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Donlin Gold could deter some tribes from joining the Calista-backed Y-K Regional Tribal Government

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Dean Swope/KYUK
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The site of the proposed Donlin Gold mine.

The idea to unite the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s 56 tribes under one government has been tried and failed before, but this time there’s funding behind it. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government is the name of the latest effort, backed financially by the Calista Corporation. Next month it will host a meeting with the region’s tribes, who will decide if they want to be a part of it. But Calista’s business relationship with Donlin Gold may deter some of the region’s tribes from getting on board.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government says that it would create many benefits for the region. It says that it could provide services that individual tribes don’t have the resources to pay for, or that regional nonprofits don’t have the authority to carry out.

Rob Porter is an attorney for the regional tribal government. He said that one such service could be a regional tribal police force, with its own planes and officers. “And only a government can do that,” Porter said.

Porter said that the regional tribal government could also build roads or install broadband on a region-wide basis rather than leaving each tribe to figure it out on their own (There are regional broadband projects like the Y-K Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium).

Regional tribes already exist in Alaska, like the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), comprising 20 tribal communities in Southeast Alaska.

CCTHIA President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson said that a regional tribe can increase its members’ political power. He said that his organization often meets with high-ranking politicians, like U.S. cabinet members.

“Because when we say that we represent 32,000 tribal citizens, it's pretty impressive,” Peterson said in a panel discussion about regional tribal governance hosted by Calista last year. “I'm not sure how many Y-K would be. You guys would probably quickly rival us to be the largest tribe in Alaska.”

The idea of a regional tribal government in the Y-K Delta originated decades ago, but previous efforts, like the Yupiit Nation and later the Nunavut Alaska Provisional Government, failed, partly because they struggled with the cost of even host meetings.

This time, Calista Corporation is footing the bill for the creation of the regional tribal government. On top of paying for travel to hold meetings, Calista is also providing office space and legal counsel for the fledgling organization. Calista says that the reason it is helping to create a regional tribal government is simply that it would improve the lives of its shareholders. But some tribes are suspicious of Calista’s involvement.

Bethel’s tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council
(ONC), does not support the Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government. ONC Chairman Walter Jim told KYUK, “We know that this regional tribal government is being pushed by, it is part of Calista Corporation. And Calista Corporation, you know, they're the ones that are pushing the Donlin Gold mine project.”

ONC is firmly against the proposed Donlin Gold mine, which would be located on a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. The tribe has passed resolutions opposing it, and has even filed lawsuits to try to block permits for the project.

Losing ONC’s support would be a huge blow to the regional tribal government effort. ONC is the largest tribe in the region, with over 4,500 members. And ONC’s decision could create a ripple effect.

The Village of Kotlik, a tribe on the lower Yukon River, previously supported the regional tribal government. But after hearing ONC is opposed to it because of its ties to Calista and Donlin Gold, Kotlik tribal council president Benjamin Kamkoff is hesitating.

On one hand, he said that the regional tribal government could help Kotlik apply for and administer more grants, and ultimately help the tribe receive more funding. But on the other hand, Kotlik also opposes the Donlin Gold mine project, along with nearly two-thirds of the region’s tribes. In 2019, 35 tribes passed a resolution opposing the Donlin Gold mine at the annual Association of Village Council Presidents convention. Kamkoff said that the salmon runs on the Yukon River have already been depleted, and he doesn’t want that to happen to salmon on the Kuskokwim.

“We never know what the mine can do. It can completely wipe them out,” Kamkoff said.

He said that salmon is the main source of food for people on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, and integral to people’s subsistence way of life. Donlin has said that it plans to build an "environmentally responsible mine." Kamkoff said that Kotlik’s tribal council would discuss the tribe’s support for the regional tribal government further, but other tribal leaders say that its ties to Calista and Donlin are necessary.

“We got no choice. We got no choice,” said Moses Owen from Akiak. Owen is an interim representative for the regional tribal government for several tribes along the middle Kuskokwim River. He said that a government needs funding to operate, which Calista is providing.

“Our communities out here have no financial resources to even travel to meetings with the high cost of living and everything out here. Gee, we appreciate anything that even Calista is providing right now,” Owen said.

Porter, the attorney for the regional tribal government, also works for Calista. He wrote the first draft of the regional tribal government’s constitution, but he says that once the regional government is on its feet, Calista will no longer be involved.

“As the regional tribal government is formed, Calista will have no role beyond that process. The regional tribe will not be connected to Calista. It’ll be a sovereign government,” Porter said in a panel discussion about regional tribal governance hosted by Calista.

Over time, Calista would stop funding the regional government. Porter said that Donlin Gold could step in. He said that Donlin Gold could pay something like taxes to the regional government, since the mine would benefit from its services. But only if that’s what the regional tribe wants. He said that there are other options for the regional tribe to fund itself, like creating a business entity.

Porter said that there is no conflict of interest between the regional tribal government and Donlin Gold. Calista fully owns the subsurface rights to the land that Donlin Gold's mine is to be developed on, and he said that the regional tribe would have no jurisdiction over that land use.

“They're completely separate. They're unrelated,” Porter said. “And the question about whether to form the regional tribal government can and should be made independently of how one feels about Donlin as a development project.”

So far nine tribes, Akiak, Akiachak, Tuluksak, Kwethluk, Napaskiak, Kasigluk, Chuloonawick, Newtok, and Ohogamiut, have signed the Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government constitution. Porter said that the regional tribe can exist even if not all tribes want to be a part of it.

On April 28, the regional tribal government will host a meeting that has been postponed for two years because of the pandemic. Calista will pay for one delegate from each tribe in the Y-K Delta to fly to Anchorage to decide if they want to be a part of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK. In his past life, he worked as a software engineer in Seattle, WA. He visited Bethel in 2019 for the Kuskokwim 300, and decided he wanted to tell the stories of the people in the Yukon-Kuskokiwm Delta.