By Chandler Spoon, Inletkeeper Legal Intern
At Colorado Law, environmental law and American Indian law are inextricably linked. I left my classical music career solely to study the former but quickly became immersed in the latter asking how can so much of our modern environmental policy still center on colonial-era expansionist values? Through my Indian Law professor’s work with the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign, I found Inletkeeper, and 3 short months later here I am completing a legal internship in Homer.
Much of my work here revolves around Cook Inlet beluga whales: their habitat, their legal protections, their importance to the hearts and hearths of the Dena’ina people – and their precipitous decline.
The Dena’ina – like many coastal Alaska Native communities – have hunted beluga since time immemorial. But since the Russian occupation of Alaska, sadly, the Cook Inlet beluga population has steadily dwindled. Once so numerous that boaters on the McArthur River had to be careful not to hit them, there are now less than 300 belugas left in the Inlet. Inexplicably, after half a century of oil extraction, industrialization, and explosive non-native population growth in Cook Inlet, the state still tries to place the loss solely on the Dena’ina way of life.
But decades have passed since the Dena’ina gave up hunting and yet Cook Inlet belugas are no better off. Despite teetering on the edge of extinction, the state of Alaska has repeatedly failed to give the Cook Inlet beluga state protections. The federal government has completed only one of the 66 recovery actions in the Cook Inlet beluga endangered species recovery plan. Nevertheless, our governments routinely authorize oil wells and sewage treatment plants to discharge unparalleled amounts of water pollution into Cook Inlet.
This loss is not unique to the Dena’ina. Despite the millennia of handed-down teachings behind Indigenous ways of life all across the continent, Dr. Jessica Hernandez in Fresh Banana Leaves laments, “Indigenous science has long been ignored, otherized, or perceived as ‘soft’ – the product of a systematic, centuries-long campaign of racism, colonialism, and extractive capitalism.” Although “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” is starting to garner more attention from our environmental decision-makers, through Secretary Haaland’s tribal consultation policy and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we still have a long way to go.
As Dr. Hernandez poignantly puts it, Western conservationism isn’t working. As we face the fact that our environmental laws are ill-equipped to address the all-encompassing nature of the climate crisis, we must learn from the holistic land, water, and forest management practices born from a millennia of experience. Inletkeeper understands that uplifting indigenous voices is crucial to our work as waterkeepers, and I’m thrilled to be working somewhere that shares the same values of stewardship, humility, and justice.