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Tribes stand united in fight to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine

Leaders from five Coast Salish tribes joined a delegation from the United Tribes of Bristol Bay in Seattle this week to formally unveil a Bristol Bay Proclamation.

It demands that the U.S. government protect the tribes' way of life, as “people of the salmon,” by halting the permitting process for the so-called Pebble Mine in Southeast Alaska. And it’s a pledge of unity in a fight that has been an uphill battle.

The tribes say the land and water of three native peoples near the proposed mining area could be devastated by the Pebble Partnership’s efforts to extract copper, gold and other minerals.  

Washington’s Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, who also leads the National Congress of American Indians, spoke at the signing. She says they're insisting on good-faith negotiations, after consultations that have merely been a "check the box" exercise so far. 

“Under international standards, under our indigenous laws, under all the teachings that we have been afforded for generations, this is illegal,” Sharp said.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

The proclamation was presented in a ceremony led by Lummi leaders, with a traditional Anthem sung by British Columbia’s Tsleil-Waututh, which has successfully used lack of consultation in lawsuits against pipelines that run through First Nations’ lands. Among those is a current case against expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline that ends near Vancouver, B.C. and would more than triple the number of oil tankers sailing through the Salish Sea and parts of Puget Sound. That case is on appeal. 

The Pebble Partnership says their latest proposal is scaled back and will be safe, while providing good employment in rural Alaska. A prior application was submitted by officials in the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a conference call this week it will issue an Environmental Impact Statement this summer, with a record of decision expected in the fall. Many critics, including former government officials and tribes signing the Bristol Bay Proclamation, say the draft EIS is incomplete, poorly written and based on bad science.     


Though it’s thousands of miles away, thousands of commercial fishermen from the Puget Sound region head north to Bristol Bay every summer to catch wild sockeye that they say comes from the last pristine wild run in the world.

They catch enough to sustain themselves all year.

“It’s a huge fishery for Bellingham and Seattle — for Washington state,” said Ellie Kinley, a commercial fisherman and a member of the Lummi Nation. She says several dozen of her tribe’s members fish there every year, including four men in her immediate family.

“My husband told my son years ago, if he wanted to keep catching fish, he was going to have to go to where there still was fish, which is a really sad sign of our Salish Sea. But my son’s been up there for five or six years now.” 

She hopes to send a clear message to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that tribes oppose anything that can harm salmon and the cultures that depend on it. 

The proclamation follows resolutions late last year about the Pebble Mine from the National Congress of American Indians and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. It's signed by their leaders as well as the Lummi, Suquamish, Makah, Tsleil-Waututh and the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. 

The 15 councils in that organization make up a relatively small group compared to the organizations now joining their battle. UTBB treasurer, MaryAnn Johnson, gave thanks for the support before reading the proclamation aloud in the formal ceremony that was live-streamed on Facebook and held at the Burke Museum.  

“We’ve had a long 15 years of fighting this mine alone,” she said, fighting tears. “And we are heartened to know that we are no longer standing alone.”



UPDATE, Jan. 23, 8 p.m.:  this story has been updated. The United Tribes of Bristol Bay is comprised of 15 councils, not three nations.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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