The Impact of Environmental Changes on Alaskan Natives

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Long before the U.S. became a free country in 1776, Native American tribes lived, worked, hunted, and fished on the land we now call home. These Native people have an incredibly unique relationship with the environment that goes beyond just a place to build a house or drive a car. It is a sacred relationship between humanity and the earth that is valued above all else in Native cultures. Since colonization and development, these things have drastically changed, especially in the rural regions of Alaska. There are countless climate-related issues currently affecting Alaskan Natives such as melting permafrost, erosion of coastal villages due to rising waters, changing migration patterns of animals that Natives depend on, unreliable sea ice for travelling, and many more. However, the issue that I will be focusing on is in Bristol Bay Alaska where a battle between economic advances and the preservation of tradition is currently taking place. Many powerful companies and politicians want to build a large mineral mine in the bay because it contains precious natural resources that could generate an enormous profit for the region. However, the mine has the potential to significantly damage the salmon population living in the bay and therefore hurt the Native populations who depend on fishing for their livelihood. This dilemma in Bristol Bay Alaska is a battle between logos and pathos as rich and influential people are seeking to make a profit by risking the destruction of local Native populations.

In 1867, the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars (Primary Documents in American History). This massive purchase of land is often considered the “beginning” of Alaska’s history. However, the lesser-known story dates back all the way to about 10,000 BCE when migrants followed animal herds across a land bridge that stretched from Siberia all the way to eastern Alaska. The region was first settled by the “Athabaskan, Aleuts, Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit and Haida peoples” ( editors). These Natives lived peacefully and untouched for thousands of years until gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory in the 1890s causing massive amounts of prospectors to flood the region in search of a fortune. In 1959, Alaska was admitted into the Union as the 49th state, and Natives have since fought tirelessly to protect the land of their ancestors from American industrialization.

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Much like Alaska, the history of Bristol Bay dates back much farther than most people think: about 3,000 B.C. The region is located along the coast of southwest Alaska and was originally settled by the Athabascan and Yup’ik Eskimos (Ferguson). It was the site of many settlements beginning in the 1800s because of its proximity to rich minerals, abundant seafood, and a thriving ecosystem. Today, “The Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon” (Jones). It is home to 15 Ntive tribes who are some of the last entirely salmon-based societies in the world. These Natives completely depend on the sockeye salmon for their livelihood. Unfortunately the salmon, and as a result, the Natives are in danger due to the possibility of Pebble Mine being built in the upcoming years. The mine poses a serious threat to one of the few remaining wilderness fishing areas in the country because it has the potential to contaminate the waters of the bay and surrounding watersheds with toxic chemical waste.

The construction of Pebble Mine is a hotly debated topic among Alaskans because the mine will not only affect the salmon population but also fisherman, hunters, local businesses, and large companies in addition to the Natives. This debate has become so heated that it has gained national attention. However, there are always three sides to any story: the two opposing opinions and the truth. In the case of Bristol Bay’s future, it is a battle between those who believe the mine will be safe and provide millions of dollars in revenue to the state of Alaska, and those who believe the mine will leak toxic waste into the pristine waters of the bay and harm its inhabitants. More than this, it is a battle of appeals between logic and emotion, or logos and pathos. Some prefer to view the mine through a purely scientific and economic perspective while others like to think solely about the emotional attachment of Alaskan Natives to their homeland.

One common appeal when dealing with Pebble Mine is to logic, or logos. In general, the proponents of the mine focus heavily on finding scientific proof that the it will not harm the ecosystem of Bristol Bay. There have been many studies of thousands of water samples from around Bristol Bay led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tom Collier is the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the company which plans to build the mine. He said, “These same studies also help us engineer the mine site in a way that minimizes the amount of water contacting the mine facilities” (Collier). The Pebble Partnership and other supporters of the mine clearly express that no contamination will occur in the bay and that the mine will be engineered with safety in mind. This all plays into the appeal to logic because nobody wants to intentionally destroy thousands of acres of natural salmon habitat and contaminate the drinking water of their families. Collier goes on to say that, “All on-site water will be managed and monitored. When released, it will be adjusted to optimal conditions for fish and aquatic life — temperature, calcium levels, and flow rate” (Collier). Both of these promises of safety are backed up by scientific studies which makes them reliable in the eyes of the mine’s supporters who constantly appeal to logic by expressing the cost versus benefit of the mine. They insist that fishing and mining can exist in harmony. This logic is designed to sway readers to support mining because if it will not harm anyone and will be a large source of income for the area, then there will not be any problems.

In addition to promises of not harming Bristol Bay’s ecosystem, Pebble Mine is also predicted to exponentially boost the economy of Alaska. The, “Open pit mine the size of 460 football fields and deeper than One World Trade Center . . . [is a] glittering prize that could yield sales of more than $1 billion a year in an initial two decades of mining” (Read 1). This amount of money greatly outnumbers the $110 million generated from commercial, sport, and sustenance fisherman last year (Sherwonit). The increased amount of money will create much needed economic activity in the form of thousands of new jobs. Many groups who are in favor of the mine use this to their advantage because there is no denying the numbers. The possibility of increased income is very attractive to the residents of Bristol Bay because their economy has been stagnant for many years, and it desperately needs to be reevaluated. The economic argument greatly assists in the appeal to logic because it is quite obvious that the minerals under Bristol Bay are worth billions of dollars, and mining seems like a great option in this situation. However, the real question comes into play when comparing the large sums of money that Pebble Mine will generate to the lives it will directly impact, particularly the appeal to emotion of the Native Americans that call Bristol Bay home.

The opponents of Pebble Mine, led by local Natives, paint a very different picture of the project. They are much more focused on the potential destruction of salmon habitats which will eventually cause the destruction of the Native people who depend on fishing for their livelihood. “For thousands of years the Yup’ik Eskimo, Alutiiq and Athabaskan tribal members of Bristol Bay have typically consumed up to 2.4 million pounds of wild salmon annually” (O’Keafe). Wild salmon usually comprises at least 50% of Native families’ diets, and the fish are their key to survival (O’Keafe). These families do not have the means to lose their primary source of food and income, and they are often ignored and underrepresented by Alaskan politicians. Thinking of these Natives creates an emotional appeal because their livelihood is being threatened by the mine every single day.

While supporters of the mine continue to emphasize the safety of the mine, in 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency released a watershed assessment concluding that, “Pebble could result in: loss of salmon habitat (rivers, lakes, wetlands), degradation of the ecosystem (water quality, contamination), and the risk of an environmental disaster” (United in One Mission). The message of many opponents of the mine is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Pebble Partnership leave no room for inevitable error. The truth is that any leak from a damaged dam or seismic activity common to the area could be catastrophic to the salmon population, not to mention the thousands of acres of surrounding wetlands and streams. Bruce Babbitt, an outspoken adversary of the mine says, “With the greatest fishery resource and sockeye salmon run in the world, you can’t take any risk” (Read). Here the reader begins to see what is truly at stake in the debate surrounding Pebble Mine. One mishap, which is highly likely over the next decade due to the size and location of the mine, will lead to irreversible damage. This thought of potential destruction is a strong indication of the appeal to emotion or pathos.

The most important aspect of pathos comes into play when examining the implications of Pebble Mine on the residents of Bristol Bay, particularly the vulnerable Native tribes which have lived along the bay for thousands of years and have depended on fishing for sustenance. Bobby Andrew, a Yup’ik elder and lifelong resident of Bristol Bay explains that, “[Salmon] are the most important source of food. But they also have great cultural and spiritual value to my people” (Sherwonit). For Natives, the salmon are more than just a means to feed their families, but they are the foundation for spirituality and culture. Most opponents of the mine have some type of personal connection to fisherman or Natives in the area which gives them an inside look at the people who will be directly affected by the industrialization. These opponents often appeal to the emotions of readers in order to convince them to fight against construction. Native rights foundations and the tribes themselves are among the loudest and most adamant protestors, and their stories are the most powerful. They use pathos to help the audience understand the turmoil the Natives are going through and to empathize with them.

As seen in through the various media sources analyzed in this paper, there are many sides to Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. There is constant tension between patterns of rhetoric which work as appeals to logic and emotion. These differing patterns help the reader to understand the complexity of the issue. Every source approaches Pebble Mine from a slightly different angle based on the author’s opinions on the morality of mining, economic beliefs, understanding of scientific studies, and emotional connections to the environment. While it may seem like all Alaskans either strongly support or oppose the mine, many people lie somewhere in the middle. The reason for their lack of decision is that many are unsure of the right thing to do. It is more than just taking the most logical side, but considering the moral implications as well. Authors and readers alike must contemplate whether or not the predicted success of Pebble Mine is worth putting the ecosystem of Bristol Bay and the vulnerable Native tribes in danger. I personally agree with those who oppose mining because of my past experience of working with Native American children and families on a service trip. It really opened my eyes to how defenseless and at the mercy of the government most tribes are. I argue that Pebble Mine is not worth the risk because the lives and sacred traditions of Native people should be valued above all else, especially monetary gain for companies that are already extremely powerful. There is much more at stake in this complex issue than initially meets the eye. However, I am a firm believer in valuing human lives, especially the voiceless. Their livelihood is worth fighting for.

This dilemma in Bristol Bay Alaska is a very complex one that is primarily a battle between logos and pathos. A few rich and influential people are seeking to make a profit from the precious natural resources in the bay. However, they want to do this while risking the destruction of the abundant wildlife habitats that local Native populations depend on.

Works Cited

  1. Collier, Tom. “What About the Fish?” The Pebble Partnership, Pebble Limited Partnership, 2018,
  2. Cordalis, Daniel, and Dean B. Suagee. “The Effects of Climate Change on American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes.” Natural Resources & Environment, vol. 22, no. 3, 2008, pp. 45–49. JSTOR,
  3. Erikson, Kai T., and Christopher Vecsey. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse Univ. Press, 1994.
  4. Ferguson, Joe. “Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska.” Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska: History and Information, E-Reference Desk, 2014,
  5. Hill, Samuel. “U.S. Army Corps Releases Draft Report on Pebble Mine.” National Fisherman, Diversified Communications, 21 Feb. 2019,
  6. Jones. “About Bristol Bay.” EPA, United States Environmental Protection Agency, 20 Apr.
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  8. O’Keefe, Bryan. “Tribal Support.” Save Bristol Bay, Save Bristol Bay, 2018,
  9. “Primary Documents in American History.” Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress), Library of Congress, 25 Apr. 2017,
  10. Read, Richard. “This Alaska Mine Could Generate $1 Billion a Year. Is It Worth the Risk to
  11. Salmon?” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 23 Oct. 2019,
  12. Ross, Ken. “Alaska Natives and Conservation.” Pioneering Conservation in Alaska, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 2006, pp. 192–208. JSTOR,
  13. Sherwonit, Bill. “Alaska’s Pebble Mine: Fish Versus Gold.” Yale E360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 8 Sept. 2008,
  14. “United in One Mission.” United Tribes of Bristol Bay,


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