DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
Alaska At-Large U.S. House Representative, Mary Peltola (Yup'ik) speaking at a town-hall style meeting in Nome, Alaska following
ex-typhoon Merbok in September as Sen. Lisa Murkowski and FEMA Director Deanne Criswell look on. Jenni Monet
PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION | 12.04.22
The midterm elections proved to be one of the most progressive in Alaska’s history: some six-hundred thousand registered voters who, in the end, would select
by ranked choice ballot two incumbent congresswomen – one a Republican, the other a Democrat – both of whom campaigned on promises to prioritize Indigenous issues. For weeks, the reelection of the state’s senior U.S. Senator, Lisa Murkowski, hung in the balance until absentee votes ultimately declared her the winner. But it would be the Yup’ik Democrat, Mary Peltola, who personified unprecedented political gain: the first Alaska Native ever elected to Congress. The agreeable
optimist made history two months prior upon being sworn in to finish the term left vacant by Representative Don Young. The longest-serving Republican in Congress, he collapsed and died on a flight in March while heading home from Washington, D.C. It was Peltola’s November victory that secured her full title. The daughter of a commercial fisherman from Bethel, Alaska, her “pro-fish” platform resonated deeply with Indigenous voters.
A few weeks before Election Day, the Alaska Federation of Natives hosted its first in-person convention since the coronavirus. Peltola was invited to give a
keynote address. In an Anchorage ballroom, supporters gathered together, many waving cutout copies of her face glued to the ends of popsicle sticks. A stand-in congresswoman of just 38 days, she spoke unscripted
about being raised in the bush, fishing on the Kuskokwim River, all while channeling aspects of the conference’s theme: unity. After her remarks, Native delegates from across the state took turns in their language to sing her songs of prayer. It was moving. Some people even cried. The most unforeseen supporters were the Gwich’in women who have stood unwavering in opposition to oil drilling on their Arctic lands. But in this moment, they embraced the Indigenous
candidate whose vocal support for the controversial Willow petroleum project starkly challenged their most visceral views. Such uncritical acceptance for
Peltola, despite her contradictions – extraction and preservation – was, perhaps, the most intriguing detail.
Fans of Mary Peltola holding up signs with an image of her face at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, November 22, 2022. Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon
Alaska Natives, who have long-endured barriers at the ballot box, share a voting style typical of many voters statewide. They
favor candidates who govern by people and place and who may not always neatly follow along party lines. Roughly fifty-eight percent of Alaskans are registered as unaffiliated or undeclared. But even this independence has left many Natives feeling disconnected. For so long, election outcomes in the state have almost always seemed predetermined. A case in point was Don Young. For forty-nine consecutive years, the gruff politician with a record of attacking journalists carved out a rigorous career of winning reelection after reelection – every
other year – and with only a few close calls. Peltola was in many ways his antipode: an approachable Democrat with a reputation for congeniality even among opponents like Sarah Palin whom she aimed to beat.
To the underrepresented Alaska Natives, political participation has been slow to ignite largely because – racism. From voting restrictions, segregated education,
over-incarceration, to environmental discrimination, the act of casting a ballot hardly seemed like a solution to a heap of social problems that had either been ignored - or worse - caused by elected officials. But the rise of Native candidates in recent years made voters feel something close to equals even if Indigenous life and strife remained overwhelmingly inferior.
At the conference, a radio host sat across a table from Millie Hawley, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Kivalina. “On the show today,”
the broadcaster began. “We're talking about lessons learned after a powerful storm that started in Southeast Asia, and slammed into Alaska's west coast in September.”
“Millie, tell us a little bit about what happened to your community.”
Search and Rescue volunteers place boulders afoot a home at the edge of a lagoon in Kivalina, Alaska during ex-typhoon Merbok, Septermber 19, 2022. Jenni
Millie spoke slowly and simply about Search and Rescue volunteers who moved boulders with earthmovers to safeguard a shoreside home. It was where Nellie Swan
had lived until 2007 before she, and 89 others, were shuttled away by bush plane to escape an altogether different storm. Nellie, a treasured elder, never returned to the tiny tadpole-shaped island, and her home had been losing ground ever since. The night volunteers toiled in the rain, at least 10 feet of soggy earth collapsed into the lagoon. But such erosion was minor when compared to other communities gutted by the ex-typhoon.
The radio host didn’t live in Alaska. She wasn’t even aware that Kivalina had largely been spared from
the September squall. But these were the new realities in the straightaway clamor to now take the climate crisis seriously. More often than not, the outreach was flawed.
On the campaign trail, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Peltola wasted little time responding to the storm. They wore waterproof boots and plaid flannel shirts as they
toured tribal communities that had actually been destroyed by the tropical deluge – places like Golovin, Elim, Hooper Bay, and Shaktoolik. In Nome, the two candidates stood with FEMA Director Deanne Criswell as they acknowledged the unique losses that Alaska Native storm victims face: subsistence foods, snowmobiles, boats, and fish camps – what might otherwise be miscast as recreation drawbacks to an outsider, rather than the essential goods and equipment for surviving the
“The Department of Interior has
appropriated $2.6 million through Bureau of Indian Affairs for 45 communities,” Peltola announced at the town-hall style meeting. “But we know that that doesn't replace salmon, and halibut and other things that we've been gathering.”
“We're still working on it,” she said.
Millie wasn’t in Kivalina when the storm struck, or when she learned that Kivalina would be one of the 45 villages to receive $50,000 from the BIA. How the
money was spent remains unclear, but the funding was supposed to go towards “essential items” like food and water that had seemingly become scarce in storm-ravaged villages. These were gestures that were all too familiar to the tribal administrator: state and federal officials throwing money at the climate situation, woefully reactionary and without much follow-through. Years ago, when Kivalina leaders produced a hazard mitigation plan to meet FEMA disaster relief requirements, there
was no response from government leaders – not even in 2013 when volunteers stepped up, once again, this time to slice in half more than a dozen empty fuel tanks to create heavy metal shields to protect their storm-battered shoreline. “We’re fending for ourselves,” Millie said to the radio host. “We spend all this money to prepare and to communicate with the state and federal agencies. But in the end, we have only ourselves to take care of.”
During the last week of November, President Joe Biden stood before a packed auditorium at the Tribal Nations Summit, signaling a hopeful change. He touted his administration’s historic investments made to Indian Country: $45 billion through a series of laws that had also spurred the United States most ambitious climate action plan. He also announced $135 million to be distributed among eleven federally-recognized tribes in need of moving away from threatening coastal and riverine shorelines. Three communities would receive $25
million each – two villages in Alaska, and a community in northwest Washington. But to know this type of work was also to understand how fiercely competitive and emotionally-taxing climate displacement can be.
There had been no application process to compete for the funding, and the selections made by “interagency” review, according to the Department of Interior, were
ambiguous and discouraging. One recipient selected to receive $25 million, the Quinault Nation in Washington, only began drafting their master plan in 2014 – a fear-based forecast about an impending tsunami. But it
paled in comparison to the storm history laid out more than a decade earlier by the Government Accountability Office. In that report, the GAO short-listed four of the most imperiled places in America – all of them Alaska Native villages,
including Kivalina. Only one of these communities, Newtok, was picked to receive Biden’s special funding.
“Unfortunately these types of coastal impacts are being felt by tribal communities across the country,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in an Opinion essay she authored a year earlier for The Seattle Times. In it she mentioned her visit to the Quinault Nation, weeks earlier, where she toured the Native village of
Tahloah with Fawn Sharp, the tribe’s vice-president, who is also the president of Indian Country’s leading lobbying group, the National Congress of American Indians. It made Biden’s announcement seem perfectly aligned.
Back in Kivalina, villagers were back at it. “Wonder whose dumb idea it was to move the school there,” started one woman on Facebook, complaining about the
site of Kivalina’s new replacement school – eight miles into barren tundra. There was no appreciation for how the government-funded facility had been the key to building an escape route – a costly bridge –
to flee the island from an imminent storm. The exchange also emphasized a part of the climate conundrum that bureaucrats had likely not bargained for: deep-seated community division.
“It wasn’t even on the original plan when they choose spots,” chimed-in an Elder. “That’s a bad place.”
“What’s done is done,” said Myra Adams, a tribal councilwoman defending the tribe’s leader, Millie
Hawley. “If you want to voice out, attend meetings.” ♠️
- The United States is not the only country doling out big money in response to the climate crisis. Canada also stepped up recently, investing C$1.6B as part of its first national climate strategy.
- From COP27, the adoption of a "loss and damage" fund has
both pros and cons on the Indigenous front. Here's one of the better reads I've come across from the talks from Egypt, highlighting the largest participation of IPs at the
summit, to date.
- More Biden biz: the administration just released version 1.0 of
its new screening tool mapping climate allocations for "disadvantaged communities" through its Justice40 Initiative. *Spoiler Alert: It blindly labels for all tribal communities as "disadvantaged," even for those making millions from fossil fuels.
- And lastly, why are all the caribou herds shrinking in the Arctic?
truly humbled by all the emails and generous contributions that have come my way, lately. Dawaa'e - thank you for sticking with me as I work towards my Alaska-driven deadlines. If you haven't been able to tell, I'm in the thick of it up here. And it can be a punishing place at times, but I'm actually grounded here, especially when confronting frustrating news developments like I did this week from the Biden Administration. When you live at the heart of the climate crisis,
you're forced to step back and appreciate that the steps we're all making are more about progress, not perfection.
I know most of you turn to this newsletter for insightful essays about Indigenous issues stemming beyond Alaska - and I look forward to returning to that. So please stay patient and amazing. Despite my production
patterns as of late, the newsletter continues to thrive which is more than I could wish for. So grateful for each of you.
Warm wishes for the holidays and see you in 2023!
Donations for Stebbins, Alaska
Imagine for a moment that your town's only grocery store burned to
the ground. Then compound these woes with the fact that the shipments of supplies only resumed some sense of normalcy after a monster storm in September flooded the community, knocked out power lines, and spoiled the store's perishable foods. This is Stebbins, Alaska.
The sole store in Stebbins burned early Tuesday morning, Nov. 29, 2022. Linda Greta Camillus
emergency officials say two pallets of donations from the Food Bank, Bering Straits Regional Corporation and other partners arrived in the village Thursday. And more items are needed.
how you can help:
Cargo in Nome, the local bush airline that services Stebbins, is offering to fly boxes of food and clothing to the community up until December 9 for all deliveries labeled "CITY OF STEBBINS".
a shortlist of what's needed:
diapers (all sizes), baby wipes, oatmeal, rice, dried beans, nuts, dried fruit, powdered milk, and canned goods. If you want to be extra kind, you can also send pop and chips.
call Bering Air: 907-443-5464
“Thank you for your dedication to truth telling so that I can pass the information
This newsletter is like a lot of scrappy villages who could benefit from Biden's big spending. Please give and thanks!
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