On nature’s side
Alaska native Dune Lankard has spent decades fighting for the earth and ocean
It is said that a child who at a young age already knows what his life’s work will be will be blessed.
Dune Lankard certainly grew up knowing his purpose. Named “Jamachakih” after the small, squawky bird that is indigenous to his traditional terridtory, “The little bird that screams really loud and won’t shut up,” he’s made it his life’s mission to protect the pristine Alaskan wilderness.
And his track record is impressive. As a preteen, he convinced elder fishermen in his hometown of Cordova, Alaska, to stop tossing trash from their fishing trips overboard. Later on, as a young man, he encouraged his father, a seasoned professional fisherman and crabber, to install an escape portal for female and underage crab so they would have a better chance at repopulating. But Lankard cites the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 as the wake-up moment that launched his career as an environmental activist and organizer.
The impact of that spill is palpable in Cordova, he says, as the 30-year anniversary of the disaster looms. Lankard recalls that after the spill, life was forever changed for the residents of Prince William Sound—the length and viability of the fishing seasons were reduced or canceled altogether, leading to an increase in vices and illegal activity, plus divorce, mental illness and even suicide. Additionally, the local tribes—Eyak, of which Lankard is a member, Aleutian Tlingit and Chugach Eskimo—were, as always, at odds. The situation was difficult, to say the least.
But Lankard persevered. And thanks to his efforts—on behalf of the environment as well as the Native people—the region did not collapse under the pressure. He’s been keeping up that work ever since. He recently spoke with the CN&R about his background and experience as an environmental activist in advance of his appearance at Chico State’s This Way to Sustainability Conference, where he’s one of the keynote speakers.
In the years since the Exxon Valdez spill, Lankard has started numerous nonprofits and conservation campaigns, including the Eyak Preservation Council and Native Conservancy Land Trust. A jovial, likeable man, he insists that having a sense of humor and finding the fun in this sort of work is the key to longevity. After all, being an indigenous environmentalist is no easy occupation.
A case in point is one of his first big fights. Following the oil spill disaster, some tribes considered logging in the region. But Lankard saw the environmental consequences of that—including further destruction of fish habitat through runoff. So, along with his sister/best friend, Pamela, he filed a lawsuit to protect the Eyak rainforest. But he was told he’d have to post a $50 million bond and pay $500,000 in attorney fees—before his case would even be heard.
“We appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court saying that I had ‘public interest’ status, therefore should not be required to post a bond or pay attorney fees, because this case was in the public interest of the fellow shareholders and in the public interest to leave the Eyak rainforest standing,” he said. In the end, Lankard won; more important, he says, it was a win for his Eyak people. They didn’t have to pay bonds or fees and additionally, the Native shareholders were paid $45 million to leave their trees standing rather than cut them down.
In time, Lankard has racked up a record of 33 court case wins (and two losses) with his organization RED OIL (Resisting Environmental Degradation of Indigenous Lands). The group, composed of Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Eyak, Gwich’in and Dena’iana Athabascan tribes, formed in 2002 in Cordova to challenge the fossil fuel and mining industries and demand their rights to a safe and healthy environment.
Lankard’s daughter Ananda Rose, age 7, has even begun her career as an environmental warrior.
“When Ananda Rose was 1, she helped file onto a climate change lawsuit as a Native youth claimant,” he said. “Subsequently, similar claims have been filed in all 50 states … so the children would have a voice and say over climate change.” Cases in Texas and Washington state are moving forward in the federal courts. Mary Wood, a law professor at the University of Oregon’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center, will give a talk at Chico State’s annual sustainability conference on Thursday (March 23) titled “The Youth’s Climate Crusade,” which includes these cases.
These days, Lankard works to create a bridge between cultures that once were at odds with each other. Every native Alaskan has a common enemy in global warming, Lankard says, as they are truly becoming the world’s first climate refugees. He is currently working to assist traditional Alaska Native fishing villages on researching the viability of placing housing on truck beds or sleds so they can relocate along with the receding sea ice and rising sea levels. His client list includes 33 such sites.