Response to HCN “Fight over tribal sovereighty”

Allen River,  Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

Hats off to High Country News for publishing A quest for Alaska oil sparks a fight over tribal sovereignty by Max Graham in their July 6th edition. It represents a good start in providing a more balanced perspective on Native American resource extraction and protection.

A common assumption of many people is that Native Americans are more likely than most people to support environmental protections. However, one must follow the money.

The article outlines the conflict of opinion about resource development among Alaskan native people.

Numerous lakes dot the Yukon Flats in the Yukon Basin of Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Native Corporation, Doyon, represents the Athabaskan people of the Yukon Basin and is pro-development. Doyon recently leased some of its native-owned lands for oil development.  However, not all of its shareholders (which included 20,000 enrolled members) agree that drilling in their backyard is advisable. Some have voiced opposition to drilling in the Yukon Basin which author Graham quoted in his piece.

What he did not quote were the numerous Doyon shareholders who apparently support oil drilling.

Doyon Native Corporation has been involved in oil field services in Alaska for decades. Photo George Wuerthner 

While it is admirable to see that some Athabascans oppose the recently proposed drilling, Doyon has been involved in oil development for decades, including many companies that operate on the Arctic Coastal Plain with no apparent opposition from shareholders.  Doyan is also the owner or partner in some of the most significant mining ventures in the state.

Nearly all Alaskans natives and part natives are enrolled members of nine Native corporations due to the Alaska Native Lands Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The Supreme recently ruled that these native corporations are essentially tribes no different from the Navajo or Ute. And all registered Yukon Basin villagers, including children, are shareholders in these corporations, including Doyon.

As is typical with Indian reservations in the lower 48 states, many enrolled tribal members do not reside in the area or on the reservation.  Only 19% of Doyon’s shareholders live in the Yukon Basin villages. Others live in Fairbanks or the rest of Alaska, and 26% reside outside of Alaska.

While many of these corporations are involved in resource extraction, they also own other companies. Doyon, for instance, also operates the concession contract at Denali National Park.

Doyon has been involved in Alaskan North Slope oil field services for decades. Photo George Wuerthner

One presumes that if there were significant opposition to oil and other development. Shareholders vote for the board of directors who oversee the corporation. If a majority of Doyon shareholders were displeased with oil development, they could hire a new corporate management team.

They haven’t replaced the corporation officers, suggesting that many Doyan shareholders support or are not aggressively opposed to development.

Old log building in Arctic Village on the southern slope of the Brooks Range. Photo George Wuerthner 

It is not hard to understand why? Doyon provides an annual shareholder dividend check to every member. Most villagers rely on the Native corporation checks to pay for their basic needs. When you consider that every family member receives a check, even a modest shareholder payment can add significantly to the family finances. Even to live a “subsistence” lifestyle usually involves traveling by snowmobile, ATV, or motorboat, not to mention purchasing the fuel to operate these machines.

Most subsistance activities require machines like snowmobles and ATVs which Native Corporation Shareholder checks help to fund. Photo George Wuerthner

Having lived or visited over 80 remote villages in Alaska over the years, I know how expensive even a basic cup of coffee can be, much less paying for things like snowmachines or the gasoline to run them.

Subsistance cabin in Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner

This gets back to my original quip. Follow the money.  If there is a significant financial benefit to resource exploitation on lands tribal people own or control, they frequently opt for development.  On land they don’t’ control, some tribal people will oppose development.

It is encouraging to see Native Americans speaking out to protect the planet, but one should not be fooled into believing such a perspective is universal among all tribal people. If there is money to be had, most Native Americans act just like all other humans. They put their financial well-being and self-interest first.

Bio: George Wuerthner spent more than two decades traveling Alaska. He has worked surveying Native lands, as a range in the Gates of the Arctic NP, river ranger on severfal Wild and Scenic Rivers. He also taught Alaskan Environmental Polictics and has authored two books on the state.





  1. cynthia brown Avatar

    the tribes should have soveraigy over their stocks and
    be reconigzed s such. It is their land an their products

  2. Lou Avatar

    Finally, someone acknowledges that we should not assume native americans are the original environmentalists and best custodians of land now. There have been several news articles in major papers voicing the opinion that because of the ill treatment of natives in the past, we should give them large chunks of public lands or give them the deciding vote in management. I certainly hope national parks will not be handed over using that rationale. And if we are counting on the new Sec. of the Interior to block oil and gas extraction on BLM lands, better be sure those lands are not given away too, while she is in office. There are now in excess of 300 million Americans, and land use and management are vastly different. We cannot go back to a supposedly more benign period of time.

  3. Rocky Sehnert Avatar
    Rocky Sehnert

    Right On, George!!!! Finally some truth.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner