Indigenous Organizers in Alaska Lead the Way Toward Livable Climate Future

The United States has a split between politicians and the public on climate change. Grassroots environmental activism is spreading on the local state, regional and national levels, while Congress generally continues with a “business-as-usual” approach, rejecting the foremost way to avoid the worst consequences of global warming: the Green New Deal.

Although the Green New Deal is still an aspirational concept in the U.S., it was adopted by the European Union and many countries around world have committed themselves to pursuing its goals.

Native Movement is one organization that fights for environmental sustainability in the United States. They also advocate for a just transition to clean, renewable energy.

“There is no future at all with continued oil and gas extraction,” says Ruth Łchav’aya K’isen Miller, Native Movement’s climate justice director, in this exclusive interview for Truthout. “We must eliminate fossil fuel extraction now through a just transition that guarantees justice for workers and for the lands.”

Miller is a Dena’ina Athabascan and Ashkenazi Jewish woman. She is an activist for Indigenous rights and is a member the Alaska Just Transition Collective as well as the Alaska Climate Alliance.

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Ruth MillerA just transition is a process of returning to existing economies, governance structures, and social contracts. They are not new, but are built on Indigenous wisdoms and place based knowledge to create a truly regenerative economic system. A just transition is built on a values framework that includes anti-racism and colonization, deep reciprocity and respect for all lands and waters.

Any just transition for Alaska must be rooted in Indigenous perspectives, because it is Alaska’s Native nations who have lived in harmony with these lands for over 30,000 years, and whose deep connections, encyclopedic knowledge and spiritual interconnectivity will heal the wounds of the past 100 years of colonization and extractive capitalism. For this reason, we refer to this shift in resource extraction, governance, labor practices and culture as “remembering forward,” first translated in 2020 in the Behnti Kengaga language as “Kohtr’elneyh,” and in 2022 in the Dena’ina language as “Nughelnik.”

This is possible in Alaska in many ways. It includes deep democracy that actively seeks to include minority voices as much as those in majority. It also requires the diversification and inclusion of elected leaders. It also prohibits all oil and gas extraction and any irresponsible mining or other development projects. It means a return back to responsible land management practices, including timber management and fisheries management. And it means returning stewardship to the original and eternal owners of lands, and waters. It supports Alaska Native language revitalization and unimpeachable subsistence fishing and hunting rights. It ensures that all workers will receive fair wages and their rights will be protected by strong unions. Community members will be empowered through mutual aid networks and nonpredatory community loan money to help them move toward cleaner and more efficient energy.

A just transition in Alaska means investing locally in regenerative sectors like sustainable mariculture, ocean-healing crops like kelp, and supporting culturally informed ecotourism that boosts local businesses with local returns. As we’ve written previously, Non-Profit Quarterly, “To achieve [a Just Transition], resources must be acquired through regenerative practices, labor must be organized through voluntary cooperation and decolonial mindsets, culture must be based on caring and sacred relationships, and governance must reflect deep democracy and relocalization.”

Why is it necessary to completely eliminate fossil fuel extraction in order to ensure a just transition?

The simple truth is that the oil and gas industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, spewing greenhouse gas emissions to the point at which we are now in the sixth great extinction — one which has been entirely caused by recent human activity. The Arctic is experiencing a climate crisis at twice to four times the rate of the rest of the world, as it has been stripped of its nonrenewable resources.

Thawing permafrost in Alaska is not only destabilizing Arctic infrastructure but also leads to the rapid release of methane. This gas is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. The same thawing causes riverbed erosion and coastal erosion, which is forcing more communities into relocation. The Arctic sea ice is returning less frequently in winter than it did in previous generations. This puts coastal communities at higher risk of being impacted by winter storms.

If the global temperature rises by 2.5 degrees Celsius or more, it is likely that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice free within the next eight years. Extractive projects, in addition to their climate effects, are already causing irreversible destruction of lands, waterways, and food systems.

Toxic waste, pollution, and contamination are all consequences of such projects, which can cause ecological damage that harms Alaska Native peoples living near the land. For decades, it has been known that there are high rates of cancer, birth defects, respiratory illness, and other health effects near the extraction sites. The increased rates of domestic violence, disappearance, murder, and homicide among indigenous women, girls, and their two-spirit cousins are all a result of the man camps that provide labor for the extractive development projects.

There is no future at all with continued oil and gas extraction…. We must end fossil fuel extraction immediately through a just transition that guarantees justice to workers and the lands.

What are the main barriers for Alaska to oil extraction? And how would this impact Alaskans.

The dominant story of Alaska began as the “last frontier,” ready to be settled and exploited by colonizers. This same narrative tells us that Alaska is dependent on oil, and that we would lose our economy if they were to be challenged. Dark money flows into Alaska, especially from the Koch brothers, to buy elections for extractive industries.

This is a problem we are working to overcome. These stories are myths that aim to erase Indigenous history and excellence, and undermine any vision of a truly regenerative state economy. Colonial distortions in history can poison our education system and stop real discussion about the past and present of our state and its citizens. To address the marginalization and disempowerment that Native peoples have suffered in the name and trade of resource extraction, we are calling for deep decolonization. To end oil extraction, we must question the systems that depend on it and heal the wounds of our communities in order to create a shared future. As the boom-and-bust cycle of resource extraction continues to enrich the elite few at the cost of the public, Alaskans are awakening to the power and potential of a better economy — one that is just, regenerative and sustainable.

Already communities are showing ingenuity and resilience as they develop place-based economies that support livelihoods and healthy living — small-scale hydroelectric turbines in Igiugig village to move the community off diesel, high-tunnel greenhouses for year-round produce in the interior of Alaska, mariculture and kelp farming in the Southcentral and Southeast regions. The state’s grassroots efforts (many Black, Indigenous, and people of colour-led, as well as rural communities) are leading this way. They use renewable energy, local food systems and sustainable recreation. Strong unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers offer apprenticeship programs to help worker transition. Other groups, like UNITE HERE and Fairbanks Women Carpenters Union are focused on worker safety and health.

The federal government and Alaska must catch up to the progress made in Alaska. Alaskans are creating our collective future and taking control of our story.

What is the Alaska Just Transition Collective? Who are its communities? How does it bring folks together in action to advance a shared vision for Alaska’s future?

The Alaska Just Transition Collective consists of Alaska-based organisations with a range of focuses that support Alaska in its transition to an Indigenized Regenerative economy. Alaska Just Transition fosters intersectional collaboration in order to develop critical thinking around economic, and social transition. The Alaska Just Transition Collective is currently comprised of a number of organizations, including Native Movement, Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Native Peoples Action, The Alaska Center, Alaska Poor People’s Campaign and Native Conservancy. The just transition community is vastly larger and growing.

In January of 2020, the first Alaska Just Transition Summit was held on the lands of the Lower Tanana Dené peoples. Kohtr’elneyh (“Remembering Forward” in Benhti kanaga) was a groundbreaking gathering in Alaska that brought together community organizers, tribal leaders, artists, union members, faith leaders, investors, elected officials, educators, small business owners, renewable energy industry leaders, and many more from critical sectors. Alaskans brainstormed, shared and strategized a common path to a post-oil economy that is based on just values frameworks and provides a home for all. We delved into the healing needed to move towards decolonization and centered Indigenous voices to move in accordance with place-based wisdoms and ancestral imperatives.

Once the pandemic was upon us, we shifted to online offerings that dove into the intricacies of just transition in a four-part webinar series, and later convened “Fireside Chats” to explore national policy options for Alaska, following the pillars of the THRIVE Agenda ( and making the national approaches relatable and visible to Alaskans. These online gatherings allowed us to reconnect with hundreds of community members who joined us in person in 2020. We also expanded our community and established new and exciting relationships in more sectors and with local leaders.

This year we gather once more in person, on Dena’ina lands, proudly bearing the name Nughelnik (“It is remembered within us” in Dena’ina qenaga). This summit will address the pains of these past two years while also diving deeper into strategies and examples of just-transition happening in Alaska. Without the leadership and sovereignty in place of communities who are directly affected by economic change, a just transition cannot be achieved. We are missing crucial leadership in our journey forward if we don’t include the voices of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples of color, people of colour, disabled, queer, and immigrant communities. We are working to raise voices that were not as prominent at our first summit and to invite all identities to feel stewardship of our collective space.

As organizers, our hope is that the next iteration will include local and regional just transition plans that will spread throughout the state and be stewarded and managed by local community members. Our partnered organizations will continue offering support and space for community members to help us move forward through this approach.

The Just Transition Collective aims to promote Indigenous place-based knowledge and ways of living, while creating regenerative economies, stewarding land and waters, and building more just, equitable communities for all. This vision is based on specific principles and goals.

As a group, we honor the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing. This includes deep inclusion of all voices; community-driven organizing which means that we engage when tribal sovereigns or communities most impacted are invited to do so; allowing people to speak for their own interests; working together in solidarity, mutuality, and understanding that we are deeply interconnected, and that we must all transform together; building just relationships between ourselves; modeling just workplace practices that show compassion and humanity; and a commitment to self-transformation.

We also honor Defend the Sacred Alaska PrinciplesThe following describes a similar approach to community organization:

  • Unlearn. Dismantle. Heal. And Create: Decolonize.
  • Organize from the “bottom-up.”
  • Support a decentralized, marginalized, matriarchal leadership.
  • For all, create an inclusive movement.
  • Give people the opportunity to speak for themselves.
  • Collaborate in unity, solidarity, accountability, and cooperation with one another.
  • Strive for just relationships in all aspects of our organization.
  • Uplifting marginalized & oppressed voices that align with these values.
  • To make a just and equitable transition from an extractive, oppressive economic system to a regenerative holistic, living worldview.
  • Recognize the fact that we live in a system of racial inequality and that it’s our responsibility to eliminate it.
  • Be soulful.

These principles are a part of our work as organizations. However, our vision for just and sustainable transition is articulated through these goals of our recently held summitThis will help you see the future of your work.

  • “Remember Forward through Grief and Celebration”: This means recognizing that for many communities, the pandemic surfaced previously unspoken imbalances wrought by capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, while many other communities have been acutely aware of their struggle to survive and regain balance since the onset of colonization. As described in the 2022 Alaska Just Transition Guide, this goal is about our effort to “reconnect healing as an essential strategy, as we share tools and practices as we move through tumultuous times.”
  • “Shape Community and Post-Pandemic Economy”: This means developing “a meaningful and reciprocal plan of action to support communities, extend care, and articulate long-term healing needed for Alaska’s economy and culture.”
  • “Reimagine Community in a Post-Extractive Economy”: This involves creating a space for our community “to align around a shared vision for a fundamental transformation in Alaska and beyond” and to turn this vision into action by identifying goals and sharing strategies.
  • Weave Storytelling to Illuminate the Path”: This involves an effort to “highlight Alaskan stories of day-to-day challenges and celebrations on the path of visionary planning.”
Participants of the 2022 Alaska Just Transition Summit: Vol II gather for a group photo.
Participants at the 2022 Alaska Just Transition Summit Vol II take a group picture.

What strategies do you think work best to bring grassroots and frontline perspectives into national policies such as the Green New Deal?

Our theory of engagement requires us to translate national policy into easily accessible formats while also giving the opportunity to our Native frontline communities for feedback on national policy.

The policy work must reflect the people it is meant for, but also grow from the ground and respond to the needs of communities while respecting their expertise. Our work is therefore two-fold. Firstly, as with the Green New Deal proposal, we were involved in the early stages of editing the initial drafts for the National Economic Recovery Plan proposals to ensure Alaskan interests were protected. We also made sure that unique language was used to accommodate both our tribal sovereign governments, and our complex social service distribution, often through Alaska Native corporations.

We collaborated with our national partners to ensure Alaskans could see themselves within the proposals and had many opportunities to consult. Concurrently, we also elevated examples of Alaskan leadership, where our local initiatives were not just supporting national policy but truly driving it with visionary action: We drafted the “Alaska’s Time to THRIVE” zine to illustrate how regenerative economy is already taking hold across our state, in all aspects of a just transition. This document and the accompanying “Fireside Chats” allowed for deep consultation on these policies from an abundance mindset, where Alaskans were already positioned to lead.

Additionally, we work diligently with community members to elevate local stories from the land, and to empower narrative sovereignty — the ability to tell one’s own story with integrity and authenticity. Stories from the land and community members can speak for themselves through storytelling skills-building and videos projects. Our organizations can be used as conduits to share these stories widely, especially in national and international decision-making environments.

Our Fall 2021 Indigenous Filmmakers Institute was one example of this initiative. Native Movement partnered up with the University of Alaska Fairbanks in order to offer a rigorous curriculum that was supervised by Indigenous film industry professionals and faculty. Students also had the opportunity to direct, write, and produce stories about climate justice from rural communities. These stories were shown at the United Nations Global Climate Negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow (Scotland) and will soon be displayed at Anchorage Museum. These techniques allow us to strengthen the sovereignty and self-determination in our communities, while also sharing their wisdom with international policy makers.