147-year-old ‘finders keepers’ mining law threatens ancient Tlingit village, protects mining companies

Klukwan, the last remaining ancient village of the Chilkat Tlingit, fears the General Mining Act of 1872 will allow a Canadian mining company to poison their water

Will a 147-year-old mining law cause the destruction of one of the last centers of Tlingit culture in Alaska? The Tlingit President of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, Kimberly Strong, says not on her watch.

“I don’t want to go down in history as the last tribal leader of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan. I don’t want my name to go down in history as being the last leader of the 21st Century,” Strong said at a May 9 press conference in Washington, D.C.

Strong was part of a delegation who came to Washington in support of a hard rock mining reform bill currently before Congress. The Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019 (H.R. 2579) and its Senate version, the Hardrock Mining Reform Act of 2019 (S. 1386) is intended to remove the free ride given to mining companies by the General Mining Act of 1872.

Finders keepers

Once, miners armed with picks and shovels, and maybe a donkey, were encouraged by the U.S, government to travel west and begin staking claims for valuable mineral deposits. The idea was that miners would help open the country to westward expansion as deposits were found, mines were opened, and towns grew up around them.

As an incentive, the General Mining Act of 1872 was passed, allowing these miners to search for deposits on public land, and if they discovered one, gave them the land it was in for only a small fee and without restrictions. The mining act gave mining the highest priority for the use of public land, that was, in essence, a form of “finders keepers.”

But the face of hard rock mining has changed dramatically since then. Grizzled old prospectors out staking claims in the Wild West are a thing of the past. Now foreign, multinational mining conglomerates have turned the industry into a huge, environment-destroying monster.

Environmental safeguards were not included in the original 1872 law. Nothing in the act protects groundwater from seepage or runoff from mines, for example. And since mining has preference over all other uses of public land, mining companies use the law as a statutory shield that protects them when environmental groups sue. The law forces federal judges to allow new mining projects even when their creation threatens the ecosystem.

Chemicals are now used to extract minerals from unprocessed ore. This creates huge amounts of toxic wastewater that are held in massive man-made lakes called “tailings ponds.” The demand for the metals from these mines is fed by the advent of electronic devices such as smartphones.

As a result, hard rock mines and their tailings ponds have been opening all over the world. Several disasters have occurred when the dams holding back the wastewater have failed, releasing millions of gallons of fish-destroying chemicals into nearby streams and rivers. The Mt. Polley Mine disaster of 2014 released over a billion gallons of slurry into the Caribou region of British Columbia.

The possibility of a disaster like that happening just 17 miles upstream from her village brought Klukwan President Kimberly Strong to Washington.

The last Chilkat Tlingit Village

At the top of the Alaska panhandle, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan is surrounded by mountains. President Strong calls it a “food bowl” that provides residents with food in the form of fish, wildlife and berries.

The area was once the location of several trading routes used by the Indigenous people of the area, the Tlingit, the Haida, and the Tsimshian. Klukwan was the central village of approximately five to eight other villages.

“It was known as the Mother Village,” Strong told Indian Country Today in a recent interview. “Klukwan means Eternal Village.”

Situated on the banks of the Chilkat River, Klukwan has always relied on salmon.

“The Chilkat is one of the three Alaskan rivers that support all five species of salmon, the King (Chinook), sockeye, coho, pink and chum,” Strong explained. “We subsist on the salmon that come up the Chilkat River and we totally depend on it.”

The salmon become food for bears and eagles and this wildlife provides nutrients to the soil. This combined with the high level of rainfall has long-turned the region into a rich, vibrant ecosystem.

Because of the wealth this provided, the entire Chilkat area became a center of Tlingit culture for thousands of years where clan houses with their beautiful hand carved wooden artwork flourished. The area is most well known for being the birthplace of Chilkat weaving and the creation of Chilkat robes.

But influenza devastated the entire Chilkat region after contact with Europeans. The communal nature of clan house life was the perfect breeding ground for airborne infectious diseases. Klukwan once had a population of around 1,600 people, but today only about 100 people live there.

Now another threat from Western civilization threatens to destroy this last vestige of Chilkat Tlingit culture: industrial hard rock mining.

Klukwan Indian Village 1959
Photo Courtesy University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library, Ruth A.M. Schmidt papers

The Palmer mining project

A Canadian mining company, Constantine Metal Resources, and their Japanese investors, DOWA Metals and Mining Co. Ltd. want to open an exploratory mine just 17 miles north of Klukwan. If this exploratory mine finds a profitable ore deposit, the companies will be allowed to open a full-blown mine, and its accompanying tailings pond, right beside a tributary that flows into the Chilkat River.

The State of Alaska Bureau of Land Management has granted Constantine Metals a permit to open the exploratory mine without consulting the Indigenous people of the area.

The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, along with the environmental group Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the legal group Earthjustice, sued the Bureau of Land Management. On March 15 a federal court judge ruled against Klukwan and the case is currently under appeal.

On April 5, the Bureau of Land Management denied Klukwan’s request to be consulted regarding the exploratory mine, moving the mine’s construction even closer to reality. The last remaining hope is the passage of the mining reform bills introduced to Congress on May 9.

If passed, the bills would require mining companies to consult with tribes who may be affected by new mining projects. It would also make mining companies financially responsible for clean up of abandoned mines and for any disasters such as the one that happened in 2014 at the Mt, Polley mine. In addition, mining companies would pay royalties on the resources they extract, the same as coal mines do now.

From food bowl to wasteland?

Klukwan is also the home of the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center and Bald Eagle Preserve, where hundreds of bald eagles come every year to feast on returning salmon. The heritage center contains priceless artifacts from the Whale House clan.

If the Palmer Project mine becomes a reality, all that could be wiped out if the massive tailings pond released a flood of chemicals into the watershed, poisoning the salmon.

“We look at the mountains as our food bowl,” Strong said. “Mining companies look at the mountain and want to know what kind of minerals they could possibly get out of it.”

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.

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