An Alaskan Compass & Kaleidoscope: In Conversation with Shannon Donahue

Ciana Meyers speaks with the environmental activist and writer on her work fusing creative and scientific practices

Shannon Kelly Donahue is an American environmental activist and writer based in Haines, Alaska. Last month, she shared her vision with Trinity News. “I share the land with bears and moose and eagles and wolves,” Donahue remarked.  “Glaciers drip from the mountains, and huge chunks of ice crash off of them. There’s an honesty to this lifestyle that can be hard to achieve in a lot of places. This land won’t let you off the hook.’ Her work as Executive Director of the Great Bear Foundation and community organiser for Rivers without Borders informs her mission of safeguarding landscape, education and culture. Donahue believes saving the natural world necessitates action.

Environmental action has always been central to Donahue’s life. While an undergraduate student studying in Montana, Donahue protested against logging and assisted the grassroots organisation Buffalo Field Campaign, who strive to safeguard Yellowstone bison. Her college years also led her to Ireland. Majoring in English and Creative Writing, a year at NUIG Galway led to environmental exploration while on the island. Working on organic farms and at a monkey sanctuary in Wicklow, Ireland Donahue reflected that “spending time at the monkey sanctuary probably influenced my eventual career in wildlife conservation, just knowing that it was possible for my small efforts to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable animals.” Receiving a masters degree in Environmental Studies, Donahue fuses scientific and creative practices in promoting climate action.

‘‘The Chilkat Valley will likely be one of the last strongholds of wild Pacific salmon as the ocean and streams warm.’’

From her experience working within Jilkáat Aani, the homelands of the Chilkat Tlingit people native to Alaska, Donahue shares that ‘‘The Chilkat Valley is one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in Alaska and due to the freshwater sources of abundant snowpack and glaciers, it will likely be one of the last strongholds of wild Pacific salmon as the ocean and streams warm.’’  She emphasises that if the Palmer Mine moves ahead with implementing its multi-metals mine just a few miles south of the Indigenous village Klukwan, irreversible pollution will occur. Donahue stands with the Tribal government, Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan (CIV) to defend this landscape and its natural diversity.

Donahue acknowledges environmental work takes a serious toll on those involved. In the past , Donahue remembers devoting maximum enthusiasm and stamina into her work. Recalling her emotional vulnerability, Donahue reminds us to take care of ourselves. “There’s a lot of pressure for women and nonbinary people to disproportionately contribute emotional labour and energy and care, and that can be very taxing. So, my advice is to hold some of yourself back just for you. It’s not selfish—it’s how you maintain the reserves of energy and sense of self and wholeness that you’ll need for the long haul.’”

Locating sufficient financial support for efficient environmental advocacy can be difficult. On an individual level, Donahue observes that many grassroots advocates work more than one job and remain unpaid for some of their working hours. Collectively, grassroot organisations must often innovate and compete for limited grants as opposed to the extensive budgets often afforded to larger establishments. Donahue explained this reality, noting that “a little bit of funding has to go a long way” even as these smaller organisations “are worth donating to” since they “aren’t influenced by corporate money and can stay true to their values of environmental and social justice.” For instance, The Great Bear Foundation acquires a significant amount of their funding from their field courses held in Canada every year. The courses are open to all and immerse participants within the  natural environment while staying at a research centre.

“There are things we as everyday people can do to precipitate change, and a lot of that is down to building community, and finding ways to take collective action on issues that concern us.”

Donahue’s career entails an everlasting educational journey. She clarifies that the initial establishment of American national parks involves the eviction of Indigenous people from their homelands. “Today, that attitude is still perpetuated, although oftentimes unwittingly, through the ideals of ‘pristine, untouched wilderness’ that is really a myth.” With this history in mind, Donahue has committed to extensive learning on her end. “This means taking workshops on decolonization and on dismantling white supremacy, sitting with discomfort, and recognizing my position as a settler on Indigenous land. In my work, I follow the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing. These principles are all about being inclusive and respectful, allowing the affected people speak for themselves, building just relationships, and community-building.” West Kerry, Ireland has also been a place of writing, understanding and joy for Donahue. “I went there this past winter to take a much-needed break from my environmental work. I was on prescribed rest, but I stayed pretty busy anyway, writing, meeting people, exploring the country on foot, visiting holy wells, listening to incredible music, meeting my musical heroes.” The University of Montana, the home of Donahue’s undergraduate studies, has launched an Irish immersion program there, west of Dingle. Although students can acquire college credits while taking part in language classes and field trips, the program is also open to the wider public. Ultimately, Donahue’s work reminds us that community is central to achieving meaningful progress. In closing, she advised “There are things we as everyday people can do to precipitate change, and a lot of that is down to building community, and finding ways to take collective action on issues that concern us.”

Ciana Meyers

Ciana Meyers is a Deputy Arts & Culture Editor and is currently in her second year of English Literature.