The land around southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay is the homeland of the Alutiiq, Dena’ina and Yup’ik peoples. Its clear rivers have long provided habitat for many species, including salmon, which have far-reaching environmental and cultural significance to local people—including renowned painter Linda Infante Lyons.
“It means a lot to me that I am able to be a voice for nature, my people, my ancestors whose culture was almost erased from history,” says Linda. Her ancestors were Sugpiaq, which means “real people” in the local language; later, Kodiak Island Indigenous people would describe themselves with the term Alutiiq, adapted from Russian to reflect the complex blending of cultures that took place after Russia colonized Alaska in the 1700s.
This heritage, along with her academic background in biology, is reflected in Linda’s portraits, which intentionally bring local people, wildlife and cultural iconography into proximity. Her work has been exhibited far and wide, and she has been awarded prestigious fellowships and served as an artist-in-residence at Denali National Park. “My work is based on the Indigenous perspective that there is no hierarchy. Everything on Earth holds the same spirit.”
That kind of connection to place is why The Nature Conservancy joined local communities in their opposition to Pebble Mine, a planned mining project in the region that would have become one of the world’s largest open-pit mines and, according to TNC’s research, caused significant harm to Bristol Bay’s salmon habitat. Following years of this advocacy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the proposed mine in 2023—although legal challenges to the EPA’s determination are expected, this is a tremendous victory for the Bristol Bay region. Building on the relationships developed through that process, TNC is now focused on additional strategies to protect the area from large-scale mining, decolonizing its work in Alaska and returning authority to the people who have generational relationships to place, including the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq.