In the rolling highlands of the Kuskokwim River Basin in southwestern Alaska, there is a massive gold deposit that raises some profound questions about the future of the Yup’ik people in the region and indigenous peoples in other parts of the state.
The Donlin gold mine, nearing construction after two decades of exploration and planning work, would be one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world. A project carried out by an association that includes one of the world’s largest mining companies, Donlin would produce 39 million ounces of gold, operate for nearly three decades and employ hundreds of workers a year, according to the association’s plan. .
Donlin is especially exciting, its supporters say, because of its location: on Alaska Native land, with Alaska Native-owned mineral rights, and in a predominantly Native region plagued by economic problems and utility deficits.
“That region happens to be one of the places suffering from the most significant poverty and infrastructure deficit anywhere in the United States,” said Matt Singer, an attorney for Calista Corp., owned by Yup’ik, the regional corporation based in Bethel, which owns the subsurface mineral site, said at a state court hearing this week on a dispute over the mine plan. Kuskokwim Corp., the Yup’ik-owned village corporation for the area, owns the acreage rights.
But indigenous opponents in the region say the mine’s costs to fisheries, wildlife and culture, in the form of damaged habitat and long-term pollution, outweigh any potential dollar gains.
“While this area of Alaska is one of the lowest in cash income, it is highest in community gathering of fish and game resources not only for basic nutrition, but as a foundation of identity and cultural values for the people of the region,” said the Orutsararmiut Native Councila Bethel-based tribal government, says on a website dedicated to opposition to the Donlin project.
While there is much debate about the environmental impacts of the project, which Donlin Gold LLC, the developer, insists can be minimized, a key The point of contention is the role that Donlin could play in the economic well-being of all Alaska Native corporations.
If Donlin went into production, all regional and village Native corporations would be entitled to some of the revenue. This is due to a provision of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that mandates that 70% of the profits from natural resource development by a corporation be shared among the 12 regional Native corporations. Related to that profit-sharing provision, called 7(i) by its legal nomenclature, is another provision called 7(j) that mandates redistribution of profit sharing from regional corporations to smaller corporations representing the approximately 200 Alaskan villages.
Profit-sharing is unique among Native American institutions around the world and is intended to reflect Alaska Native values of sharing and community.
Revenue is critical for some corporations to “keep their lights on and their doors open,” Kristina Woolston, external affairs manager for Donlin Gold LLC, said during a tour of the mine site last summer. “This is really the project on the horizon that could have the biggest impact on ANSCA’s intent.”
But Beverly Hoffman, a tribal elder in the region, argues that the promise of wealth distribution gives rise to false hope.
“Sometimes my heart aches, sitting here at home in Bethel, Alaska, knowing that there is revenue sharing and the way corporations are set up,” she said in a phone interview. Her view, after collecting what she characterizes as paltry corporate dividends for decades, is that 7(i) revenues tend to be concentrated in corporate headquarters rather than in regions where shareholders have needs.
“Turn around and look at corporate salaries,” he said. “Who is really going to benefit? Me, my people, the shareholders? Absolutely not,” she said. “
Donlin’s potential role as a sharer in profits is highlighted in the case of another mine: the Red Dog mine, which began producing in 1989. Long one of the world’s largest zinc producers, Red Dog operates in a Owned by NANA Corp., the regional Native Corporation for the Inupiat people of Northwest Alaska.
Through 2021, Red Dog had produced a cumulative $1.6 billion in 7(i) payments to other native corporations, along with more than $1 billion in revenue that went directly to NANA. That’s apart from payments to the state and county in taxes, shareholder salaries and other economic benefits.
Red Dog profits are among the dominant sources of 7(i) revenue, though North Slope oil profits from Native corporations have been the top contributors, according to a 2018 study conducted for the ANCSA Regional Association. Red Dog’s role has grown over the years. Until about 2004, the total 7(i) profit-sharing was typically less than $50 million a year, but the total jumped in subsequent years from four to six times that amount, thanks in part to the way that rising zinc prices boosted Red Dog’s profitability, study finds
But Red Dog is getting old and the mine’s NANA-owned resources are expected to be depleted by 2031. Plans are for the mine to stay alive and continue to generate revenue for the region and its employees; NANA and the company’s corporate partner, mine operator Teck Resources, are seeking to extend operations to different inland zinc deposits. However, those deposits, called Aktigirup and Anarraaq, are on state land, where production would not generate 7(i) or 7(j) revenue sharing.
Donlin, if developed, would do much to fill the void that is expected to be created by the loss of NANA’s Red Dog distributions. Not only that, but it would also provide enough revenue to fund a local level of government in the region, which currently lacks a city-level structure, according to a report by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Like other development projects that affect Alaska Native peoples, the Donlin debate has exposed a schism between corporations, many of which favor the project, and tribal organizations, many of which oppose it. Some organizations are addressing the schism by being officially neutral, including Bethel Native Corporation, where Hoffman won a board seat last May.
The relationship of money with the traditional subsistence lifestyle comes up in the debate.
Even in its exploration phase, the mine has been an economic boost in the region and “one of the most successful Alaska Native recruitment businesses in Alaska,” the ISER report said. He said 90% of those hired at the 200-person Donlin camp are native-born corporate shareholders.
Generating such personal income is important even for those who follow traditional subsistence lifestyles, supporters of the mine argue.
One Alaskan who takes a liking to Donlin is Willie Hensley, architect of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and longtime leader of the NANA region that has benefited from Red Dog. He said he’s impressed with Donlin’s planning and scope, and it’s unrealistic to discount the economic payouts Donlin could provide, even from a traditional perspective.
“You need money to survive,” Hensley said. “You can’t take a boat trip up and down the river looking for moose and not pay $10 a gallon.”
Opponents view the promise of Donlin’s money as destructive.
“This is a watershed deal for Yup’ik culture as a whole and it goes against every ounce of our culture,” said Sophie Swope, head of an anti-Donlin coalition called Mother Kuskokwim and a newly elected member of the Bethel City Council.
Among those who say the mine’s costs are being overlooked is Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which in 2016 passed a resolution against the mine that acknowledged promised revenue but cited the “extreme dangers and excessive risks it would pose to the health and well-being of the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.
Positions are also mixed among elected officials who are highly regarded by Yukon-Kuskokwim residents. US Senator Lisa Murkowski is in favor of the mine, for example, while Tiffany Zulkosky, a former Bethel mayor who represented the region for two terms in the state House, is an outspoken opponent, as is her successor, the newly elected State Rep. CJ McCormick.
Some individuals and organizations have changed positions over time, such as the Association of Village Council Presidents, a consortium representing 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The association in 2006 announced its support for the mine, but in 2019 passed a resolution rescinding that support.
Even within families and among close friends in the region, Donlin is a divisive issue. That includes Beverly Hoffman’s family.
Pete Kaiser, who in 2019 became the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod Trail sled dog race, is related to Hoffman by marriage, for example. He is sponsored by Donlin, an endorsement that adds to the role of the mining company as one of the main sponsors of the race, and that creates a certain discomfort reminiscent of the way in which national political polarization has affected personal relationships.
“His mother and I are close friends,” he said. “We don’t really talk about Donlin. He is like Trump to some people.”
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