Removing the Pressure Plate: Oil and Environmentalism in Alaska

I don’t believe that people are truly, spiritually tied to oil.

We as people are protective of our jobs to support our families and our lives. As Alaskans, we want a strong economy and we want opportunity for our families and communities — we want possibility and prosperity. We want quality of life and a continuation of services oil revenue now supports, and in many cases, provides.

My first industry was largely working within oil and gas. I think about my Elders and leaders, stewarding the mechanisms we have now, working to compound that wealth into a prosperity that can live forever. With this prosperity, knowing the world we live in, this has also brought power, enough political power to advance issues at all levels, within the Western system we now also operate in. My region did not economically get fish. Anyone can get behind fish. My people got oil, and is making the most of it.


It can be a hard line to walk, being stewards of the land, and oil and resource development. Some would say being a steward is developing our resources, taking what you need and not being wasteful. I hear my Elders, people who helped raise me and whom I respect, talk about not returning to the cold and honey buckets. I hear my peers, people who helped grow me and whom I respect, asking what happens next. All of this is to say, it can be a hard line to walk, being stewards of the land and resource development; to be a people taken care of by the land, and to make the land care for us.

To do so, you need to be sure it is the right thing to do. You need to draw from everything in your experience which is leading you to this path. We are all fulfilling functions, and you have to find those whose experiences are also telling you that this is the path forward, especially in those moments of uncertainty; to also find solace, validation and even prayer. That we have different opinions is evidence of how we live different experiences which inform those opinions and realities.

But what can happen in the face of mounting pressure is that the walls of this safe space compound, so that anything that even looks different may become regarded as a threat.


I don’t believe that people are truly spiritually tied to oil.

Sustainable is beneficial.

Diversifying our economy is beneficial.

A clean planet is beneficial. In these, we do not need to oppose each other.

Imagine if we could create a third space, or space for a third conversation; a depressurized space where we can agree that the above are beneficial, and work from there. In 2016, I had the opportunity to live in three regions of the state: Southeast Alaska, the Interior, and the North Slope. I found regions with differing economies, climates, histories, and within our Indigenous communities, different political inclinations but also differing views as to the future of Alaska. These were views I saw as being diametrically opposed and what alarmed me what that everyone was certain.


The other day while driving, I was thinking of the movies when someone steps on a pressure plate and the tension of a possible bomb going off, ending everything that everyone in the scene has worked so hard for — their individual lives, their families, the dreams of what could have been, and coming to terms with the idea of the end of something. With trust, careful determination and bated breath, the actors replace the pressure on the plate with something of equal weight. People walk away. Life goes on.

What if we could replace the pressure on the plate with something of equal weight? An economy that is sustainable, diverse, and clean while still taking care of our families and living robust and healthy lives?  Again in these, we do not need to oppose each other.

However, in this analogy, those actors are still working atop a bomb. What we need is a depressurized space where we could make plans in concert, knowing that nobody is bad, that we are all serving our community, with mutual trust in each other and mutual respect. A shared interest in the continued prosperity of Alaska means we are all on the same team.

If our current systems and ways of thinking were going to be how we arrive at the answers of enjoying both a clean earth and prosperous nation, I somehow think we would have arrived at them by now. But we’re not there, which either tells me that the system is not working and needs to be corrected, or the system is working exactly as it was built and intended, and also needs to be corrected. What if we can realize a future with prosperity and opportunity, but with a clean planet and renewable energy sources? Without a depressurized space for conversation and removal of the good-bad binary, we can scarcely advance the notion. Plastic is raining on the Pyrenees.

I have lived years in community with the political right. I have lived years in community with the political left. I have lived in community with those in the oil and gas industry. I have lived in community with environmental activists, and I’ve found good people everywhere.

The more we internalize the American political spectrum, the more the system will pit us against each other as Native people. As someone I look up to once said, “Any system that forces us to choose, is not of us.” There is opportunity to still regard events, ourselves, our communities and those in them, as many of our people have long regarded them: as a constellation, with everyone playing a role in our functioning world. Pouring into each other could be an answer to a dynamic where everyone feels like something is at risk of being lost.

What would it look like to come together in a space to build consensus about possibilities, to feel good about one another, become excited about the future and in gratitude for everyone’s continued stewardship of our shared state?

I think you all would really like each other.