Posted by: MC | August 12, 2013

Mayo Summit – Listen to These People


Galena, Alaska was at 39 below zero four days before Christmas in 1997.  At 40 below, the airport closes. Air travel is the most reasonable way to get into Galena in winter.  The other ways are by snow machine or dog sled.  A hand full of tribal leaders from the Yukon River basin were gathering on that day because they had become acutely concerned for the health of the river.  Toxic dump sites, mining waste and the impact of sewage dumping were now persistent and dangerous threats to the fish, plants, wildlife and people of the Yukon River Basin.  It was up to the people to act – to assert their rights and responsibilities as stewards of the water and land.

Sixteen years ago in Galena it was cold.  Return travel possibilities were unpredictable.  None of that mattered.  This meeting now stands as the origin of an alliance among Alaska Tribes and Canada First Nations.  The alliance is devoted to protecting the water quality, quantity and flow of the Yukon River and its tributaries.  It took on the name Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) and in the intervening 16 years, 72 Alaska Native Tribes and Canada First Nations have come into collaboration through this organization.

Ten days ago the YRITWC leadership came together in Mayo, Yukon for their Biennial Summit.  By contrast to that December day in Galena, the temperatures in Mayo crested 90F.  One resident reported a porch thermometer reading 102.

In the heat, even the mosquitoes were reluctant, but the leaders, community members and allies in attendance showed no sign of anything except clear, precise and determined attention to the tasks at hand.  The focus of the Mayo Summit was deliberation among the leadership of the Tribes and First Nations of the Yukon River Basin toward reaching consensus on clarification of their shared water rights. 

On August 3 at 5:30 in the afternoon and after two days of deliberation, an agreement was reached and formalized with a vote.  The Tribes and First Nations joined explicitly to claim their Indigenous Rights as stewards of the land and water of the Yukon River Basin.  They agreed to assert their rights with rigorous water quality standards – standards based in modern scientific data and in traditional knowledge.  [To follow the work and communications of the Council, check out the YRITWC website  Also check out the National Geographic blog written by Jon Waterhouse, director of the YRITWC, and Jon’s Healing Journey project]

Needless to say, it was a great privilege to be present for this historic event.  While the event was explicitly guided and focused on the interests and concerns of the indigenous communities of the Yukon River Basin, a consistent theme of the discussion was the relevance of the Council’s decisions and actions to all people – all fish and wildlife – all waterways.  Part of my responsibility is to help communicate this fact to people who are not of this Basin, its cultures and traditions.

So, together from the words from Harold Gattensby that I posted last week, here are some thoughts for those of us who have not been raised in indigenous cultures and communities.

As I’ve mentioned, the meeting was in Mayo, Yukon Territory, Canada a town with a population of about 400 located between the Mayo and Stewart Rivers, tributaries to the Yukon.  The sign outside Mayo says “Heart of the Yukon.”  A good number of citizens of Mayo attended the summit, many of whom were Elders of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun.

When the invitation came in with the schedule for airline and van travel (6 hours from Whitehorse, AK to Mayo), I also received instruction to bring a tent, sleeping bag, towel and serious bug spray.  The housing in Mayo was for the oldest among us and is both super limited and shared.

Too far before dawn on July 31, I checked a duffel full of camping gear and plenty of bug deterrent and got on a plane in Billings.  When I got to Denver, I learned the flight to Vancouver was cancelled, so after 6 hours on the phone working out plan B with the ever resourceful YRITWC staff (human beings extraordinaire!!), I ended up arriving the next day.  I rode in from Whitehorse, Yukon (five hours to Mayo) with two astonishing scientists – Jim McClelland and Chris Linder.  Both of these men spend a ton of time in the Arctic learning about ways for keeping water healthy.  Chris is most known these days for his exquisite science photography – check it out.

So, modern scientists from non-indigenous backgrounds attended the summit and are also well-represented among the YRITWC staff.  As consultants or staff, these scientists follow the guidance of the River’s Indigenous communities.  This fact sets the Mayo Summit aside as a moment of collaboration, innovation and wisdom that the whole world could stand to take for the powerful model it provides.

Ok.  Now to ground all of this a bit, here is more history on the event and the circumstances leading to it.

The tribes and First Nations find themselves in the position of developing political voice with the non-indigenous governments of the U.S., Canada, the province of Yukon and the state of Alaska.  This has, of course, become necessary over the past 500 years or so because of the arrival of trappers, explorers and later vast numbers of immigrants from Europe.

European contact came later to Alaska and the Yukon than to the rest of the US and Canada.  In Canada, there was never much formal recognition of the sovereignty of the First Nations, and I really know too little about this history.  My limited understanding is that compared to the treaty tribes of the U.S., the First Nations find themselves with little to stand on in the cannon of Canadian law.

Sadly similar to the situation of the Canadian First Nations, the U.S. tribes of Alaska experienced sort of a boomerang effect relative to treaty-based rights because of Alaska coming into statehood after the U.S. essentially stopped establishing treaty agreements with indigenous nations.

This is some of the way it went.  The Pacific Northwest Tribes in what are now northern California, Oregon and Washington were the last to be affected by European presence in the lower 48.  But, it was still early enough for many of those tribes to be a part of the Treaty period.  Even though treaties have been broken way more than honored, the treaties established before 1855 or so continue to serve the US tribes as ground for pursuing political and legislative support for the health of their tribes.  The PNW Tribes often show leadership in treaty-based activism and this may be because contact came later and the decimation of culture was comparatively less (still horribly extreme, but less).

Alaska did not gain statehood until 1958 — well after the US House of Representatives said ‘NO MORE’ to the granting of treaties.  The House did this in the late 1800s when, as the fiscal arm of Congress charged with appropriation of tax funds, they determined treaties too expensive.  By 1971, other agreements were made w/ the AK Native Tribes essentially removing all claims to sovereignty by recognizing the tribes as corporations (with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act).

All of this means that current circumstances leave the Canadian First Nations and Native Alaskan Tribes with little recognition as sovereigns.  That is, both groups are essentially without legal ground to stand on for asserting water quality standards which would, of necessity, require water rights.  However, the legal folks who are on this are finding ways to pursue legal precedent mostly on the basis of indigeneity.  Both groups have rights as the people indigenous to the lands and waterways – as the stewards they know themselves to be.

So, the Tribes and First Nations, being by far the weakest relative to the nations of Canada and the US, are almost completely subject to the legal (and underlying philosophical/even epistemological) understandings of  the latter.  To make inroads that are binding to those larger governments, the Indigenous leaders have to decode and find effective ways to persuade them.

Given the whole of this situation, this last week in Mayo Yukon the Alaska Tribes and First Nations of the Yukon River Basin made an historic decision.  Standing strong on the finally irrefutable grounds of their indigenous rights to care for the land and water and with the force of 72 indigenous nations, the leaders determined specific ways to proceed in asserting those water rights with the state of AK, the province of Yukon and the federal governments of the US and Canada.  Jimmy Johnny, an Elder of Mayo put it this way.  “The water will be clean.  The fish, wildlife and plants will thrive.  We do this for our children for all time to come.”


  1. […] very few, of how we can more — of how we are not stuck.  Models like that offered by the 72 Alaska Native Tribes and Canada First Nations who devote themselves in unified coalition and as individual communities acting toward their goal […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: