Matanuska Coal Fields

I think one of the things we lost was our equal relationship with the animals and nature….we developed a “power over” relationship with animals and nature that began eroding our spirituality and our ethic of reciprocity: too cumbersome to keep up with during the period of colonization.”

– Angie Wade

The geography of the Matanuska Watershed is rich with coal . Beginning in 1898, survey crews from the United States Geological Survey identified and began to map these coal fields. The coal fields cover approximately 200 square miles and divided the Matanuska coal bed into three main fields: Chickaloon, Eska-Moose, and Young Creek. The Chickaloon field is located in the lower part of the valley of the Nay’dini’aa Na’ (Chickaloon River.) It extends as far west as the Staeł Na’ (Kings River), south across the Ts’itonhtna’ (Matanuska River) into the valley of K’eyah Betnu Nughik’et’ (Coal Creek). The Eska-Moose field extends from the valley of Ts’es Tac’ilaexde (Eska Creek) to the west as far as Tsidek’etna’ (Moose Creek). The Young Creek field lays between the Chickaloon and Eska-Moose fields, situated in the upper part of the valley of Young Creek. The coal beds found in these fields are of the Paleogene Period (24 to 65 million years ago) and comprised of three types of coal: anthracite, high-grade bituminous and low-grade bituminous. This variety of coal would allow for multiple mining operations to emerge and operate simultaneously without fear of encroaching on each other’s profit potential since each type of coal served a different market. 

Despite their initial findings, after years of attempting to extract coal from the region, mining costs were higher than originally anticipated, preventing Alaskan coal from being competitive with its counterparts on the east coast of the United States. Eventually all the mines in the Matanuska Watershed shut down. However, the attention and investment it drew in infrastructure development helped to solidify colonization of the region. During this time, while the non-Native population of Nay’dini’aa Na’ (Chickaloon) soared, the Dene population and traditional Ahtna language and culture came close to eradication. 

With these new outsider settlements came new foreign diseases, alcohol, social and environmental violence, and more non-Indigenous hunters and new laws that regulated the times and places Tribal citizens could hunt or fish. These laws were readily enforced by game wardens, however, animal and fish populations began to decline. Sewage, tailings, hazardous waste, and other pollutants from mining camps were intentionally washed into the local rivers. The railroad construction along the Matanuska coal fields redirected the flow of Tsidek’etna’ (Grandmother’s Place Creek, also known as Moose Creek) destroying a traditional spawning site that was used by the Dene, and decimating salmon populations.

The lack of salmon, a cornerstone of the traditional Dene diet and other traditional healthy foods caused the Dene to rely upon processed foods including sugar, coffee, and white flour that was readily available in local outsider settlement stores. This relatively immediate change of diet predisposed the Dene to many illnesses. The effects of this diet are still seen today in the alarmingly high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. For some, the introduction of foreign processed foods also contributed to a disconnect with the symbiotic relationship with the land and animals that have always been a crucial part of their cultural identity.

Although a few Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Native Village) Tribal citizens worked in the coal fields over the years, others saw the negative impacts of the mining industry on the Dene cultural lifeways, local wildlife, and the environment. From 1989 to present, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (CVTC) has successfully fought off proposed coal mining operations in the Matanuska Watershed to protect the health and well-being of Tribal citizens, especially the children of the Tribe’s Ya Ne Dah Ah School which is situated less than two miles from proposed blast zones. Additionally, CVTC has invested millions of dollars and man hours repairing Tsidek’etna, a once bountiful salmon spawning ground negatively impacted from past coal mining destruction. 

Recently, coal prices around the world have dropped, and the market has been in steep decline. The negative health effects associated with mining and burning coal, along with the adverse impacts to the environment as a result of mining operations, are being scientifically documented and regulated, making coal all but obsolete.

  • Bauer, Mary Cracraft and Victoria A. Cole. A History of Coal-Mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon Area Prior to WWII. Anchorage: Alaska Historical Commission, 1985. Print.