It all began over a photo.
“A couple of our staff reached out to Donlin to use a picture from their website,” said Dan Walker, then-superintendent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, in February. He retired at the end of July.
For nearly a decade, LKSD, the biggest school district in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has been developing a place-based curriculum for its students. Typically, textbooks used in other parts of the country are not applicable to students in rural Alaska.
“A good example is when you, and in textbooks you see things like sidewalks, and paved streets, and stoplights. And most of our kids don't have any experience with sidewalks,” Walker said.
LKSD wanted to create its own curriculum that uses the region’s resources and its history to teach kids about social sciences, health, and ecology. Then that textbook would be translated into Yugtun, the Yup’ik language.
This is where it gets back to the proposed Donlin Gold mine. The mining prospect has been around for decades, since the regional Native corporation, Calista, leased the mineral rights in 1980s. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, nearly everyone has heard of Donlin Gold.
A team of teachers began drafting a curriculum for fifth graders that focused on human impact to the environment. That included the impact of the proposed Donlin Gold mine. A draft of the curriculum obtained by Alaska's Energy Desk showed that it featured voices from the community voicing their opinions about the mine. For instance, Bethel resident and tribal member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, Bev Hoffman, speaks out against the mine in the curriculum. Thom Leonard, spokesperson for the Calista Corporation, speaks out in support.
It was almost ready in early January of this year; all that was missing was a few photos. So an LKSD employee, Mike Gehman, emailed Donlin Gold to request a photo and included part of the curriculum, according to records obtained by Alaska’s Energy Desk.
Donlin Gold’s Kristina Woolston emailed back.
“I would like to work with you on the information you include in your class curriculum. This piece contains a number of things that are factually incorrect. We would like the opportunity to correct them, at the very least perhaps we can give a presentation to the class. It’s important to everyone that the information be correct. Thank you,” the email read.
Gehman agreed, and worked to set up a time to meet. Another Donlin employee, Vernon Chimegalrea, looped in Calista Corporation, which owns the mineral rights, and suggested that LKSD use Yugtun linguists recommended by Calista and Donlin’s Bethel-based community engagement team.
Gehman replied that the school district already had Yugtun linguists working on the curriculum, but was willing to go over any factual errors. Gehman again expressed the district’s interest in using photos of the mine site.
“I hope that will be discussed,” he wrote.
Woolston emailed back.
“Apologies for not clarifying, but you have our approval to use the photos once the content is revised,” Woolston wrote.
In late January, Calista Vice President of Land and Natural Resources Tisha Kuhns, who used to work for Donlin and grew up in Bethel, sent a letter to the LKSD school board outlining Calista, and Donlin’s, concerns about the curriculum. But it did not list any specific errors.
A few days later, Kuhns emailed Gehman with their suggested edits.
In an interview with KYUK, Woolston said that Donlin’s main issue with the curriculum was the tone.
“The tone created fear,” Woolson said.
She said that the curriculum didn’t focus on the nuances of the mining operations, and it implied that mining pollution from its waste was inevitable.
“So some of the language that was originally included seemed this would happen. And so we did not feel like it was objective to say that this would happen, so that was part of our concern as we wanted to have a more neutral tone about that,” Woolston said.
LKSD did not want to be caught up in the controversy over the mining project. A few days after Calista sent the letter to the board, LKSD made its final decision: the district erased all mention of the proposed Donlin Gold mine.
"We're moving forward,” Walker said. “I think there are ways for us as educators to capture the issue of humans and our impact on the environment without specifically relating it to Donlin Gold.”
Donlin wouldn’t say whether it supported Walker’s decision to remove the mine from the curriculum.
Woolston says that Donlin Gold is forging ahead with its investment into the region; the company has about $1 million each year that it puts into various projects and organizations.