I am my River

by Gloria Simeon

The following is the testimony of Gloria Simeon provided to the Salmon People event as part of the Red Road to D.C. Journey.

I speak as a citizen of the Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council and a woman of my River and land.

I am my River and my River is me.

The Kuskokwim River, running through and nourishing the land and all life, is as vital to me as my blood, the blood of my ancestors pulsing through my body. The People of the river are in my blood, from the headwaters to the mouth.

Kuskokwim, means a big, slow, moving thing. As it meanders from its origins in the middle of the state of Alaska, it receives other streams and rivers along its 702 miles, until it meets the Bering Sea. It is the 9th largest river in the country and the longest free flowing river. Flowing through and nourishing boreal forests and tundra.

Everything we do is related to the river, the tide and the seasons. Salmon is our life and is supplemented by other fish that dwell and migrate in the waters. The river, as well as the land are essential for sustaining the food and resources we depend on.

The proposed, open pit, Donlin Mine and all it would bring with it, is the single most looming threat to the survival of the Kuskokwim River and the People who depend on it for Life. There are 23 Sovereign Nations of Dene’ and Yup’ik People who live along my River.

Research done by the regional health corporation has proven conclusively that the health and well-being of the People of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta depends on us having access to our traditional and customary food sources. Not only access, but trust that the environment is healthy and the food we fish, hunt and gather is free of contamination.

With climate change being unpredictable, leaving the land, water and air vulnerable in way we never imagined, we cannot take any risk that has the potential to totally devastate a land, a river and People. This is our land. This is where we belong. Any single failure of these assurances that have no more substance than smoke and mirrors would be catastrophic. Life as we know it, will never be the same.

Furthermore, the swathe of mountains cascading throughout the Upper Kuskokwim contains naturally occurring mercury. The mercury that will be released into the air through the extraction of gold from the tons of ore will add an unacceptable burden of cumulative effect on the food we consume. We cannot expose our young mothers, mothers-to-be and babies to this risk. We have one of the highest birth rates in the country.

We already experience some of the highest health disparities due to the lack of water and sewer. Diabetes, Cancer and Heart disease are the leading diseases borne by our population. We are also decimated by suicide and unintentional death and injury. Not to mention those shackled to the systems that keep us prisoners in western institutions.

This land is our home, the Kuskokwim River is our life. We have nowhere else to go. We do not thrive in cities, hunting in the stores for sustenance and eating welfare food.

Our traditions and culture demand that we treat all life with respect. There are rituals and ceremonies that are observed to show our gratitude to our Creator and the Universe for all that is given and sustains our bodies and souls. We honor that by observing those rights of passage for our young and their contributions to the family’s food security.

The first salmon of the season, the first moose caught by a young hunter, the first bucket of berries picked by a child. These rituals are done in honor of the gifts we are provided.

I don’t have the same relationship with a big Mac or a Whopper as I do with a meal of Baked Salmon or a bowl of akutaq made from berries gathered from the tundra. I trust the food I get from the land and the river.

The whole idea of any open pit resource development in this region or anywhere else for that matter is against where we need to be going to. In 2019, a convention of duly gathered delegates passed a resolution opposing the proposed Donlin Mine. 35 Sovereign Nations and yet the State of Alaska continues with the permitting process. The State of Alaska has proven to be a poor steward of the land and resources the First People of this land have managed and sustained for millennia.

Development based on extraction of natural resources must be stopped. Alaska is at Ground Zero for the effects of climate change. Research has shown that we are experiencing these drastic changes at 3 times the rate of the rest of the country.

As I speak, my People are facing severe restrictions, limiting our access to our main food supply – Salmon. COVID has already put us in a place of food insecurity and now we are being regulated by both the federal and state. Entire fishcamps stand empty along the Yukon River. They are restricted from even subsistence harvest.

We must do all we can to protect our land, air and water. The Rivers and Salmon are our Life. Our survival depends on this.

We are all in this together and Mother Earth is crying out in pain.

I am my River and my River is me.

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