“The river is named after my grandfather. One of my uncles was a historian and lay preacher here. He taught me all the old stories of who we are and what we are.
“I don’t believe that coal is a vital source of power for the world or anyone,” he says.
“It’s good right where it is at. Leave it there.”
Al Goozmer, president of Tyonek Native Village in Alaska, quoted in ‘The Alaska village taking on Godzilla‘, BBC News Magazine, November 25th, 2015
That statement about coal in the ground: “It’s good right where it is at. Leave it there” pleases me no end.
Al Goozmer isn’t directly referring to carbon emissions and climate change, even though that “keep it in the ground” meme is central to the campaign against fossil fuel use. In the context of the article, he’s talking about the disruption to the local way of life that will result from a proposed 30-square-mile open-cast strip mine, a few miles upstream of the 200-person settlement where he lives.
The locals have for generations collected lumps of coal washed up among shingle alongside the Chuitna River, for fuel. They are the Tebughna – or Beach People. It’s a sustainable practice, as is the annual salmon catch they take from the river’s clear waters. That, and much else about life for the community, will change with the arrival of the mine. Al and his neighbours in the village don’t want that. The coal is good right where it’s at.
Oddly (or maybe not), the mine project is supported by an organization from the same tribal group, the Tyonek Native Corporation (TNC), based in Anchorage, 30 minutes away by plane across Cook Inlet. TNC, which has a $100 million turnover, was set up in the 1970s to own and administer the resources of the local villages and tribes. Apparently that’s the way that indigenous peoples have always been relieved of their homes and livelihood in the modern era – by incorporating the land they live off into ownership structures.
TNC paved the way for the arrival of commercial fishing, oil and timber industries, which always ended badly for the locals. As another of the villagers says: “I personally have experience with timber and lumber. They came here in the 1970s and promised us jobs. We ended up being labourers, then they fired us.”
So, there are measurable, practical reasons for objecting to and resisting the Chuitna coal mine on social, economic and environmental grounds. But there’s also this to consider: that the spirit of the coal would rather be left, unmolested, deep in geological hibernation. I would like to believe it does, and at the risk of viewing through rose-tinted animist spectacles, I detect a hint of that in Goozmer’s remark.