Part 1: Environmental Justice and Native Peoples – A Conversation with Doreen Simmonds

Doreen please introduce yourself and tell us about yourself and what kind of work you’re doing, just so we can get to know you a little bit.

Uvafa Nutaaq, Utqiabvigmiu. Aapaga Samuel Simmonds, aakaga Martha Afupqana Simmonds, suli Hester Tugli Simmonds.

My name is Nutaaq, I am from Utqiagvik. My father is Samuel Simmonds, my mother is Martha Ahnupkana Simmonds, and Hester Tukle Simmonds.

I gave you my Iñupiat name.

My parents are Samuel and Martha Simmons and my stepmom also Hester Simmons. My birth mom died when I was five and, and I have 13 siblings and that’s my family. I have three children. The oldest is 51, and I have one adopted son and 13 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

All right. That’s awesome. Yeah, big family.

Yeah, love my family.

Tell us a little bit about the kind of work you’re doing because I know you’re doing things around environmental justice. So tell us a little bit about that kind of work that you do.

I started maybe 20 or 25 years ago when I went to a workshop with REDOIL that’s Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Land. I don’t work for a specific group, but I do what I can. The latest is being a board member for an environmental justice movement and we do a lot of work. The one before that was when I moved to Standing Rock and that was a powerful time there to see firsthand what this doctrine of discovery is and all of the messages that goes along with it. But now I’m a student. I retired from working. My last job was as a language teacher and I wanted to do more and keep our language alive. And I figured I could do more if I had a degree. I probably could have done something without it, but it’s been a lifelong dream to get my BA.

You were talking about the doctrine of discovery and that’s what this issue is about. Can you speak to the ways in which the doctrine of discovery has affected the environment? Our humanity and our environment are so intertwined. And so, I wonder what you think about how the doctrine of discovery has affected the condition our earth is in right now.

Oh, it’s affected it drastically with the all those fires in California, the flooding, in other parts of the world, the law that gifts the Christian, what they call Christian, but they changed it to European law that gave them the right to just go into indigenous and native countries and just take over the land and the belief that they must have dominion over the earth, over all the animals, which in their mind makes them believe that they have the right to do anything. And usually they’re thinking up in their head and not even operating from their heart which from the heart has a lot of good things. And if you’re just operating from your head, then you tend to do a lot of damage. And I believe that’s what they’ve done and we can see it all over the US and all over the world and where the natives’ lands have been destroyed. Like the Amazon is still burning, still burning there.

It’s done so much damage. I was asked by the Presbytery of Yukon to go to a meeting about three years ago. They had seen my poem on the green peace site, my climate change poem, and asked me to become a part of the Presbyterian meeting. And there at that meeting, I gave my two minutes on the doctrine of discovery because the church as a whole wanted to help do away with the doctrine of discovery. And I was really glad to see that because I had a resentment against the church and what they had done to try to attempt to do away with our language, our customs, our dances, our medicine people. And it was really good to see the church wanting to do away with this terrible law.

And I said that I was a product of the doctrine of discovery. I believed for many years that I had no right to be here. I apologized for my space in this world at the time.  I drank a lot too and that was part of it and feeling abandoned when my mom died. When I finally sobered up, I realized I’m here, I have space, I have a right to be here. I just watched the YouTube video by the local Lakota people’s project. I got on that because I had been down at Standing Rock and in that video called the Doctrine of Discovery, Steve Newcomb says the international working definition of indigenous means “dominated peoples.” And I never knew that. I don’t want to use that again to describe me. I don’t want that anymore.

You spoke a little about this when you were speaking, but I wonder from your experience, how has climate change and all these changes that are going on in our environment, how has it affected the Native American people that you have worked with? Have you seen the changes that are affecting  your people? And I wonder if you could speak to that?

Oh, yes. Very.  The most recent story is about fall whaling. They haven’t seen any whales yet. It’s October 29, 2019 and usually by the first part of October they’ve seen whales…no whales yet. And I know that the whales like to swim in the colder waters near the polar ice. And of course, the polar ice can’t be seen now. You can’t see it yet. It’s so far away that my thought is that the whales are swimming over there near the polar ice and that’s hundreds of miles away from the hunters. And so, we’ll be very lucky if the captains and the crews can catch any whales. And so, this is a recent thing that is happening.

The map of Alaska where it looks like there’s a nose there, right in that area the whalers had to go so far away because the ice was shrinking. They got a whale and the distance between where they caught the whale and the land was so long that on the way back, helping bring the whale back, the weather changed. It got very windy and a boat capsized, drowning a man and his grandson. And that was one of the first casualties of this climate change going on.

There are people traveling on the rivers up North and here in Fairbanks and they’re going through the ice because the ice is not as thick which is not how it used to be during this time. And people are drowning, and hunters are having a hard time. The animals are starving because when it’s supposed to be snowing, it’s raining and it’s causing ice. The ground turns to ice and the caribou cannot dig into the ice and they’re starving. Many animals are starving because of the changes. There are so many stories. I could go on and on, but those are the ones that I can think of right now.

Interview continues in next installment.

Doreen Nutaaq Simmonds is Inupiat and lives in Barrow, Alaska. She has dedicated her life to the conservation of native languages while advocating and organizing around issues of environmental justice. She has partnered with the Presbytery of Yukon to speak to environmental issues that affect native peoples.

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