Q&A: Building Resiliency Through Community-Based Conservation
Crystal Nelson is working with communities in Southeast Alaska to weave together social, environmental and economic change.
As a Community Development Specialist for the Emerald Edge, Crystal Nelson focuses on sustainable economies and ecological stewardship capacity for communities in southeastern Alaska.
Conservation is a relatively new field for Crystal but her story with the Emerald Edge goes right back to the beginning. She is Tlingit, Raven-Coho from the Humpback Whale House in Dry Bay, and she grew up in Juneau, Alaska. She comes to The Nature Conservancy with 10 years of community and economic development experience, including work on community-first solutions in the Tongass Forest. She also spent six years off and on as an apprentice Chilkat weaver.
We need thriving communities to make better decisions about land use.
What memory stands out as a time that rooted you to the land in Alaska?
I’ll never forget the time I first walked on the land at Dry Bay. Nobody lives there now. I was told that our families were forced out during one of the wars. But Dry Bay, or Gunaxóo Kwáan as we call it, is my ancestral home. I went there with a small group of people, including a Coho elder who had been searching his whole life for the ancient house sites at Gunaxóo. With the information from his elders, a little help from archeologists, and his sheer determination, he finally found those sites. We took a little airplane out to Dry Bay in 2010. Since there is no runway, we landed on the mud flats right at the mouth of the Alsek River. It was a remarkably hot day in May. The sea lions were playing in the surf of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. I took off my XtraTuf boots and socks and put my feet in the hot sand and turned to walk back inland, looking up at the Saint Elias mountain range on the horizon. Thinking of the 10,000-plus years of my mother’s mother’s mothers who once walked this same place, I had never felt more profoundly at home.
What’s special about the Emerald Edge?
The Emerald Edge is an Indigenous and ecological place. If you take away the arbitrary boundaries of state and country, you get a whole system—a temperate rainforest with hundreds of ancient Indigenous communities. And we’re still here. We still feel just as rooted as I do at Dry Bay.
My personal and professional mission is to improve the quality of life for Indigenous communities living in the Emerald Edge—communities still reeling from the destabilization and economic distress of colonization—and to help change the way we do economics here. At the root of the dispossession of Indigenous lands and the destruction of the earth by extractive industries is economic motive. We can make a good living without destroying what our ancestors left us, but we need to change our behaviors as economic human beings.
Why is it important to work on local energy sources?
In southeast Alaska, many communities are still on diesel-generated power, which is risky, dirty, and very expensive. People sometimes have to choose between getting an education or paying their monthly energy bill, which can be as high as $800. Villages on diesel power rely on barges to bring in their energy, which puts life-sustaining heat and power at risk. Climate change only increases the need for self-sufficiency. Conservation means supporting communities to become resilient and reduce the impact on their homelands.
What was the biggest lesson you took from your previous work on the Tongass Forest?
Protecting the Tongass and other places along the Emerald Edge depends on the communities that live there—many of which are Indigenous. Colonization left us with disproportionate rates of poverty, unemployment, and other socioeconomic problems, so we have to consider what that history means for Indigenous communities. Conservation and Indigenous communities have come into conflict at times when conservationists neglect to take that into account. “Conservation” is a Western concept, but when it’s approached from a decolonized standpoint, Indigenous communities can create better social, environmental, and economic conditions for themselves. Thriving communities can then make better decisions about land use. This is why I’m focused on a community development approach to conservation.
How does Chilkat weaving complement your work in conservation?
Chilkat weaving is a sacred art form and comes with a set of rules—not only for weaving but also for living in a good way. The master weaver Clarissa Rizal (Tlingit) was my teacher, until she passed away in 2016, and she taught me some of my most important life lessons. Before a weaver goes to the loom, she needs to take care of everything else—to have balance, routine, and order, and a clean body, mind, and heart—or everything around us will fall into disarray. As weavers, we are always struggling to find balance in our lives, and that’s how I see our work as economic human beings: how can we produce what we need to, yet maintain balance in our homelands?
Do you have any favourite Tlingit expressions about the land?
One elder taught me a profound lesson in Lingít: “Ldakat át ayakgwahéiyagu kudzitee. Wé aas kwáani ayakgwahéiyagu kudzitee. Héen ayakgwahéiyagu kudzitee. Kusaxán ayakgwahéiyagu kudzitee.” This means, “Everything has a spirit. The people of the trees have a spirit. Water has a spirit. Even love has a spirit.” If everything has a spirit, everything must be respected. Nothing is ours to own or exploit. We have to maintain good relationships with everything and everyone with a spirit. So, if we have that basic understanding from our elders, the question then becomes, how do we live in this world and this Western economy, and still maintain those necessary relationships? How can we do better?
Crystal Nelson earned a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from the University of Alaska Southeast with an independent, interdisciplinary major in social sciences, intercultural communication, Alaska Native history, culture, and art, and a minor in the Tlingit language. Crystal is currently completing a master’s project focused on getting Southeast Indigenous communities off of diesel-generated power and working toward 100% renewable energy for the Master of Arts in Rural Development program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.