Growing up, Ruth Miller’s parents taught her that injustice is the product of choices some people make for others. It wasn’t long before she figured out they weren’t speaking hypothetically.
As a Dena’ina Athabascan, Ruth stood on the ashes of centuries worth of decisions made for, not by, her people: the visitors who had pockmarked her tribe’s ground and polluted their waters; the visitors who had come and gone on their boats and airplanes; the visitors who had, she soon noticed, never really left. Melting permafrost. Vanishing caribou herds. Oil rigs sprouting faster than the beets and broccoli. The impact of decisions was palpable—all she had to do was take a look around.
Ruth grew up in Anchorage, the de facto capital of Alaska, nestled 180 miles into the Cook Inlet (Tikahtnu in Dena’ina), a small body of water shaped like a knobby finger stemming from the Susitna, Matanuska, and Kenai rivers and spilling off into the Gulf of Alaska.
The Cook Inlet Basin is Alaska’s oldest gas and oil basin. During its heyday in the ‘70s, production topped 230,000 barrels per day, but by the early ‘90s, operations had all but sputtered out, and by 1996, Chevron Corp. and Marathon Oil, the two big players in the region, ceased all activity. A year later, Ruth was born to two indigenous rights lawyers. One could say she had it lucky.
“Growing up I think I had the safety of innocence in that I saw our state blooming and thriving,” Ruth said, now 22. “I knew what fresh wild salmon tasted like, what fresh moose meat tasted like. You know, we had access to our subsistence foods and our lifestyles.”
But every now and then, Ruth would catch glimpses of industrialization. In 2009, Cook Region Inlet, Inc., started the construction of 11 wind turbines on Fire Island, a small uninhabited island near the head of Cook Inlet. In 2012, the turbines began feeding into the Anchorage electrical grid. Still, these projects could hardly deserve the name “industrialization” and Anchorage—a city that in 2000 measured 250,000 people and to this day barely cuts 300,000—was a far cry from your typical metropolis.
And yet, the city has long been hailed Alaska’s “biggest Native village,” home to Alaskan Native communities from across the state, including Yup’iks, Inupiats, Alaskan Athabascans, Tlingit-Haidas, Aleuts, and Tsimshians.
“We joked that either all of us are cousins or all of us have like 100 mutual Facebook friends,” said Ruth, who grew up immersed in this indigenous diversity, an experience that would later inform her advocacy work on behalf of these populations.
“I was gifted knowledge and wisdom and gifted relationships with people from all across the state,” she said. “And the stories they chose to give me are ones that I have to carry with care in my advocacy work while maintaining, you know, specificity and making sure that I'm not speaking stories that aren't mine to tell.”
That’s not to say nothing was rotten in the state of Anchorage. In the early 2000s, U.S.-indigenous relations in Anchorage were souring. A month before Ruth’s fourth birthday, three teenagers from Eagle River, an Anchorage suburb, drove downtown armed with paintball guns and ammunition and wounded several pedestrians. In a recording of their 15-mile drive, the teenagers were heard calling the pedestrians “Eskimo(s).” The Alaska House of Representatives shortly declared the incident a hate crime.
As a multiracial child, Ruth’s ancestry was always a sticking point. Her mother is a Dena’ina Athabascan born in Seward, a port city on the Kenai Peninsula about a 100 miles south of Anchorage. Ruth’s father, on the other hand, is a Russian Ashkenazi Jew, born and raised in New York City.
“He did 23andme and he is like 99.8% Russian Jewish,” Ruth said, “and then the other 1.2% is Eastern European. So he was the first person ever in his entire lineage to marry out of the faith.”
You can imagine how this might have been difficult for Ruth. Before Anchorage was an American city, it belonged to the Russians. In the late 18th century, the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company erected forts at Kasilof and Kenai and coerced the Dena’ina Athabascan people into the Russian fur trade. Ruth’s father was, of course, not part of this history, arriving much later in the ‘70s. A mountain climbing enthusiast, the Alaska Range lured the man north, but it was the work that kept him there. He was already a partner at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Miller & Monkman, an indigenous rights firm, and he opened up an office in Anchorage.
“I cannot imagine a life more devoted to the service other than the one that my dad chose,” Ruth said.
Bystander no longer
As a child, Ruth became a regular participant in her parents’ practice, toted along to various tribal communities in Alaska—the Tlingit, Eyak, Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Iñupiat—and in Chile, Nepal, and Jordan. As she got older and started to understand what was going on, questions arose: “Why is this happening? Who's causing this and why are those causing it not being a part of the solution?”
Ruth credits Kivalina as the first community she engaged with critically. Kivalina is a thin barrier reef island between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina Lagoon in Northwest Alaska, only accessible via cargo plane. The island is home to the Iñupiat village, a small group of around 400 subsistence hunters.
As early as the 1990s, changes started to occur in the landscape. Hunting season, normally in May, was beginning two weeks earlier than before, which meant the ice was also thinning earlier. But the Iñupiat only noticed the change years later when this became a habitual occurrence. Sea ice was now consistently forming later in the year and melting at an alarming rate in the spring and summer. Whaling camps became unsafe and the small island, dependent on the permafrost to keep the land from sliding into the ocean, was now at the mercy of the autumnal storms.
In 1992, the village voted to relocate but hit a wall of expenses, so in 2008 they sued 24 of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies. These companies, they claimed, were a “public nuisance” that inflicted “unreasonable harm” on villagers through their greenhouse gas emissions. Damages were designed to subsidize relocation, but the Supreme Court dismissed the case on the basis that their claim came under the Clean Air Act, not federal tort law. The Iñupiat, faced with the decision of filing a new claim in state court, dropped the case.
Ruth grew frustrated with the law. She couldn’t fathom how fossil fuel companies could get away with parsimony at the expense of her people or how the federal government could be so slow to exact justice. She was tired of playing the bystander.
In 2012, at the tender age of 15, Ruth dove headfirst into advocacy work, joining a tribal consortium called United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB). She was stationed in Dillingham (also known as Curyung), a small city in southwest Alaska where UTBB was organizing against Pebble Mine, an open-pit copper and gold mine proposed by Pebble Limited Partnership.
Holed up in an old storage unit, Ruth talked to local fisherman about what they stood to lose if the project moved forward. Dillingham sits on Nushagak Bay, an inlet of Bristol Bay, the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. A mine, even a mile wide, a mile long, and 200 meters deep, she explained, could destroy nearly 3,500 acres of wetlands and 81 miles of salmon streams, meaning thousands of American jobs lost and the death of subsistence hunting, sport-fishing, and tourism.
The UTBB’s efforts have stymied the permitting process, but it remains unclear whether their activism will terminate the project or merely delay the inevitable, a plodding, stop-start trail of paperwork entering its ninth year with no end in sight.
At the recommendation of Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Ruth was inspired to try out advocacy work from the inside. The following summer, at the age of 16, she entered the belly of the beast, joining the office of Sen. Mark Begich. (“A senator I supported,” Ruth said; Begich had served as mayor of Anchorage from 2004 to 2009.) Working under Andrea Sanders, Sen. Begich’s legislative assistant for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Ruth drafted the Findings section of the Traditional Foods and Nourishment Act of 2013, making her not only one of the youngest interns on Capitol Hill, but possibly the youngest lawmaker that year.
Every now and then, Ruth will be reminded of that law, the impacts of which are felt even today.
“Just last week, I was talking to Andrea about bringing traditional subsistence foods into our public schools and that was only made possible because of this law that I contributed to,” Ruth said. “It made a world of difference.”
Ruth’s experiences on Capitol Hill have made her keenly familiar with the world of red tape and organizing bodies and you’ll rarely, if ever, hear her eulogize the system. When discussing tribal council meetings and Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) conventions—“like the UN”—she’ll eventually bring up Robert’s Rules of Order. (“I think it’s really silly.”) “Evil,” “capitalist,” and “colonial” usually go in the same sentence and don’t even get her started on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), the law that effectively established Alaska Native corporations.
When Ruth attended the inaugural U.N. Youth Climate Summit last September, she was surprised to find herself in high spirits and hopeful. For many in attendance (including Greta Thunberg), the summit was a panoply of firsts—their first time in New York City; their first visit to the U.N. Headquarters; the first time young people were being recognized on this scale. But for Ruth, a seasoned student leader and burgeoning native rights advocate, this was already her third time inside the U.N. building. That year.
For all intents and purposes, the Summit was a full-day program of panels, presentations, and photo-ops designed to galvanize young activists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers into climate action. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was in attendance, as well as heads of state, big business executives, and Olympians (who got their own afternoon panel). The conference featured events such as a segment called “Youth Take the Mic!” led by nonprofit founder Yusuf Omar and YouTube influencer Penny Tovar, two peppy millennials with inexplicable 11 o’clock energy that appealed to the youthful crowd. (Their voices nearly busted my speakers over the livestream via which many digital denizens, like me, tuned in around the globe.)
The conference ran smoothly for the most part, but was not without its hiccups. It’s Pollyannaish to put impassioned, teenaged environmental activists in a room with middle-aged, white men entrusted with billion-dollar (carbon-intensive) corporations and not expect some friction. A particularly memorable episode was during the Q&A portion of the “Youth Take the Mic!” session, designed as a diplomatic forum for the young attendees to interact with the who’s who of the private and public sectors. The room went riotous when a girl who looked no older than 15 seized the mic from Omar and, with eyes darting nervously around the room, pilloried Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa for his business dealings with oil companies.
“Let’s keep it civil,” Omar said after taking back the floor.
Setting aside these sporadic lapses in organization, the Summit appeared—at least virtually—to achieve its goal, providing “a platform for young climate action leaders to showcase their solutions at the United Nations and to meaningfully engage with decision-makers on the defining issue of our time.” According to the U.N., the Summit was “was action-oriented, intergenerational, and inclusive, with equal representation of young leaders from all walks of life.”
Ruth called foul.
“I found that the U.N. Youth Summit was seriously lacking in productive action,” she said. “I believe that there was a lot of lip service paid. From a youth perspective, I think that it was almost a convening to let off steam because what are global leaders going to walk away with from this? That youth care about the environment?”
For the youth climate movement, including Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future and Jamie Margolin’s Zero Hour, whose work is predicated on the attention of world leaders, the Summit was a huge step forward. In fact, the whole week of Sept. 20, was a huge step forward. The September 2019 climate strikes, which have since come to be known as the Global Week for Future, consisted of several protests across the world demanding action from the highest levels of government. They generated inertia that was instrumental to the success of the Youth Climate Summit. But Ruth wasn’t so sure the Summit was an effective climax of the movement’s efforts.
“If our protests did not make that clear (that we care),” she said, “if our entire movement did not make that clear, this conference did not particularly feel like it added more perspective.”
There were larger issues, too, to be found in the “equal representation” that the U.N. press releases have extolled.
Ruth could not find many faces that looked like hers at the conference. It seems that economic struggles, especially acute amongst Alaska’s native communities, can compound issues, affecting indigenous representation in spaces where indigenous representation matters most.
“If actual inclusion and acceptance was a priority for the U.N., then I would have expected to see many more youths who have been feeling the front lines of these climate change issues for years, not only the youths articulate enough to speak at a conference, but also the youth who have been chaining themselves to pipelines,” she said. “(The ones) who are protesting now in Mauna Kea. And the youth who may not be able to pay their way to a summit like this, for whom it may not be acceptable to miss school.”
In the Dena’ina language, the traditional form of greeting is the phrase Naghe Nduninyu, which literally translates to “you came to us.” Over the course of her life, Ruth has spoken these words countless times and yet, their truth is becoming more and more uncertain.
Although the Summit opened with an indigenous prayer, the conference seemed to Ruth to ignore the indigenous presence in the debate. The rest of the day was devoid of any mention of the people in closest relation to the Earth, prioritizing lessons like “Instagram on Purpose” and the “Viral Video Masterclass.” It was as if, Ruth articulated, the Summit was trying to blot out an irrefutable fact:
“We are still here. Despite the efforts of genocide, despite massive pandemic, that wiped out our populations, we are still here. And we are still advocating for the sustainable and life-giving practices that we have learned from living in relationships with the environment for so long.”
In December, Ruth and two fellow native rights activists started an online platform for indigenous voices called Always Indigenous Media. The organization, as the title suggests, aims to elevate the voices of indigenous people in the digital sphere, making that most egalitarian of communication modalities, the internet, service their needs. Their content can be found on the Defend the Sacred Alaska’s Facebook page, a nonprofit group fighting for state-wide indigenous visibility.
Ruth’s activism since the Summit has taken her to the COP25 meeting in Spain, where she marched alongside half a million other activists to the tune of “Canada’s Warrior Woman” by Martina Pierre. Currently, she’s back in Anchorage, putting together a task force of high school-aged youth from across the state as part of the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. On Black Friday, they staged a climate strike to bring awareness to the violence of the Thanksgiving story and, as Ruth puts it, to “encourage people to resist the consumerism and capitalism of Black Friday.”
Last May, Ruth graduated with an undergraduate degree in Development Studies from Brown University. Her thesis, on the changing definition of indigeneity, explored how U.S. policies like ANCSA have twisted native identity into something no longer recognizable. In an addendum, Ruth included a letter attributed “For my Grandmother, to my Grandchild.”
“Someone told me that our blood remembers,” she writes, “it remembers being spilled out, it remembers drowning in the air, it remembers each drop that was taken from the body it cared for, left as dry as drought. That the land couldn’t turn away as they turned against her. That we were forced to watch, as they started taking, harming, scratching, clawing at her. Pickaxing up the soft down of her legs, opening her arteries with oil rigs, pulling out her golden and copper teeth.”
All Ruth can hope is that her descendants, generations down the line, will read those words and remember who wrote them.