How One Indigenous Mom Is Saving the World

Photo: Keri Oberly

A mother, tattoo artist and snowboarder, Jody Potts-Joseph of Alaska’s Gwich’in Nation knows all about connecting with the land—and fighting to save it.

As a mother of three, Potts-Joseph (she/her) speaks with a fierce passion about how environmental issues will affect the upcoming generation. And as an avid outdoor enthusiast, her voice glitters with awe every time she talks about dog sledding, snowboarding, or her other adventures. The longer she talks, the more you realize just how deeply that nature is embedded into her soul.

As for the tattoos? Those signify yet another facet of Potts-Joseph’s identity: She’s a member of Alaska’s Han Gwich’in Nation, an Indigenous tribe whose Arctic way of life is under threat. When her children were young, Potts-Joseph worked hard to instill in them the profound sense of connection that the Gwich’in have always had with the land. Over time, she became a snowboard instructor and guide to share that connection with others. Then she founded Native Youth Outdoors, a program that helps Native Alaskans reconnect with the land via snowboarding. Now, she’s expanded her mission even further. 

A board member of the Alaska Wilderness League and a member of The North Face Explore Fund Council, Potts-Joseph has become an influential leader in the fight to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a swath of sacred wilderness in far northern Alaska that’s recently been leased for oil and gas drilling. In between time spent in the mountains and with family, Potts-Joseph sat down to discuss protecting the Arctic, staying connected to the land, and raising Native kids in a modern world. 

PUBLIC LANDS: A lot of people ask about your tattoos. Can you share their meaning?

JODY POTTS-JOSEPH: Our traditional tattoos are a representation of our rights of passage as women. They were banished through colonialization as something evil. But it’s only this generation that’s started to bring them back.

You’re also a tattoo practitioner yourself. Did you do your daughter’s chin tattoo? Was that nerve-wracking?

I did my daughter Quannah’s tattoo when she was 14, and that was the first tattoo I ever gave. She’s the first girl from our tribe to wear these tattoos in over 100 years. That alone shows so much bravery and courage on her part. 

Quannah could have gotten her tattoo sooner than 14, but I wanted to wait until I felt like she was strong enough and able to represent herself with grace and dignity while wearing tattoos. Already as Native people, we’re looked at differently. When we have tattoos, even more so. There can be a lot of ignorant statements and questions. I wanted to make sure that Quannah was at a level of emotional intelligence where she could handle these complicated conversations. So we did a lot of talking and sweat ceremonies, but at some point, it was finally the right time.

Quannah’s coming-of-age ceremony was a very powerful and empowering moment for both of us. And at that moment, I saw her really gain a lot of confidence and strength. I think wearing these tattoos has really empowered her as she moves through life.

[Editor’s note: Potts-Joseph emphasizes that it’s been powerful for Indigenous people to be able to reclaim their identities through traditional tattooing, but that it’s a closed practice, not a fashion trend. In other words, if you’re not Indigenous but are thinking of getting a similar tattoo—like some have after seeing Quannah reach international fame as a fashion supermodel and environmental advocate—don’t.]

When did you start dog mushing and snowboarding? And how does snowboarding fit in with the traditional ways of travel that you grew up with?  

I grew up in the bush in Eagle Village, Alaska [where she recently returned to live, along the Yukon River closest to ANWR’s southeastern boundary], and was pretty much raised in a dog sled. During the winter months, we used a dog sled for transportation, and in the summer, we traveled by canoe. After I finished college and came home, I was living in the woods with my three kids. That’s when I got a dog team myself and continued to pursue that lifestyle.

I love being out on the trail by dog team, and I love being out in other non-motorized ways that are really low-impact on the environment. I’ve been on mountains on my snowboard, watching the sunset, and I’ve felt the same joy and sense of awe for this land as I do when I’m on top of a mountain hunting. 

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing out on the land—whether I’m mountain biking or trail running or snowboarding, or whether I’m practicing my Indigenous way of life by hunting or traveling our traditional lands or picking medicine, they’re all really central to the makeup of who I am.

Do you ever feel like you have to choose between traveling and seeing the world, and having a close connection to the place you call home? 

I was raised so close to the land that wherever I am in the world, I never feel that connection weaken. Because I built such a strong relationship with my traditional lands, I feel I have the freedom to go somewhere new and have an awesome adventure, and yet always remember that my home is there. I don’t forget my roots.

Really, that’s my greatest strength: my connection to our traditional lands and our culture. I carry the values of my people wherever I go, and that’s something no one can ever take away from me. I know I can always go back, step back into our culture, and be home. 

When you had kids, what did you tell yourself about how they would be raised? And how do you raise kids to have a close connection to the land?

I had my three kids when I was in my mid-20s. When I was growing up, my family always took me with them, even though they only had homemade traditional gear. So I never even considered that I couldn’t keep going on adventures once I had kids.

For most of their childhood, I was a single parent, but I prioritized getting out every weekend, whether it was hunting together, running the dogs, or snowboarding. I wanted to expose them to as many things as I could that would contribute to their health and wellness.

For a long time, we didn’t have a TV because I was a single parent; I could either buy my kids good gear or a TV. So we bought gear, and I think it paid off. Now we have all of those awesome memories and experiences to look back on. And I’m proud to say all my kids now have a high-level skill set outdoors, but even more importantly, they’re really connected to the land. 

Why is protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so important? 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the sacred place where life begins. It’s part of the traditional homeland of the Gwich’in Nation, and it’s where the caribou go to calve. [Even today, the Gwich’in Nation relies on healthy caribou herds for food, supplies, and other resources.] And yet, oil and gas leases were sold for that area during the last week of the Trump administration. That’s a threat to the land and to the caribou. For us as Gwich’in people, we won’t stop until we see permanent protection for the place. 

Besides, continuing fossil-fuel development in sacred lands is just going to make our climate crisis worse. It’s best we keep it in the ground and invest that money in renewable energy instead of continuing this destructive cycle. 

What’s the Alaska Wilderness League, and how can readers help them in their mission?

The Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) leads a lot of federal-land protection campaigns for Alaska. They’re a small but mighty team. They’re also very dedicated to bringing more justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into the work they do. I’ve been on their board for two or three years now, and it’s been an awesome experience. 

One of the best ways to help is to write your representatives in Congress. Ask them to protect the Arctic Refuge. Donating to organizations like the AWL is also really important. Our money goes directly to protecting Alaska public lands. 

Does the younger generation make you hopeful for the future?

Yes, I think so. I always try to remain hopeful, but everyone has to get out and do the work and elect the right people. We need to elect leaders who are going to do something about protecting sacred lands, and who are going to do something about climate change.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.