More than 130 Calista shareholders signed a letter sent to the Calista Native Corporation protesting the proposed Donlin gold mine, and they are all women. Calista owns the subsurface rights to the mine, and is the regional corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The letter starts like this: “We are Indigenous women of the Calista region with strong physical, emotional, and spiritual ties to the people and the land. We are also Calista shareholders who are concerned with the development of the Donlin gold mine and how that will impact our salmon-spawning river.”
That river is the Kuskokwim, the primary food source for a region that relies heavily on subsistence for its diet. The Donlin mine could be one of the biggest in the world, if developed.
Bev Hoffman, of Bethel, is a long-time protestor of the mine and led the effort to craft the letter and gather signatures. An advocacy meeting with some of Donlin’s critics gave her the idea to have only female shareholders sign the letter.
"Women of the earth have been just in this century, last century I should say, and this new century have been finding the voice. Indigenous people demanding the right. People of all colors and nationalities, and we see it right now today, and then here right along the Kuskokwim river we see it too," Hoffman said.
Hoffman doesn’t like that Calista signed the lease with Donlin two decades ago without any shareholder input. They say that this letter will show Calista that not all of its shareholders are on board
"They say it’s going to be great for the region; I would welcome a vote from shareholders," Hoffman said.
Fannie Black grew up in Bethel and also signed her name to the letter. While she doesn’t depend on the river for her dietary needs, she knows that many villages do.
"I don’t want that to risk, any environmental risks that might take those foods away from people. There’s a lot to be lost with that mine. Even if there aren’t any spills or anything, there’s still going to be some kind of environmental impact.
Black has a degree in mechanical engineering, and worked for some time in the oil and gas industry. That experience made her aware of the environmental risks from extraction industries, like oil, gas, and mining.
Black also works for a workforce development organization, so she understands the economic opportunities that Donlin will bring to Alaska’s poorest region. But she says that the region could seize other opportunities within communities, such as investing more in local craftmanship like sewing furs or carving ivory.
Bethel is more than 100 miles down from the mine site. So far, many of the protests and resolutions against the proposed Donlin gold mine have come from the Lower Kuskokwim region, but quite a few of the signatures on the letter come from the villages closer to the proposed site: Aniak, Sleetmute, Napaimute, Crooked Creek, Chuathbulak, and Stony River.
While Calista owns the subsurface rights to the mine, The Kuskokwim Corporation, which these villages belong to, owns the surface rights. Esther Diehl lives in Aniak. She’s both a Calista and TKC shareholder.
"It’s like, yeah, the river is a huge concern and anything that happens, the headwaters or the end of the river, it’s still going to affect the wildlife and the fish and game all the way to the ocean. This river may seem big and all, but it’s not all that big if it’s our lifeline," Diehl said.
Calista defended its support for Donlin. In a statement, the corporation says that its staff members also practice subsistence and have the same stake in the environmental health of the region.
"We waited until science and data showed that NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] protections and regulations worked. Further, Calista continues to support the public comment process so that concerns and questions can be raised, and more importantly, be addressed.”
Donlin Gold has pledged to build the mine as safely as possible. The company declined to comment on the letter, saying that it was between Calista and its shareholders.