for National Geographic News
Growing up in Galena, Alaska, First Chief Peter Captain, Sr., drank water straight from the Yukon River. "But that was a long time ago," said the 57-year-old chief of the Louden Tribal Council. "You can't do that now without getting sick."
Stretching through some of the most pristine wilderness in North America, the 2,300-mile-long (3,700-kilometer-long) Yukon River has become increasingly polluted from raw sewage flowing into the river and decades of runoff waste from mines and military sites.
But in recent years the Native American groups living along the river have begun to combat the degradation. As part of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, the Indian tribes have vowed to clean up the river and return it to its original pristine condition.
"In 50 years, time, we want to be able to drink from the river once again," said Captain, one of the council founders.
As long as the Mississippi River, the Yukon runs from northern British Columbia in Canada to the Bering Sea in Alaska, passing through many diverse ecosystems.
It is a lifeline to the 130,000 people who live in 60 towns along its banks. With unemployment as high as 80 percent in some pockets, many residents rely on subsistence hunting and fishing. Salmon and trout are the most common catches.
"The river is us," Captain said. "All animals that we eat come from the river or are associated with it. Without the river, we couldn't survive."
Captain first took notice of the changing river when he started to see anomalies (like sick livers) in the fish he caught. When elders from Louden and other tribes gathered in Galena in 1997 they each discovered others had noticed the same anomalies.
Pledging to reduce pollution, 34 Alaskan and British Colombian tribes formed the watershed council with seed money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2001, 36 tribes signed an intertribal accord. Those signatories have since grown to 56.
"The leaders wanted the organization to act like an elder," said Rob Rosenfeld, co-director of the watershed council. "They wanted it to draw on the collective wisdom of all the communities that depend on the Yukon River."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES