On a wet and chilly September morning, President Barack Obama landed in Dillingham, Alaska, where he was greeted warmly by locals. Among them stood Alannah Hurley, UNM alumna (2009), and current executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), a tribal consortium working to protect the Bristol Bay watershed that sustains their traditional way of life from unsustainable resource development.
Obama’s visit was the first of any sitting U.S. president to rural, Native Alaska. While Obama’s primary focus during his Alaska visit was climate change, he visited Dillingham (population 2,100) to see the world’s last great wild sockeye salmon fishery and indigenous cultures. During his visit the president said, "If you've eaten wild salmon, it's likely to have come from here. It's part of the reason why it's so critical that we make sure that we protect this incredible natural resource, not just for the people whose cultures have thrived upon it for thousands of years, but for the entire country."
“The reality that the President of the United States visited our home and experienced the land our ancestors entrusted to us is still sinking in,” Hurley said. “He didn't visit like you would think the leader of the free world would visit a place. President Obama had a, ‘pick our fish, eat our food, and Yup’ik dance with our kids’ kind of visit, like you usually have with close relatives or friends. To see the president recognize, respect and genuinely enjoy experiencing what it means to live our way of life on our land, what our culture means to us and want to help us protect it, still has me on cloud nine.”
"To see the president recognize, respect and genuinely enjoy experiencing what it means to live our way of life on our land, what our culture means to us and want to help us protect it, still has me on cloud nine." – Alannah Hurley
Bristol Bay tribes have been fighting for the last decade to protect the region from unsustainable resource development. The Yup'ik, Denai'na and Alutiq people have thrived there for thousands of years, living off the land as their ancestors did.
“The primary threat to our land and waters is the proposed development of what would be the world’s largest copper and gold mine located at the headwaters of the two major rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class fishery and intact eco-system,” Hurley said. “The second major threat was offshore oil development in the North Aleutian Basin, but Obama took the leases off the table last year, recognizing Bristol Bay as a ‘national treasure’ and a ‘critical resource.’ We produce over half of the nation's sockeye salmon and 40 percent of the globe's seafood.”
Prior to coming to UNM, Hurley attended the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University as part of the Semester in Washington program. As the semester came to an end, Hurley began looking for a school and a major that would accommodate her interest in Native affairs because she was wanted to use her education to help her Alaskan community.
“At the recommendation of a mentor and friend, I checked out the Native American Studies program at UNM,” Hurley said. “It was the best move I made as a young adult. In the NAS program I found exactly what I was looking for: an education in Native history, issues, politics and tribal self-determination for Native Nation building. I'm so thankful for the NAS program, as my degree (NAS with a focus in Leadership and Sovereignty) set the foundation for me to return to my home in Alaska and work towards true change and self-determination for our tribes and communities.”