Salmon, gold, subsistence and scared are words that mean much to me. Here's why. I recently traveled to Nevada to see firsthand what mines leave in their wake. I was one in a group of 10 tribal members from various Bristol Bay communities who made the journey. My home village of Pedro Bay on Lake Iliamna would be in the path of a proposed road should they build the Pebble Mine.
In Reno, we heard how mining had affected the lives of Native communities in Nevada. I thought, "How terrible for the Native peoples." Yet something refused to let me believe it could be that bad. I came to learn differently.
What I saw at a closed open-pit copper mine left me disgusted -- a wasteland of abandoned buildings, their doors ajar as though the occupants had gone for the mail and never returned, assorted mining litter, rusted vehicles, countless tires that made graveyards of old ponds, putrid pools of unknown liquids.
The Yerington Paiute tribe hosted a potlach and Chairman Elwood Emm told us a story the Pebble mine might write for me. Local water is terrible, so they drink bottled. Rabbit, deer, plants and berries are growing scarcer. Dust, heavy with unknown chemicals, coats their community. Though they spoke with passion about recovering a past quality of life, I wondered, "Was that possible?" It left me sad, outraged. My heart hardened.
The active open-pit gold mine we visited next was different. Its atmosphere was nicely scrubbed, antiseptic, like a hospital waiting room. But the reality was apparent when we arrived at a high lookout. What I saw robbed me of my breath. I have no words to describe it, but I remember trying to fathom what such a colossal hole might look like in my beloved Alaska soil. I kept hearing the word "reclaimed," but how could something of this magnitude ever be reclaimed?
Such a hole near Lake Iliamna would create chaos. The salmon runs, beautiful freshwater seals, the wildlife and birds, the plants we eat and use for medicine, the trees that shelter us and the animals, all that our subsistence lifestyles depend on could disappear. Would we get that back when the miners finished rending the earth and taking everything of commercial value? No. Is this a risk we should take? No, again.
Standing there looking at mountains of tailings sweating chemicals, I realized that I could no longer accept that maybe Pebble could be OK, that maybe somehow the money would be worth the waste. No! No amount of money could pay for the ruined land and the loss of our salmon, our animals, and our way of life.
To the Western Shoshone in Crested Valley near Elko, Mount Tenabo is a sacred place. We quenched our thirst with water from the sacred stream and listened to a tribal elder recount a time before the mountain became a battleground in the tribe's fight with the mining company. The similarities between Mount Tenabo and Lake Iliamna were too strong to dismiss.
Giant trucks meandered across the mountain face like fleas on a dog's back. I ate my lunch in silence, my heart aching for the Shoshone, and for Alaska. As we drove away, passing mine workers made derogatory finger gestures. Was this a preview of what was to come for me?
Our visit ended with an eco-tour flight over the mine sites. I was prepared for a few big holes. What I saw I will never forget -- a confusion of pits, as if bombs had fallen and detonated everywhere at random, a landscape of degraded streams where nothing seemed to move.
The Nevada experience changed me. No one can convince me that the proposed Pebble mine is necessary; not like clean water, land and air are necessary -- or strong salmon and seals, abundant animals, my subsistence way of life. Gold is found in the living, not in what is extracted at such high cost from our land.
Karla R. Jensen is a resident of Pedro Bay.