“How does it feel when your ancestors have been subsisting off the same land for thousands of years, and then that land is threatened?”
Giovanna Marcantonio asks this haunting question at the beginning of a new documentary, We Can’t Eat Gold, centered around the proposed Pebble Mine.
Marcantonio teamed up with Alaskan journalist and filmmaker Joshua Tucker to find answers. Tucker has experience with the question. While reporting on the proposed Chuitna coal mine, sitting through countless hours of meetings and testimony, Tucker noticed a trend.
It’s like the subsistence perspectives and subsistence ways of life are like the person who’s been sitting quiet in the back of the room for a long time. So, I just said, all right. It’s time for them to talk. We’re going to profile Alaska native elders and youth, ways of life, subsistence, and let that perspective have a voice and let that be heard.
Tucker had a vision, direction, and topic, but lacked funding. When Marcantonio was awarded a $3,000 Commit-to-Change grant from Ithaca college, the two caught a plane to Dillingham and began a dialog with people in Bristol Bay.
The film deviates wildly from the battle over Pebble Mine currently being waged in opinion sections of local newspapers. True to Tucker’s stated intent, We Can’t Eat Gold is a collection of stories and experiences from around southwest Alaska, told by subsistence users, tribal elders, school board members, activists, and commercial fishermen – young and old alike.
Tucker thought the cohesion of different generations on the issue was an important facet of the film:
The people are engaging in different ways. Young people are now getting really directly active. And we see older folks [who are focused on] education. Educate the young about this; pass this on to them. And so, when something’s going on when a torch is being passed, it’s really important to include both sides of that.
Petla Noden, a 26-year-old Dillingham native and subsistence user, smiles for the camera as he describes his techniques when casting his nets; local knowledge passed down to him over the years. He licks his lips in anticipation of returning to see tomorrow’s bounty.
Yupik Elder Bobby Andrews, at the other end of the age spectrum in his seventies, worries about the toll resource extraction would have on the salmon streams his entire life hinges upon.
With each story told, the frustration grows as these Alaskans desperately attempt to convey to the outside world their disbelief that Pebble Mine is even being talked about seriously. Their culture can’t be translated into a language where it can live inside an Excel spreadsheet, or survive in a world where the salmon don’t run.
Tom Tilden, Curyung Tribal Chief, tells of his experience traveling to London to try and reason with Anglo American, one of the co-owners of Pebble Partnership alongside Northern Dynasty.
They just kind of brushed us off. In fact, the report that they gave to their board of directors at their annual meeting [told them Pebble] was a huge mine, it’s going to be very profitable once we start mining it. There is some opposition, but it’s very minute, and there’s only a few misinformed people that live there that don’t want this mine. And I was, like, a few misinformed folks?
One thing all sides agree on is that Pebble Mine would indeed be profitable. Hugely profitable – to the tune of somewhere between three and four-hundred billion dollars during the lifetime of operation. And that’s where the truth tends to fall subject to the pursuit of profits.
“Pebble Partnership throws money at newspapers and radio stations and schools and whatever they can,” Tucker laments. “I think it’s really important to sort of sit back and see not only what it looks like when Alaska Natives tell their own stories, but when other people with money come in and try to tell their stories for them.
A striking example of this is a second documentary (put a mental asterisk there), Villages, put out by NUNA Resources – a pro-Pebble Mine coalition funded by Pebble Partnership. Tucker describes it as a “dueling documentary” that he feels echoes Partnership CEO John Shively’s editorials, though he admits to not having seen the full film.
I’d go further and say that it creates a striking metaphor for the claims that Pebble Partnership and its proponents have been less than honest as they pursue the construction of the mine. I don’t believe Villages is actually a film. I think it’s a political commercial dressed up as a film. Verite Studios is listed as the film production company. Poke around their website and draw your own conclusions.
The trailer has the feel of a horror movie, accompanied by narration ripped from a Chevy truck commercial. The message is clear: resource extraction is the way to save rural Alaskan villages from extinction. “What will become of village families and their traditions?”
And then an unidentified man enters the frame and starts explaining how desperately we need to “get on the side of being producers; not just people that are taking from the government.” Which presumably means Pebble Mine. As MoldyChum observed back in April, that unidentified man is Lake and Borough Peninsula Mayor Glen Alsworth. Last August, following a civil complaint, Alsworth received an order from a Superior Court judge to cease and desist from using his official position to advocate for — take a guess — developing Pebble for personal financial gain..
Truth (and ethics) falling subject to the pursuit of profits.
What Tucker and Marcantonio highlight in We Can’t Eat Gold is a way of life at philosophical odds with Pebble Partnership. “You get to this wisdom that’s older than capitalism, right? Or different; apart from capitalism…. Our riches are in the land and in our relationship with the land,” Tucker argues.
Josh Tucker doesn’t call his film an advocacy film, but it does take a strong stance against Pebble Mine through the personalities comprising its cast. The film takes a passive stance against the proposal by holding a microphone out in front of southwest Alaskans; giving volume to their voices. We Can’t Eat Gold provides a crucial element of context to an issue that deserves a lot more light shone on it, and to those we would be imposing the effects on.
The film will premier in Anchorage this Friday night at Out North, with two additional shows next Friday and Saturday (July 26-27).