In Interior Alaska, a company is preparing to start production at a large gold mine near the Native Village of Tetlin. A former tribal chief greenlit the mine and leased mineral exploration rights to a mining venture, now led by Kinross Alaska.
But according to a story from the magazine Grist, the Tetlin Native Corporation and some tribal members are upset about the deal, alleging years of corruption and self-serving deals between tribal leaders and Kinross.
Kinross denies the allegations and says they’ve acted in good faith.
Grist reporter Lois Parshley says the saga of the Manh Choh Mine dates back decades, and includes disagreements over who owns the land around Tetlin.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lois Parshley: To understand what’s going on here, I actually have to rewind a little further back to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which granted the Tetlin Native Corporation, a tribe in Interior Alaska, 743,000 acres. And unlike many village corporations Tetlin retained rights to its subsurface resources, like minerals. So, in the 1990s, Chief Donald Adams was both chief and president of the tribal corporation. And in his role as chief, he applied for a casino license, but it was denied because the corporation owned the tribe’s land. So to solve that problem, Chief Adams transferred about 640,000 acres from the corporation to the tribal council. This left the corporation insolvent, and the corporation shareholders, who never approved the move, sued. The Alaska Supreme Court eventually held that Chief Adams abused his authority in the “wrongful transfer.”
But before a new deed could be drawn up, Chief Adams signed a mineral lease with a mining exploration company in a closed-door meeting. It included 40,000 acres more than the Tetlin Native Corporation was ever allocated. The company also hired Chief Adams as a consultant and paid him more than $250,000. This broke tribal law, but the details of all of this were kept secret for years. In a notarized testimony, tribal council members said they were shocked when they finally saw the lease. And today Kinross Alaska, the majority owner and the current operator of the project, is developing a large open pit gold mine called Manh Choh on the land.
Wesley Early: So Adams died in 2015. How did Tetlin’s local leaders after him respond to this mine?
LP: After Chief Adams died, a man named Michael Sam was elected, and new members joined the tribal council. But this change in leadership didn’t help resolve anything. When the general manager of the corporation sat down with Chief Sam in 2016, meeting notes suggest that Chief Sam didn’t know much about the mine, though he “stressed that it was his preference to see the miners leave.”
I wasn’t able to talk to Chief Sam. He didn’t respond to repeated interview requests. But it appears somewhere along the way his opinion about the mine changed. A tribal member is now collecting signatures to find out if Chief Sam or any other tribal officer is getting payments from Kinross that haven’t been made public.
WE: You describe allegations of corruption from the local Tetlin Native Corporation in your story. What do corporation officials claim happened with respect to the mine and Kinross?
LP: In addition to his consulting fees, the lease shows that Chief Adams also approved a finder’s fee to the man who connected him with the mining company. It called him a “friend of the tribe,” and this arrangement said that he and his heirs will receive 10% of any future net profits from mineral exploration on the land, in perpetuity. It’s pretty unclear who knew at the time that the tribe had surrendered so much of its profits. And overall, Tetlin will only receive royalties of somewhere between 3 to 5% from Manh Choh, though similar mines elsewhere in Alaska often give tribes much higher returns, as well as sometimes partial ownership.
The Tetlin Native Corporation also alleges that this joint mining venture misrepresented the tribal council to both the state and the SEC as a village corporation, which is something anyone familiar with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act knows is not possible. And perhaps most importantly, they’re also claiming that at least some of the mine is being developed on the 100,000 acres the corporation has always retained.
WE: So with all of this concern from tribal members, not to mention lawsuits, where does that put the Manh Choh mine right now?
LP: In addition to all of these allegations, the project is also facing another lawsuit. Kinross plans to haul ore around 250 miles along the public highways from the mine in Tetlin to Fort Knox outside of Fairbanks, and that has sparked a lot of concern from residents. It will also require replacing bridges and other road improvements. The Federal Highway Administration says Alaska’s Department of Transportation didn’t follow the necessary process to put these bridge replacements on the state planning documents.
A lawsuit filed in October by a citizen led group is seeking an injunction requiring the Department of Transportation to follow its own regulations before allowing Kinross ore to be hauled on public roads. But despite all of these concerns, the mine is slated to begin production by the end of the year.