Cup’ik activist calls for economic solutions for a changing planet

Washington D.C. event urges Congress to take action on climate

Sophie Swope advocates for federal action to combat climate warming during an event in Washington D.C., where 70-degree weather rapidly melted an ice sculpture of a leaping salmon. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Center

Sophie Swope stood in the heat of a Washington D.C. evening urging an economic future of clean energy to stop pollution of the waters, lands and communities of rural Alaska, all the whilewatching the melting of a 9,000-pound ice sculpture of a wild salmon leaping from the water.

“The way the earth is, with glaciers melting right now, it was kind of a symbolic thing on climate change,” said Swope, who is of Cup’ik descent, and lives in Mamterilleq, also known as Bethel.

Even before Swope began speaking at the event on Saturday, Oct. 9, the ice was melting rapidly.

“People said it looked like there was a fountain inside,” said Swope, a climate activist who was asked to speak on behalf of the Alaska Center, the Alaska state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters and Native Peoples Action.

Congress needs to act on climate change, to help create jobs for communities like ours who are most impacted by pollution and climate change, to bring environmental justice to people who don’t have much of a voice, she said.

Those who stopped to listen “said they were thankful that we were bringing that message forward,”

Swope said. “It was worth my time. While I was giving the speech I would look up into the crowd and I felt it hit close to home.”

Swope’s reference point was HR 5376, better known as the Build Back Better Bill, which would provide funding in many areas of the economy, including tribal infrastructure, housing, environmental and health programs.

“We can’t keep compromising our climate and polluting our waters, lands and community health for jobs,” she said. “We must reframe how we look at the economic health and viability of our region. There are other opportunities here. We would have job creation by switching to clean and renewable energy and give our people a career, rather than a temporary job.

“What leadership decides here affects my community all the way in Alaska and every community from where I stand now to where I call home. We as indigenous Alaskans can still coexist with our lands through the traditional lifestyles we lead. We can still thrive through them and that is why we will keep fighting to protect them.”

Swope told those gathered around her of her people’s 10,000 years of indigenous stewardship of these lands and the challenges they face now with the planet warming. Eighteen villages on the coast of western Alaska are seeking to relocate, in fear that the land they have lived on for generations will soon be underwater, she said. Such relocation efforts themselves, necessary as the coastline erodes for lack of the protective buildup of ice in late autumn to protect the shore against the fury of winter storms, will cost millions of dollars.

Observers watch as a 9,000-pound ice sculpture of a leaping salmon melts. The sculpture was part of a demonstration urging congressional action on climate change. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Center

“Permafrost is causing buckling and warping in the Earth,” Swope said. “The tundra is moving so fast. I look into the country and think of how different it was only seven years ago. This land warp is adding costs to residents for both leveling services and heating fuel as an unlevel house puts massive cracks in the drywall, leaving residents exposed to harsh winter conditions.”

Extractive industries across Alaska are framing mines and drilling for minerals as job creation for our communities, but for how long and at what cost, she asked.

The event also included a short video presentation, “Inextricably linked to this land: Our Home. Our future. Our Alaska. ” featuring Alaska Native speakers from Bethel, which is available online at cdv.tiny.us/linked.

Speakers in the video include Andrea Wuya, a tribal justice program coordinator for the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel.

“Some of these things are irreversible, and to see that the number of our salmon population decrease due to climate change is scary because you think of the generations after us, and how are they going to sustain themselves out here?” Wuya said.

Already we see companies leaving our state knowing that the extraction itself is limited, she said.

“For too long extractive industries have polluted our communities, our climate and our economic health in Alaska,” said Leah Moss, communications director for The Alaska Center, also calling on Congress to invest in the long-term health of Alaskans and a future of clean energy jobs and commitment to climate justice. What is needed, said Moss, is policymakers to take bold action on climate that helps Alaskans to thrive, not just survive.

“Indigenous peoples have stewarded the lands and waters across this nation since time immemorial,” said Kendra Kloster, executive director of Native People’s Action. Kloster, born in Wrangell, and of Tlingit descent, said there are vast opportunities for economic growth in tribal communities and regions where indigenous voices are part of the processes that affect the people, lands, waters and all relations. “Our ways of life are on the line,” she said.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an body of the United Nations responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change, cites a “code red for humanity,” prompting that mobilization of communities to demand action at the scale that science and justice demand.

Alaskans know the urgency of shifting the economy from an extractive one to a renewable one and see Alaska as a space of opportunity for investment in a cleaner, more sustainable economy, event organizers said.

“This art activation sends a clear message to Washington D.C. from Alaskans that it’s time to listen to indigenous peoples and knowledge that have stewarded this land since time immemorial. It is very much time to go big on climate,” organizers said.