Climate Warrior: Trixie Bennett on 10,000 years of Native Resiliency

Written by Matt Jackson

March 27, 2020

Trixie Bennett knows how to find a balance between realism and optimism when it comes to climate change.

“I think we have historical knowledge that is invaluable,” she said of Alaska Natives. “We have to understand that climate change adaption can’t be based on a ‘the sky is falling’ mindset. We have to identify our priorities and then plan for them.”

Referring to the current administration, “they could learn 10,000 years of history from us,” she said.

That balance has served Trixie well as a mother, an entrepreneur, a tribal council member for the Ketchikan Indian Community, and now a college student at Alaska Pacific University. She thinks rural Alaskans and especially tribal communities have a lot to offer, but they’re not being listened to yet.

As a healer and herbalist, Trixie knows how to listen to what the land needs and believes that living for generations on the land gives a critical perspective that more people need to develop.

“When I go out to the woods to harvest, it’s about developing a relationship with those plants, not overharvesting, doing it in a good way. It’s so healing and grounding to know who you are and that you belong here. And everyone needs to feel that, not just Native people.”

Read the full interview below.

I’m so glad we’re talking today. Something I know you understand is that climate change is not a distant threat. It’s happening right now. How are you seeing it affect your community and your family?

Trixie: Last summer we had a drought. We ended up getting the same amount of rain overall for the year, but it was totally dry during the whole summer and then too much in the winter. So our hydro dam ran low and we had to burn diesel, which means higher bills for everyone. There were few or no fish running up many of the creeks because they were too dry, so some people had to buy fish at the cannery, which in Alaska is practically unheard of to have to buy your own fish. And that’s not even to mention the decline of the king salmon. We used to have 60-, 70-pounders win the derby and the last few years there hasn’t even been a derby. It was so dry last summer the berries didn’t fill out. We haven’t been able to harvest hooligan for the last five years on the Unuk, though that might not be climate, it could be mining. It’s hard to tell anymore.

That’s just a laundry list of small disasters that seem to add up to a big hit to your community. How are you adapting?

Trixie: Well I hate to say it, but the City and Borough aren’t doing anything to address climate change that I know of. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida has a climate adaptation plan that lays out the kind of work we need to do; it’s a critical first step but it’s also very general. I’m proud to say Ketchikan Indian Community is working on an adaption plan of our own on the Our Way of Life Committee, which is the committee I sat on when I was on tribal council and it addresses what we need to do. Our plan addresses advocacy, making sure we’re at the table, co-monitoring with the Forest Service on the Unuk hooligan, water monitoring. We’ve been partnering with people across the region to gather baseline data for pollution and ocean acidification, and hopefully eventually to manage our own fisheries and our own forests. Our resources are so precious and the laws just keep getting changed to allow industry to make a money grab, often with no local consultation at all. A lot of our resources and planning need to be dedicated to raising leaders who can help us at the table. There are so many tables, it’s overwhelming, we can’t be at all the tables right now, and I think maybe that’s part of the plan. So we need more leaders, more education. I think the wave of the future is collaboration.

You mentioned over the phone that when you came onto the Ketchikan Indian Community Tribal Council, you wanted to create cultural change. Can you talk about what kind of cultural changes you think climate change requires?

Trixie: Alaskans, Ketchikan, we need to value the long term over the immediacy. We need to value sustainability and cooperation. We’re the ones that live here, and we can’t keep allowing the things that we love about living here to be spoiled. I think we all need to learn who we are, and to feel like you belong wherever you are. And protect it. What trips people up is the “us versus them” mindset, but we need to come together and cooperate. We can’t stop all extractive industry, but we can hold them accountable, and we can vote in leaders who support local control. We have more power when we are more involved. People need jobs, but it can’t come at the cost of our way of life, which is unfortunately what I see has happened most other places in the country and in the world. We have some of, if not the best, fisheries that are left on the planet. We need to preserve that.

Trixie Bennett pulls herring roe. (Photo courtesy of North Creative Design)

What do you think Alaskans can learn about responding to climate change from Alaska Native Leaders?

Trixie: I think we have historical knowledge that is invaluable. We have to understand that climate change adaption can’t be based on a “the sky is falling” mindset. We have to identify our priorities and then plan for them. You ask what Alaskans could learn from us. Well, if you want to talk about the current administration, they don’t even invite us to the table! So the administration could learn 10,000 years of history from us. But they won’t learn until they start listening to us. Native communities are already resilient. We’ve adapted to live here for millennia and we’ve already survived a lot. We can’t take our state for granted, and a lot of people don’t know what our state used to be like, and how it’s changing. It’s hard to live out here in rural Alaska. They could learn about all the non-timber products out there in the forest. And we need to demand that our communities get more for what we’re giving to the rest of the world. And Native people have been demanding that for a long time, to have more say over their own fishing and hunting rights.

So this series, as you know, is about Native women leaders. None of our statewide elected officials, Dunleavy, Sullivan, Young, Murkowski, are Native. It’s not very diverse. Murkowski kind of stands out of that crowd as somebody you could actually have a conversation with. What would you say to her about climate change?

Trixie: They need to listen to Alaskans and Tribes more closely and make decisions based on that. I don’t feel like we were listened to during the Roadless process recently, for example, and we’re not being listened to about Pebble Mine. I’d tell Murkowski to give back fishing and hunting rights on federal land to Alaska Natives. We should be the ones doing it. And we’ve had that conversation with her and with Don Young. I would talk to her about our natural resources. I would ask her not to repeal the Roadless Rule. I would tell her to support development that doesn’t come at the cost of fish and wildlife. Like protecting all that old-growth. And she’s got to start thinking of all this as climate resiliency. I think language revitalization is important for us getting back to the land. And I would want to see us get more for all that we give Alaska.

I like what you’re saying about climate resiliency. I’m interested in where you are going with language as a form of resiliency, can you tell us more about that?

Trixie: Food, language, ceremony, tradition, it’s all interconnected. Being able to hunt, or to go fish in certain places, live our lifestyle, that is part of being Tlingit and being Haida and being Tsimshian. If you were to take that away, we might as well be living in Nebraska. We need our land to be Native, to be Tlingit, to be Haida, to be Tshimpsian. And there are five communities in Southeast, including Ketchikan, that were left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. So we need to resolve that to prepare for a changing climate. As a people when we harvest, everything is connected. And then when you add the language it pulls it all together. You can’t learn the language without learning how to be Tlingit. When I go out to the woods to harvest it’s about developing a relationship with those plants, not overharvesting, doing it in a good way. It’s so healing and grounding to know who you are and that you belong here. And everyone needs to feel that, not just Native people. And my community needs that. From years of sickness and turmoil, we are just getting to a point, I feel, where we are able to recognize what’s happened to us and sort that all out. That’s why you’re seeing the movement in art with weaving and formline and carving. For us people of the sea, Tlingit means people of the tides, and so if you are constantly living that way you are living in balance. It’s easy to wander with climate because it touches everything but all of this resilience.

I know you are a healer and a harvester. Can you share a bit about what that means to you?

Trixie: There is a balance with plant medicine because it’s one of the last things that Native people know about that is still ours, that hasn’t been commercialized or appropriated. But I think it’s important to share the knowledge. I do salves and teas and tinctures, but it takes a long time to do it in the right way. I am not trying to be a big business, but I do like to see more value-added in our communities. My kitchen looks like an apothecary!

If I can get back to climate change for our last question, like you said climate change affects literally everything! And it can often feel overwhelming and depressing. What gives you hope?

Trixie: One interesting thing about climate change is it creates a platform to bring people together and develop leaders. It draws attention to all these seemingly different issues. And our kids give me hope. And I always tell my kids to be brave. It’s hard to be vulnerable, to take a leap into leadership. We have a vision here in my tribe, and it’s not just our staff, it’s our whole community, and we want all our citizens to see our place in it. That’s powerful when we have 6,000 tribal members that all have their eyes on the same goal. It gives us courage. And when we’re doing that all together, we’ve really got the universe on our side, to make great things happen.

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