Tlingit activist recalls history of Indigenous women protecting the Tongass: ‘The momentum has only grown’

Tlingit activist Wanda Culp. (Photo by Melissa Lyttle, courtesy of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council)

It has been 21 years since the 2001 Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest was first established. 

For the people involved in the battles between industry and subsistence, the tug-of-war over land use in the Tongass National Forest has been going on even longer. 

KTOO’s Lyndsey Brollini sat down with Tlingit activist Kashudoha Wanda Culp to talk about the impact of such a long history and the role that Indigenous women have played in this conflict.  

Listen here:

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lyndsey Brollini: Do you think you could kind of go a little bit into the background on the issue? How it came up?

Wanda Culp: My involvement came about in the early 1980s when I moved from Juneau and into Hoonah and needed to know firsthand how to hunt, fish and gather. And through that process, I was literally taken under the wings of my Tlingit grandmothers, who taught me a lot about the history of our people and where we come from.

When the clear cut started in Hoonah, it happened right in one of our hunting areas. We always, you know, would drive around when we had vehicles just for something to do. And I was up on Hoonah mountain, ran into one of my grandmas. Her and her husband were driving around, and she looked at the fresh clear cuts. And she was crying. And she said, “See what they’re doing to us. Do you see what they’re doing to us?” It broke my heart, and I did not realize because we’re so isolated in Hoonah — those days with no, you know, no access to internet technology like today — so I had no idea that others in Southeast were also voicing their objections to the clear cut business happening all around us. So it was our combined voices that I believe helped create the 2001 Roadless Rule. It was so politically controversial back then, after the 1990s when the boom basically busted. I became a recluse. It was pretty harsh. 

Maybe six years ago, Osprey Orielle Lake in WECAN International — Women’s Earth in Action Climate Network — called me up, got my name somewhere, and literally pulled me out of moth balls as she made me aware of what was occurring politically with the Roadless Rule again. We’ve been to Congress through WECAN and partnering with Earth Justice. They helped us, four of us from Hoonah, in early 2019 to meet with 14 Congress people in D.C. face-to-face. We wore our regalia and spoke to them through our regalia representing who we are as Indigenous women. 
So once it was a change of hands through our last administration, it beefed up the temperature, you know, in the realization that we can no longer allow the Roadless Rule to be a political puppet at their whim. We need to put it into law now. 

When we really began rolling and boiling here, and it was early 2019 Lisa Murkowski tried slipping the weakening of the Roadless Rule in a budget rider. That’s how easy it is to manipulate that rule. And had we not been alerted to that, that would have happened a long time ago. 

There’s been plenty of silence to what we have brought forward and publicized. One of my elders told me when it comes to us, when I was worried about why isn’t anybody saying anything, she’s like, “It’s called tacit approval.” Silent approval. And we have that. The need for grassroots solutions, we just need a way to process it and get it out from the ground up all the way to D.C. this way, not from the top down

LB: Do you think that the momentum is already there, that grassroots momentum?

WC: It is. It was already there in the 80s and 90s. That momentum created the 2001 Roadless Rule. And that rule never stopped being challenged. This is old hat, what we’re doing, always defending the Roadless Rule. The momentum has only grown. 
And at one meeting, there was ex-loggers, teachers, and, you know, they were so relieved to hear when I said, “You folks have a right to say your objections to what’s happening on this clear cut logging.” 
They were being quiet because they thought — they didn’t want to step on our toes— and they thought that we initiated the clear cut logging to destroy our own land. 
So once that conversation was opened, I began to realize how many people love the Tongass and realize that it’s not so controversial within our own region.
What’s controversial is the misuse of it. 

LB: It was really good to hear from you.

WC: Yeah, it’s good to talk about this. Thank you for the opportunity. 

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