Home Culture Alaska Native Activist Addresses National and Local Water Issues

Alaska Native Activist Addresses National and Local Water Issues


Despite a year long grassroots campaign, which earned international attention, at the moment, the movement to protect the environment at Standing Rock from the North Dakota Access Pipeline is dead in the water. In fact, it is losing.

Mother of four and south central-based grassroots activist, Meda DeWitt, offered this blunt assessment:

The American Indian and Alaska Native people have mixed feelings about [President Barack] Obama. He did a lot in his last days to protect the Arctic Ocean and millions of acres of land and waterways from resource exploration and development, which we are grateful for. However, Obama did too little too late regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On Saturday, March 18, the U. S. Court of Appeals refused a request for an emergency order from both the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, based on religious grounds, to stay Energy Transfer Partners’ permission to flow 470,000 barrels of crude oil through the completed $3.8 billion pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.

The organizers of the “Water is Life” movement are not to blame. They have displayed plenty of political acumen.

On December 4, 2016, a “major victory” was celebrated after an intense six month campaign, which brought thousands of “water protectors,” as protesters were called, to the aid of the Sioux tribes.

Yet, the grassroots organization, Native Nations Rise, has failed to implement the positive sentiment Americans have towards them into substantive clean water public policy achievements. At the time of this writing, the Michigan water system is in just as much jeopardy as it was in October when national attention was gained.

“There are multiple layers to what the dispute in Standing Rock means,” DeWitt explains.

In the direct level experience, it is about protection of the tribes’ main water source. This is also a matter of environmental racism. At a meta level it is about indigenous rights and sovereignty; the pipeline runs across un-ceded treaty land. With multiple laws, policies, treaties, and agreements broken, this is a continuation of colonization and the dysfunctional relationship between the governmental bodies and indigenous people.

At the mega level experience, this is about the human race being challenged to look at itself as being part of the environment and returning to a balanced relationship. This message is substantial: as a human race we have the option to evolve or to go extinct. Globally, indigenous people are fighting the same fight, protecting the sacred, protecting clean air, water, land, food, etc. for the benefit of all people regardless of ethnic origin or religion.

Organizers are not backing down. Earlier this month, a four day event was staged, concluding with a 5,000-person march in Washington, D.C.

Alaskan filmmaker and Yup’ik activist Julien Jacobs was present, along with hip hop artist Samuel Johns. From his social media account, Jacobs posted several short videos of meeting Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Both men visited Standing Rock itself during the height of the conflict, in October and November.

So did DeWitt.

“In November of 2016 I went down as part of the Alaska Native Women’s Delegation,” DeWitt recalls.

This was organized by Enei Begaye and Faith Gemmill. They sent me down to do ceremony and bring prayers from Alaska. I also delivered a letter that was sent from the Eklutna Tribe to President Obama stating their support and request for action regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The third that I had on was through media, we registered Haa Jooní Productions with the media tent so that we could film and photograph.

DeWitt points out that Alaska is not without its own water issues. On Saturday, March 25, Hilcorp, which operates four platforms in Cook Inlet and the North Slope, agreed to address a natural gas leak from 8 inch piping approximately 3.5 miles offshore from Nikiski.

When the leak was first discovered on February 7, Bob Shavelson of Homer’s Cook Inletkeeper filed a letter of intent to sue on Feb. 15, citing the damage to water quality and, by reducing the amount of oxygen in the water, the threat to the Cook Inlet ecosystem and a contribution to climate change. It is feared the leak started in December.

While Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska) was discussing this issue with Hilcorp representatives, DeWitt was speaking on KNBA radio.

“Adequate water and sewage is a concern in many of the rural communities of Alaska,” she said.

Large infrastructure projects are costly and hard to implement logistically in some areas. It is our duty to support the people in rural Alaska; they are our cultural anchor and connection to being on the land. The migration to urban centers is a mechanism of colonialism: to move people off of traditional lands reduces their ability to monitor and protect those lands. The US bases law on possession; if you are not in consistent possession of a land or area, then your capacity to claim or protect the area is diminished significantly. Supporting rural areas with adequate water and sewage allows for populations to stay in place and to grow. With the climate changing in the way that it is, Alaska will actually be a destination for migration of people from the lower 48 who will be climate refugees. We need to be prepared to accept millions of people.

DeWitt remains hopeful. After all, she willingly carries the responsibility of being a traditional healer.

“The Trump administration has done everything in their power so far to undo Obama’s legacy and to try to put climate change back under the carpet, she added. “With the Republican Party pandering to an administration that they know is corrupt and having the Democratic minority in the House and Senate, we the people are really looking to the judiciary branch to bring balance and justice to the table. I believe in Democracy and I believe the rule of law will bring us back to balance. I have to; the other option is to horrible to think about.”

Our country is evolving and through that process comes trials and tribulations, just like a rite of passage for the American people. We can rise up, find our courage, find our voice, find our conviction, and love of our country, or we can choose apathy. Apathy would mean the dismantling of our country, so I believe that the American people will choose to engage their free will and choose to move forward as a unified people with a unified purpose. The indigenous people really are the environment consciousness of our country — what is good for American Indians and Alaska Natives is good for everyone.


  1. I agree that we have an obligation to invest in water and wastewater projects in the rural areas and villages of Alaska as a matter public safety and as a necessary infrastructure to improve the quality of life.
    Interesting that Ms.Dewitt states that she believes in Democracy but is hopeful that the The Rule of Law (courts) overcomes the mandates set by the elected Administration. Her statement is hypocrisy defined. I am not a Republican and did not vote Trump, but I think the people should decide our policies within constitutional law before old white men in robes. I lost the election. I am willing to accept that sometimes I don’t always get what I want. That is democracy.

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