The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Natural resources are tied to survival

Alaskan Natives set example for responsible land stewardship and utilizing natural resources to survive in a harsh climate North of 60 Mining News – September 2, 2022

"What is the impact of not mining in Alaska?" Liz Cornejo, vice president Dowa Metals & Mining Alaska, asked during the 2022 Alaska's Minerals: A Strategic National Imperative summit.

For such a simple question, the implications are enormous.

Alaska is practically synonymous with mining. Aside from the strong tourist appeal – which accounts for a large portion of the state's economy – the remaining economic contributors all come from natural resources.

Fishing, mining, oil and gas, coal, timber, etc., are all natural resources that have continued to allow Alaska to thrive.

Yet, that question could be applied to any of these resources. The fishing industry is a perfect example; is it not done sustainably? Is it not done with care for the environment? What about oil and gas? An industry that allows Alaskans to benefit from the decades-long permanent fund dividend.

Why, then, is mining singled out as an industry that apparently harms and yet is possibly the most fundamentally critical industry to exist today?

Mining provides the resources needed to develop most, if not all, advanced digital technologies today. And for Alaska, a state that is well behind the curve developmentally, the time to capitalize on its strengths has never been more necessary.

The computer, phone, or even the paper you are reading this on, requires materials mined from the earth. While paper manufacturing obviously has nothing to do with mining, the equipment to print and produce them comes from large machines, automated and designed with a computer.

The vehicle you drive, the television you watch, the phone you browse social media on, the refrigerator your food is kept fresh in, the washer and dryer your clothes are made clean in, the plethora of all appliances, utensils, equipment, vehicles, tools, that in one way or another utilizes electricity or fuel, has been made through the use of some mineral or metal.

"What is the impact of not mining in Alaska?"

What about expanding that question: what would be the impact of not mining at all?

Opposition aside, aspects of mining have been around even before written history. Survival was paramount to utilizing tools that enabled one to more easily circumvent death, and the better the tool, the better survival could be guaranteed.

As for Alaska, even before the famed Klondike Gold Rush cemented the idea that the Far North was a harsh, inhospitable environment that provided as much danger as opportunity, and the roughneck lifestyle of the miner was apparently tied to the image of a dirty, environmentally inconsiderate act, harvesting materials from the ground was what was needed to better survive.

Ingenious indigenes

Like many indigenous cultures throughout the world, Alaskan Natives utilized non-metallic stone resources for spear points, arrowheads, projectiles for bow-and-arrow technologies, and other useful applications such as stone dishes, whetstones, lamps, and even stone saws.

The Tlingit would even hollow out large circular mortars from limestone to grind foodstuffs and berries.

In addition to the more well-known tools, many types of stone adzes were used throughout Alaska and varied in design by location of origin.

Native groups met their needs and improved their ability to survive with siliceous sedimentary rocks, chert, hornfels, obsidian for projectiles, and granitic or volcanic rocks for stone adzes. However, exceptional quality obsidian and chert are found at only a few sites in Alaska. Despite that, artifacts were found throughout Alaska, suggesting trade was made between tribes.

Aside from stone, during the Age of Discovery, European explorers immediately noticed the locals used copper. When Vitus Bering's expedition landed near Cape St. Elias on the southern tip of Kayak Island, he and Georg Stellar recorded the following observation: "On the (Kayak) Island, we encountered a whetstone on which it appeared copper knives had been sharpened ... and deserted huts, a fireplace, a copper arrowhead, and edge tools of copper."

All within the next few years, further explorers would land upon Alaskan shores and note aboriginal use of copper and even iron.

The Galacian explorer, Francisco Antonio Maurelle, while serving the Spanish Crown, made his observation during his 1779 voyage near Mount St. Elias: "The natives carry arrowheads made of copper, and spear points manufactured from copper ... which caused the Spaniards to suspect mines of this metal nearby."

That same year, French explorer Jean-Francois La Perouse wrote: "The natives (of Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound region) known how to forge iron and work copper."

One of the best examples of early Native Alaskan use of copper is found in the Ringling archaeological site near Gakona, in the Copper River Basin. A wide variety of copper artifacts have been excavated there for more than 20 years, including copper knives, awls, bi-points, arrowheads, rings, plates, cones, fishhooks, and several other types of copper tools.

Even more impressive, radiocarbon testing of charcoal associated with the site yielded dates ranging from 925 to 1475 AD. Metallurgical analysis also indicated all the copper came from a similar source and not, for example, from imported materials.

While the French explorer mentioned forging iron, research states there is no firm evidence that Alaska's indigenous people mined iron. However, to show the ingenuity of First Alaskans, most of the iron used was scrap from abandoned ships and infrastructure brought to Alaskan colonies by Europeans, often aptly referred to as "drift iron."

Nevertheless, the use of iron was prevalent enough to warrant many iron artifacts being found.

One man's trash

Little need be said of the importance of gold to European settlers and miners, but it must be noted that native Alaskans did not mine gold prior to 1867, nor was it ever of vital importance to the Last Frontier's First People.

Although their local knowledge of where the precious metal could be found became a valuable asset to early prospectors during post-purchase years leading up to the Juneau discoveries, the emerging gold-bearing lodes of southern Alaska, and later, the placers and lodes discovered during the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush.

Nevertheless, this was an instance of a material not directly tied to survival.

Once the concept of "money" was made known, many Alaskan Natives naturally became attracted to the concept of more easily obtaining tools and equipment to help facilitate better survival. While still, others found the comforts of the European lifestyle a better standard than the yearly struggle and uncertainty they had known most of their life.

Contrary to the logic of improving one's standard of living through the ease of money and better technology, subsistence living remains an important cultural aspect of Alaskan Native tribes.

So, while many today enjoy the benefits of currency and technology, it is a choice to partake in the rituals, habits, and lifestyles of their forebears.

Separate from gold, nephrite jade found in the Kobuk River Basin was utilized and traded by Inupiat people for millennia.

Similar to other stonelike tools, it could be fashioned into ornamentation and tools, including even hammer and axe heads, due to the material's extreme hardness, once more ultimately showing that functionality was more critical toward survival.

In the end, people evolved to use tools. Better materials to make better tools is what ensured better survival until the wisdom of Mankind allowed us to devise methods to circumvent nature with less effort.

Today, we have conquered most facets of nature that could be considered a threat. Altitude, depth, harsh climates of heat and cold, etc., have left humans in a precarious situation with little opposition toward survival.

With technologies enabling Homo Sapiens to communicate, travel, inhabit, terraform, and explore the remaining mysteries of the Earth, it has become evident that an overabundance has dulled survival instincts.

Yet, with the latest trend of transitioning to clean energy, the rumblings of our own hubris and waste have come full circle, and unless we take measures to survive without producing harmful byproducts, it will, in fact, accomplish the opposite of survival.

Coal equals survival

It is interesting that while gold for its use as a currency, albeit strange before technological aspects made its true value known, it was of little importance to indigenous people. Coal, however, was used as a fuel source for thousands of years and was very well known to Alaskan Natives.

In fact, it was the mining efforts of various Indigenes that spurred the search for coal in the vast regions of Alaska in the first place.

Russians observed coal extraction by Alaskan Natives at Chicago Creek on the Seward Peninsula, near Herendeen Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, and at Kootznahoo Inlet on Admiralty Island.

In 1815, Estonian mariner Otto Von Kotzebue observed Inupiat people extracting coal from Cape Corwin on Alaska's North Slope.

Many years later, in 1881, Captain C. L. Hooper would utilize coal for his vessel, aptly named the Corwin, from the same seam earlier mined by the Inupiat.

Ultimately, the Indigenous people of Alaska used mineral materials for centuries and, in many cases, millennia. Native groups consumed natural resources to sustain relatively sophisticated cultures, and while it was more common for European settlers to take these resources for themselves, Alaska is one of the most unique examples of land use, resource development, and cohabitation between traditional values and modern practices.

This was borne through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which unsurprisingly was due to oil reserves discovered in the furthest northern reaches of the state.

Through further ingenuity, Alaskan Natives were able to navigate the bureaucracy of the West and recover much of their ancestral lands.

Due to the nature of Alaska's stewards and the abundance of the state considered a "geological storehouse of minerals critical to the United States," a symbiotic relationship between mining companies and the landholders has created an important modern means of survival for many Alaskan Natives.

This relationship enables many Natives to have significantly higher standards of living and, due to the fruitful survival, allows many to practice the traditions of their people as a cultural aspect instead of purely survival.

Seward's Wisdom

2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase when imperial Russia sold its holdings in North America to the United States.

A central argument against the purchase was the absence of any notable resource base to sustain such a large region in such an inhospitable location. Of course, some exceptions at the time were the harvesting of fur-bearing animals, limited coal development in the Cook Inlet region, and "ice mining" ventures on Kodiak Island, as well as Sitka.

At the time, it was considered one of the most foolish decisions ever made, as U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska for $7.2 million, or roughly two cents an acre.

Despite the bargain price for each acre, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and in the press as "Seward's Folly, "Seward's Icebox," and even President Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden."

Factoring in inflation, that's almost $145 million today, so it's no small wonder the decision was mocked.

Yet, contrary to this criticism, Alaska is now in a position to be a frontrunner in the race for the minerals and metals critical to developing clean energy technologies.

This is now founded upon survival.

One can easily spout rhetoric opposing the continued harm of harvesting natural resources, but at the end of the day, it is something the human species cannot go without.

More importantly, resource development in Alaska adheres to a strict system of approval by both government departments and aboriginal people, as well as many other hurdles before an actual mine can be developed.

This has even become a detriment in some aspects, as the permitting process can take upwards of a decade before any mining can actually occur.

Alaska has to survive as well.

Creating an environment where we can only look but not touch is more than shooting one's self in the foot – considering the criticality of the resources in Alaska needed for the United States – it essentially cuts off any future where the resources can be harvested responsibly, cleanly, ethically, and at home, as opposed to the ease of imports that comes with baggage.

It cuts off business interest, growth, and overall capitalism, on which the U.S. prides itself. And finally, it estranges a hardy northern people that are more than amicable toward the necessary precautions to mine to ESG standards.

In the end, mining is one of the oldest activities of Man. It is through resource accumulation that exploration and expansion were done, and it was because of minerals and metals that the species could advance through their namesake ages.

Fundamentally, we cannot go without mining, but as we are not bogged down with threats of survival like in the days of yore, we are in a prime position to take care of the land into consideration. The only issue, we don't need everyone on the same page, but we should at least be reading from the same book.


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