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Yesterday was the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In recognition of that, and the key role Indigenous peoples are playing in the conservation movement today in the U.S. and globally, we sat down with Raina Thiele, who is Dena’ina Athabascan, and Yup’ik, and has worked at the highest levels of government on Tribal outreach and issues. She now runs her own business and serves as an advisor on Indigenous issues to the Campaign for Nature.
ODP: You have had an interesting career in Washington and Alaska. Tell us about the role you played in the Obama Administration with regard to indigenous communities.
RT: My role was as the President’s liaison to Tribes, so I was able to work across a variety of issues related to tribal sovereignty, environmental issues, and arctic issues. I also helped lead planning for President Obama’s trip to Alaska back in 2015, marking the first time a sitting President visited rural Alaska and traveled above the Arctic Circle!
ODP: There is a global push now to preserve 30% of the planet by 2030. How important are Native communities and Indigenous groups to being able to achieve that goal?
RT: There is no 30% protection by 2030 without the leadership of Indigenous peoples and full respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights. Indigenous peoples have been the most effective stewards of their lands and of biodiversity since time immemorial. Their sustainable life ways and traditional management systems have proven to be better at protecting the environment than many western conservation approaches. Historically, western conservation approaches have also led to violations of Indigenous rights.
ODP: Native communities in Alaska, like the one you are from, are hugely impacted by climate change. For them, it is a matter of survival. How fast are Alaska’s wild areas changing? What can and should we be doing to ensure that the Native peoples there are not disproportionately impacted by it?
RT: It’s incredible how quickly things are changing in Alaska. As a child, I remember there always being snow at Halloween and now it often doesn’t appear until January. The glaciers are also melting at an alarming rate and permafrost is becoming unstable. Storm systems on the western coast of Alaska are increasing in severity, endangering the safety of entire Native villages, like Kivalina. Action must be taken immediately to fully fund climate resilience and adaptation for Alaska Native communities. If communities want and need to relocate to protect their citizens, they should have the resources to do so and build back in a more climate-resilient and sustainable manner.
ODP: You are from the region of Alaska that would be severely impacted by the Pebble Mine that President Trump now says he is going to “look at.” President Obama protected Bristol Bay permanently and then President Trump came in and reversed those protections and pushed for the mine’s approval for the last three years. Why did Obama protect this area from mining and other industrial development? Did the Native communities support that decision?
RT: Nearly all Native communities in Bristol Bay supported President Obama’s move to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. The mine was proven through exhaustive scientific study to be too risky for the delicate Bristol Bay watershed area, which is home to the world’s largest and last remaining wild salmon runs. Bristol Bay is one of the last remaining pristine natural environments in the world and has supported the life way and culture of Alaska Natives in Bristol Bay, Lake Clark, and Lake Iliamna for thousands of years. President Obama recognized that the precious natural resource that is Bristol Bay is not worth risking for a dangerous and unproven mine.
ODP: Do you feel we have reached a pivotal moment when it comes to recognizing the rights of Native Americans? How far has the country come? How far do you think we have to go, particularly when you see that Native American communities generally have been hit disproportionately hard by the COVID pandemic?
RT: I believe that over the past few decades Native American rights are finally being recognized to a greater degree. Much of this has come about as tribal communities have grown their resource base and can now advocate at a higher level, pushing forward progress for all of Indian Country. President Obama did an incredible amount to ensure that Native Americans were always at the decision-making table, a stark contrast to the invisibility that typically plagues Native issues. However, there is much more that needs to be done and I’m hopeful that we continue to push progress to recognize tribal rights, self-determination and sovereignty in this country.
ODP: You work with the young people in Native communities in Alaska. So many young leaders of the climate movement come from Indigenous communities. Do they give you hope?
RT: Absolutely! Our youth are our future and one of my passions is supporting their efforts, their leadership, and their involvement at every level of advocacy and governance. We need to mentor and grow our new generation of leadership in order to ensure that the future is bright for all Indigenous peoples.
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