OPINION: There’s a lot of talk about what we’d gain from the Ambler Road. But what would we lose?

My name is Shield Downey. I am Iñupiaq. I grew up in a nomadic lifestyle as my parents were reindeer herders around Noorvik, Selawik and the Baldwin Peninsula. I now live in Ambler. I am an enrolled tribal member of Native Village of Ambler, the first chief of the tribal council, and a shareholder of NANA Regional Corporation. I’m also on the Regional Elders Council and the chair of the Kobuk Valley Subsistence Resource Commission.

My feeling about the Ambler Road is sadness. It makes me sad that people aren’t thinking about how this Ambler Road will open up the whole mountain range to mining. Miners will just keep exploring, building roads and mines and making more tailings ponds. Our leaders are not thinking about how this development is going to affect Native people and our culture. If we build this road, there will be no end to mining, only an end to our culture. We won’t have any control if we let this happen.

The Ambler Road is going to affect all our habitat, all the habitat all the way down to Kotzebue. People aren’t paying attention. That copper mining, they use cyanide, and that’s extremely toxic. And they’re going to build a tailings pond at the top of a mountain. Sometimes it rains all summer; sometimes it snows all winter. That tailings pond could fill up and overflow, and then no more good water. All that mining is upriver from us; it’s going to affect the whole watershed. Our river! That’s our bread and butter.

People are going to try to haul booze on this road and get drunk and get stuck — and then who’s going to help them?

The caribou are down to 164,000 animals. It’s terrible. I haven’t heard as to why it’s falling so fast. We can’t put the caribou at risk. I’ve talked to people who live in Minto, the road there joins up to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. People from Fairbanks drive up there to get moose. So it’s really affected the Native people’s moose hunting. Outside hunters are already affecting us with them flying to the north side of the Brooks Range turning back our caribou.

If we are prone to think about development and having jobs, we’re not ready for it. Our culture is not ready for it. There’s social ills in all of our villages. I’m concerned about our education system too. The young people are unlikely to hold a job. I’m very scared for them. We’re not up to par and able to compete with the outside world. Our people have plenty of opportunity already to run little businesses and make money and they don’t. A road won’t help us out in the slightest. No amount of money is going to help us. We are going to become renters on our own turf one day. If we’re not careful, people are going to buy us out. If we want to remain Native, practicing subsistence, we can keep doing that, getting our berries, our fish, our caribou. But if we let them walk all over us, that’s it. It’s over.

I visited Northern California, and they’re worried about all their rivers drying up. Wally Hickel talked about a pipeline to sell water to the Lower 48. Clean water is valuable.


Ever since the inception of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the sovereign tribal governments have been kind of stepped on. They have never really practiced the old way of governing their communities. When I was growing up, we never walked in front of elders. We used to have the elders go and get food first, and so on. People have no respect for the elders nowadays. In fact, elders are being abused in some cases. Young people are living off their grandparents now. It’s pretty sad. We need to focus on our cultural values. To me, the leaders representing us should not be pro-development; they should not have their eye on the money. They should be representing us and our subsistence. The leaders in NANA are not thinking clearly about how the road is going to affect Native people.

It’s not about the money or the jobs for me. I want to make sure our people are treated right. I don’t want the corporation people to be making decision for us. I want people, the people who are affected, people that have the Ambler River and Kobuk River draining right to us, to think about our fish that are at stake — to have the decision-making power.

Shield Downey is an enrolled tribal member of Native Village of Ambler, the first chief of the Ambler tribal council, and a shareholder of NANA Regional Corporation. Downey is also on the Regional Elders Council and the chair of the Kobuk Valley Subsistence Resource Commission.

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