Folk Singer Si Kahn’s Work to Protect Bristol Bay
Sitting with folk singer Si Kahn in the bustling trade booth section at the Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto earlier this year, I ask him a simple question to start our interview – “Tell me more about your project, Musicians United” – and that’s the last question I ask him for nearly the rest of the interview. He’s got no need to be guided along, or prodded for soundbites. He weaves stories, and ideas, and passionate theories into his discussion of his work with Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and thumps the table with an alarming frequency. This is very clearly a person who is made to tell stories, and indeed he’s done just that throughout his career as a beloved American folk singer.
Si comes to Folk Alliance regularly, and his last album, Courage, was much loved by most all of the Folk DJs who were there that week. But he was there primarily to talk about the encroaching industrial interests committed to turning not only one of the most beautiful, but also one of the most ecologically essential ecosystems of Alaska into pits of waste. I assumed he was from Alaska, or had an abiding interest in the state and it’s rich natural settings, but it turns out he’d never been to Alaska before getting involved in the fight to save Bristol Bay. This beautiful wilderness and ocean reserve, one of the richest remaining wild fisheries in the world, and home to one of the world’s largest wild salmon runs, is currently threatened by a massive proposed mine known as the Pebble Mine. This mine would be the largest open-pit mine in the world and would sit right next to the headwaters of the river where salmon spawn. In response, a grassroots movement of politicians, Alaskans, Native Americans, and artists have been working to shut down the proposal and keep the mine from being built, in the hopes of saving the Bay and the surrounding wilderness from permanent damage.
To get some background on the issue itself, I talked also to Si’s friend and former Alaskan senator Suzanne Little. I could tell easily how passionate she is about stopping the mine. She’s soft-spoken, but firm, measuring each word carefully and fully aware of the powers she’s going up against. “The issue,” she says to me, “is that Bristol Bay, where 40% of America’s fish resources come from, is the ‘fish basket’ of the United States. Bristol Bay, in our opinion, is being threatened by a proposed gold, copper, and molybdenum mine… The proposed mine would be the largest open pit gold mine in the world and it would be placed in the headwaters of the largest wild fishery in the world. We just think that’s a bad idea. Also, another issue is: part of the dam development would include a huge copper dam that would forever hold back the tailings, which are toxic. It’s huge. It’s like the size of some of our hydro-generating dams and this is an earthquake zone… What’s more important to us and to the world, we think, is a sustainable fishery that, if we take care of it, will feed us for generations to come, whereas this mine will be there and gone but it will leave a continual plume of pollution for us to deal with. It’s just the wrong thing in the wrong place.”
Part of the effort to spread the word about Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Mine comes from Suzanne and Si’s project, Musicians United. It’s an open source project that anyone can join, started by musicians and designed to be spread through the message of music. As Si says, “I created Musicians United in conjunction with Suzanne Little and with Dan Strickland, who’s a commercial fisherman… Suzanne and I had met 20 years ago. She was a working official and I was brought in as a resource person. I was invited by Dan Strickland in September of 2010, who basically described what was going on. He was a fan of my music. He sent me an email, describing what was happening in Bristol Bay. He said, ‘We actually have a very broad coalition and a campaign, so I think we need a theme song. I can’t pay you. I’ll give you an air ticket and if you come for a couple of weeks, we’ll take you around. You’ll meet people, you’ll talk to people, you’ll go to Bristol Bay. We’ll give you all the home-made beer and all the smoked salmon you can eat.’ This went straight to my Jewish heart… But that was the sort of thing that I love doing both musically and politically. The one thing I said to Dan in advance is, ‘I’m not going to write you just one song, I will write you many songs. If one of them emerges as a theme song, that’s fine, but, in a situation like this, there are too many stories, too many points of view, too many issues, too many different cultures and you really have to touch on them all. Songs can do many things but no song can do everything.’
These many songs are featured on Si Kahn’s new album, Bristol Bay, which features songs that circle the potential environmental damage that the Pebble Mine could cause. Si Kahn has spent most of his life fighting the corporate domination machine, both for human and environmental rights. As he says “I’ve spent my life as a union, civil rights and community organizer and the music is actually a hobby that got out of hand.” He has a knack for tapping into stories of hard-working folks, and bringing out a current of social justice. On his Bristol Bay album, he opens with the song “Dead Man’s Sand,” a harrowing story of a disaster at sea in 1915 that channels the traditional fishermen horror stories of Alaska while also drawing a parallel from the power of the sea to the danger of the Pebble Mine’s overly confident harnessing of nature. Each of the songs draws from a story or a person Si heard or met during his travels in Alaska. Native Americans, Swedish fishermen, brave kids, and even Suzanne Little’s goldminer grandfather are represented in the songs, each of which tells their story and links their lives to the rich natural environment that’s provided for Alaskans for so long.
Si Kahn: Dead Man’s Sand
Pete Seeger Supports Musicians United!
As a professional social organizer, Si understands the power that musicians hold, a power that few musicians themselves understand. “I met this young musician. She’d just gotten out of college. I asked her, ‘How many concerts do you do?’ ‘5 a week.’ ‘Average audience?’ ‘30 to 50’ ‘Do you realize that you’re in front of 8,000 people in a year? Subtract 50 because I know your mom comes to every concert.’ [laughing] She was like, ‘Wow! I never thought of it that way.’ Musicians don’t think of it that way. We think about how many people were at each gig. We don’t think about numbers… I did an interview with Vincent Herman, of Leftover Salmon, who’s passionate about this… We established that Vince plays in front of 400,000 people a year. I started thinking about the extent to which media is accessible, fans are accessible and it’s not like you have a sound bite for 8,000 people. It’s not that you’ve got 15 seconds with them. You have 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour, 2 hours. They come because they know and love your music. And you have their full attention.” Understanding the sway that popular, regularly touring musicians can hold, Si focused his attention on grassroots organizing among musicians themselves through the Musicians United project. His goal is to bring together 1000 musicians, each focused on producing something small but effective, like putting a link on a website, writing an article in a newsletter, or better yet, writing a song. “I started asking people about 3 months ago, write us a song. I thought maybe we’d get 6 in a year. We already have 20 and some of them are stunning.”
Canadian Singer-Songwriter Phyllis Sinclair’s Song “At Last”
Though he’d never been to Alaska and hadn’t fished the waters of Bristol Bay, Si Kahn still has fishing in his blood. “My dad was the rabbi at Penn State back in the 40s and 50s. He was a fisherman and my grandfather was a fisherman and we grew up fishing the streams in Pennsylvania. Then when I grew up, I moved south with the civil rights movement and became a bass fisherman. Then, Elizabeth’s family [Si’s wife] lives in Cape Cod. They had boats and went fishing.” All the same, Alaska was a whole different world for Si, who flew in for the first time with Dan Strickland, his partner in Musicians United and Alaskan guide. Scheduled to meet with Native American organizer Kim Williams of the organization Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land), Williams missed this initial meeting because she was still out hunting moose for her family. As much as the waters of Alaska provide its people great bounty, many people in Alaska also subsistence hunt for their families as well.
Being on the ground, Si got closer to the people who are most affected by the proposed Pebble Mine. People like a former Republican politician (not Sarah Palin!) who’d spent his career working with the mining companies, but upon retirement come to realize that they’d been lying to him and that the health of Alaska’s natural environment, land he loved truly and deeply, was at imminent risk. Or the group of 6th/7th graders who organized as Rebels To the Pebble. Si recounts meeting these 12 and 13 year olds in an Alaskan classroom. “They’re a group; they sing; they do dramatic acting. They travel the state saying, ‘These are our homes. This is our culture. These are our villages. These are our jobs. This is what we’re going to do when we grow up. This is how our family survives. Don’t let them take it away from us.’ This kid stood up and said, ‘What you have to understand is: we live by traditions that are thousands of years old. I killed my first caribou when I was 7, my first moose when I was 11. There are rules. I killed a moose. You can’t get a pick-up in there; you can’t even get a snowmobile in there, at least not in winter. So, we have to pack it in, maybe 15 miles. We slaughter it in the field. When I bring the first load of meat back to the village, we’re not allowed to cook it. I have to distribute it to the village. When everybody has a share, then, I can save what’s left for my family. When we go fishing, not the commercial, but the fish at the river, when we’re fishing off the bank, first the first salmon I catch, I immediately stop fishing, I take it to the village, I present it to the elder. Then, I go back and fish for my family.’
Pebble Mine doesn’t just affect families living in the area. After all, this is, as Alaska State Legislator Bryce Edgmon says, “a two-mile wide pit next to a giant tailings pond – filled in perpetuity with toxins sitting next to the largest sockeye salmon river system in the world…” Si’s passionate about the science behind the Bristol Bay, and the overall effect the mine will have on the surrounding environment. “There has never, in the history of the world, been an open pit mine that didn’t destroy what was downstream,” he says. “Copper and gold occur in sulphur-bearing rock. To refine the ore, you have to crush it to a powder and then you have to mix it into a slurry with water. Sulphur meets water; you get sulphuric acid. And the company says, ‘Oh, no, that was the old days. It’s new technology. It’s going to be safe. We won’t do it if it’s not safe.’ I flew over it. A hardwood tree: whatever’s above, you have the same amount of wood below. The root system mirrors the branch system. Water is like that, whatever you see on the surface, there’s at least that much under ground. And I’m flying over the tundra and Dan said, ‘Oh, look, there’s the caribou trails.’ And I said, ‘What’s that? 7 or 8 of them?’ ‘No,’ he says, ‘that was 200,000 when they came through last fall.’ You can’t run it safely. Nobody’s ever done it and it’s just going to destroy it.”
Si Kahn: Upstream
Alaska’s Bristol Bay, (top), photo by Michael Melford