop our ways of life. That's why we're here. We're not fighting against you. We’re in a fight with you,” said Potts.
Victor Joseph, chief and chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the regional nonprofit tribal entity for Interior Alaska, said, “I'm hearing words like environmentalists and outside agencies are going to come in and make all these great changes that impact us. That's not what this paragraph is saying. What this paragraph is saying is to establish a leadership, to establish policies that will address climate change,” said Joseph.
“We shouldn't be scared of that,” he said forcefully. “We’re stewards of the land. An elder, an awardee today that was recognized, said, ‘You take care of the land, the land will take care of you.’”
Turning from the mic, Joseph called out to the audience, “Honor these young people that stood up. They need it and they did it eloquently and in a good way.”
The hundreds of people in the convention hall rose to their feet to give the two teenagers a long, loud round of applause, whistles and whoops, showing support for their cause, and admiration for presenting their case so well.
The vote was not unanimous but a majority of attendees rejected Patkotak’s amendment and supported the original resolution.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist.