Earth Law for Angoon, Alaska

By Jaishal Dhimar

For thousands of years, civilizations have organically spurred up near water sources. Of course any civilization near a water source gains use of easy to access shipping routes, but even today with our multitude of planes and highways for ground transport, we humans continue to find the coast home. 39% of the world’s population currently live directly on the shoreline.

As the world’s coastlines recede due to the devastating effects of global warming we see an increase in people living closer to the coastline. Naturally, seafood production and consumption has increased.


The Native Tnglit people of Alaska, whose name translates to “People of The Tides” have called the Southeastern Alaskan shoreline home for thousands of years. Much of their diet consists of local seafood and other native species. As stated in my last blog, much of coastal land was or is owned by private companies.

The Tnglit people are facing an issue from the Green Creaks Mining company. Green Creaks is encroaching on natural land in Hawk Inlet by infesting it with their dumping. This infected water disturbs local fauna, and creatures as far as sixty miles away in Angoon, where a large Tnglit population resides. As coastlines recede more of the dangerous minerals from the mining company is breaching further away from it’s dumping site. We have to re examine policy to keep up with changing environmental systems.

Source: University of Alaska

Source: University of Alaska

What is Angoon/Hawk Inlet?

Hawk Inlet is a beautiful port considered to be apart of Juneau, Alaska. Hawk Inlet is a key part of Juneau, as not only is it a port, but also used as a nearby airport, and apart of the Admiralty mining district. Hawk Inlet has been a key part of infrastructure for Alaska’s capital, Juneau, for over one hundred years. Without this key district, much of Alaska’s economy would be in shambles, as the mining district is the 5th highest producer of silver in the world, and a huge producer of other materials as well.

Source: John Cobb Field Handbook(University of Washington)

Source: John Cobb Field Handbook(University of Washington)

Hawk Inlet has been a port since 1908.

There is one allowed discharger of materials in Hawk Inlet and that is Green Creeks Mine operated by Hecla Green Creeks Mining Company. Green Creaks had an ore spill in 1989 and studies show that there is three times as much mercury in local shellfish, and sediment compared to the rest of the state of Alaska. Many of these creatures travel downstream, and are consumed by seal and other species, who have  been found with excess mercury in their systems.

For reference, fish do often naturally have small amounts of mercury in their system as the Earth’s crust creates mercury organically. However, Alaskan native species are often found to have very little to no mercury in their system. The Green Creeks Mining company is seeking to expand.

Angoon is a gorgeous natural habitat and has the highest density of brown bears and bald eagles in the world. About sixty miles downstream from Hawk Inlet, it is off the beaten trail, Rarely visited by tourists, especially compared to Juneau, but Angoon is home to some of the coastal Tlingit people. Angoon is in protected territory, in the center of the Tongass National forest that could possibly be adversely affected by the pollution coming off from Hawk Inlet.

Figure 1 Source: Carl Chapman "Driving to Alaska"

Figure 1 Source: Carl Chapman "Driving to Alaska"

The small city of Angoon

The mine is an important economic factor from the mines to Juneau, but the people of Angoon are being directly impacted as well as other people ingesting some of the local seafood. This is only a small fraction of the problem as not only is Hawk Inlet affecting local areas, other mines near Juneau are flowing into tributaries near the Taku River, close to Juneau. Many of these mining companies decide to leak material into the rivers and dealing with the light consequences later. Comments have been made about the Tulsequah Chief Mine, that while the government requests the mining companies clean up their mess, the mining companies either account for the fines and continue to do what they were doing previously, or ignore the requests completely.

Day Trip to Angoon Joseph/Umnak

Day Trip to Angoon Joseph/Umnak

What’s Being Done?

The Tlingit people and other tribes banded together to create a coalition to tackle these problems that impact indigenous people’s way of life. The Angoon Community Association, tackles the various issues that prevent Angoon citizens from having say in issues related to their home and surrounding area, along with being a bastion for community outreach.

I want to thank “Di-kee aan kaawoo” which translates to “Our heavenly Father” for the opportunity to take care of the resource. A quote by Frank Jack, Sr., Tlingit Bear Chief and House Master of the Shanaax Hit (Valley House) of Angoon, Alaska.

The association have multiple demands, including but not limited to,

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms;

  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision making institutions;

  3. States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them;

  4. Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including, health;

  5. Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and Minerals;

  6. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard;

  7. States shall establish and implement a transparent process to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and Resources;

  8. Indigenous peoples have the right to redress for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent;

  9. Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources; and

  10. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.

In short, the people of indigenous demand retribution for not only themselves, but the land that has been abused, ask for representation in future projects relating to their territory or resource, and have the right to their traditional culture.

What Would Earth Law Look Like For Angoon?

Option 1: Amendment of Angoon Community Association Constitution

ELC can assist in drafting amendments to the “Constitution and By-laws of the Angoon Community Association Alaska.” Ratified in 1939, the law can be amended to adapt to the present times and to provide a stronger foundation to protect indigenous and nature’s rights. ELC partners Movement Rights and CELDF have helped the Ho-Chunk Nation and Ponca Nation amend their constitution to include rights of nature. On October 20th 2017, the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma took the historic step of agreeing to add a statute to enact the Rights of Nature. 

Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin general council voted to add “rights of nature” to tribal constitution 2016. The amendment establishes: “Ecosystems and natural communities within the Ho-Chunk territory possess an inherent, fundamental and inalienable right to exist and thrive.” Further it prohibits frac sand mining, fossil fuel extraction, and genetic engineering as violations of the Rights of Nature. 

Option 2: Pass a Sustainability Rights Ordinance for Angoon

ELC can assist in drafting a local law that can address the issues Angoon faces. Particularly, the law may include the right of Angoon’s community to self-governance, to a healthy environment and to defend and enforce the rights of nature and other applicable laws. This can also include specific provisions referring to restoration of Hawk Inlet, practices regarding the mine and gray water discharge, and stricter implementation of the CWA.

Option 3: Treaty Agreement for legal rights for the Hawk Inlet and/or Chatham Straits

ELC can assist in drafting a treaty agreement between the Angoon Community Association and the State or Federal government. The agreement would include declaring the ecosystems as legal entities. The agreement would also create new standard procedures for decisions, all must go through a designated Board, to be comprised of both Angoon community members and state/federal persons to ensure all decisions serve the interests of the ecosystem.

In 2013, the Tūhoe people and the New Zealand government agreed upon the Te Urewera Act, giving the Te Urewera National Park “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”

A Board was then established to serve as “guardians” of Te Urewera and to protect its interests. The stated purpose of the Act was to protect Te Urewera “for its intrinsic worth,” including its biodiversity and indigenous ecological systems.

As a result, the government gave up ownership of Te Urewera, and all decisions must serve the interests of and preserve the relationship of the Te Urewera and the Tuhoe people. From a legal standpoint, this legislation is monumental. There is no longer a requirement to demonstrate personal injury in order to protect the land; lawsuits “can be brought on behalf of the land itself.”

Similarly, the Maori people have successfully pursued similar results for the Whanganui River and its tributaries, under the Maori worldview “I am the River and the River is me.” Under the Tutohu Whakatupua Treaty Agreement, the river is given legal status under the name Te Awa Tupua . Te Awa Tupua is recognized as “an indivisible and living whole” and “declared to be a legal person.”

Two guardians, one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River iwi, will be given the role of protecting the river.

Additionally, these agreements have come with apologies from the Crown and payment in damages caused. In the case of the Whanganui River a “financial redress of NZ$80m is included in the settlement, as well as an additional NZ$1m contribution towards establishing the legal framework for the river.

In essence, the government has allowed mining companies to decide what actions they want to take. Whether that is half way cleaning up long lasting damage, or deciding to dump in new territories, there is little substantial action taken that deters companies from moving forward with long set plans.

If Earth Law is bestowed upon the Association’s land, this will allow for higher levels of protection for all the surrounding ecosystem, animals, and the humans to allow for prosperity across generations rather than the short-lived mine that only benefits the corporation. 

How you can help

My previous blog about Louisiana Wetlands.