Native American Tribes Vow to Clean Up Yukon River

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 3, 2004
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."

Military Pollution

Environmentalists say the Yukon is still relatively clean compared with other U.S. rivers. The main challenge is to make sure that past contaminants don't enter into the watershed.

Much of the pollution comes from mine tailings, or residues. Heavy metals from the old mines that dot the watershed have seeped directly into the river or its tributaries.

A dozen military installations along the river present an even greater threat. The soil around the sites—many of them now abandoned—contains high levels of PCBs (poisonous pollutants that collect in animal tissues), pesticides, diesel, and other petroleum products. Floods have carried away barrels containing airplane deicing fluid and paint.

"The U.S. military is probably the biggest contaminant source on the Yukon River," Rosenfeld said.

But the towns and villages along the river also contribute the dangerous fecal coliform bacteria from their sewage, which has in some places been dumped straight into the river. Also, many landfills are placed too close to the river, activists say.

The severity of the pollution is still being studied. An increase in cancer and leukemia rates has been reported, but so far there is no direct link to any contaminant source.

Rosenfeld says he's particularly troubled by the potential for an oil spill. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline crosses the Yukon River twice.

"Today the river is not protected from a catastrophe," Rosenfeld said. "What would happen to the fisheries if the pipeline burst?"

No Plastic Bags

The river pollution has challenged some of the basic tenets of aboriginal life. In some indigenous languages, the word "contaminant" doesn't even exist.

But the watershed council could be facing a less-daunting task than its counterparts in other North American regions, mainly because of the low population density along the Yukon.

During an American Indian convention in Oregon, representatives from Mississippi approached the Yukon delegates. "They said, 'Oh, you're so lucky. We have three major cities on the river with more than a few million people in each city,'" Rosenfeld said. "The biggest city on the Yukon is Fairbanks, which has fewer than 40,000 people."

So far, the watershed council has provided information and resources to municipal governments to build new sewage treatment plans. It is sharing technical knowledge on sewage-lagoon management, water-quality monitoring, and recycling. In Galena, the Louden Tribal Council supported a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores.

"The tribes started thinking what they could do in their own backyards," Rosenfeld said. "They know that they must become better watchdogs and stewards of the environment."

"Rather than heading to the courtroom and buying lawyers BMWs, our job is to bring all the parties together to see how we can work together to improve things," he added.

With so many tribes signed on to the watershed council, critics have voiced concerns about the ability of the group to remain unified. Rosenfeld says it's the people who don't understand the tribes who express such skepticism.

"In 1997 [when elders gathered in Galena to discuss the river] these leaders made a commitment to each other," Rosenfeld said. "That commitment will last for generations."

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