Gwich'in Steering Committee, Arctic Refuge, Alaska

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Deep in northeastern Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest protected “wilderness” in the United States, preserving approximately 19.6 million acres and over 250 species of animals, according to the Sierra Club. Considered to be one of the most pristine places in the world, the Arctic Refuge is the site of a 30-year-old dispute over oil extraction versus the protection of an authentic environment and culture. The land is now open for drilling due to decision of the Trump Administration.

Part of the dispute surrounds the definition of “wilderness.” By definition, wilderness means an area that is uncultivated or uninhabited (or inhabited only by wild animals), meaning there are no humans. The Arctic Refuge however, has had indigenous humans living there for thousands of years. They still live there today.

“It gets really hazy when we are talking about who actually has rights to this land and to make those decisions,” Jessica Girard, activist leader and indigenous ally said. “There are native corporations and tribal governments in Alaska, and it’s the tribal governments who have the right to self-determination.”

Specifically, the area of concern is 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain, otherwise known as “1002 area” or the “biological heart of the Arctic Refuge.”

“The Coastal Plain, in my language is called ‘the sacred place where life begins,’ and so we don’t go there,” Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich’in native, leader and mother says. “Even a long time ago when there was starvation, my people did not go there because it’s that sacred to us.”

The Gwich’in culture relies on the porcupine caribou in multifaceted ways. Eighty percent of their nutritional needs are met by hunting caribou. Every year during the birthing season, the caribou travel to their traditional grounds in the Coastal Plain.

Oil drilling would likely lead to habitat displacement of the porcupine caribou—a risk the Gwich’in cannot afford.

“We have a cultural and spiritual connection to the porcupine caribou dating back to the beginning of time,” Demientieff said. “For over 20,000 years, if you look at that migration route, we used to migrate with them. All our songs, all our stories, everything is based on the porcupine caribou herd. So it’s not only our food, it’s our identity.”

The Trump Administration included in its 2018 fiscal budget plan an allowance to drill and extract oil in the Arctic Refuge.

Reports of potential oil drilling revenue were hyperbolized by friends of the fossil fuel industry. They reported up to $1 billion in possible revenue while an independent analysis discovered the estimate was more along the lines of, at the most, $40 million, according to Girard.

“The Arctic Refuge and the protection of it is the definition of sustainability,” Lagasse said. “There are numerous issues that intersect and make it a holistic case. If justice could be brought to the people and sustainability can be brought across ecological issues, there is a real opportunity for the Arctic Refuge to guide sustainability in a multifaceted land-use and decolonization in the future.”

Later this month, several SNC community members will travel to Reno to deliver petitions by Nevada residents to Sen. Dean Heller (D-Nev.), urging him to vote no on the 2018 fiscal budget plan and drilling in the Arctic. Another event to support the Arctic Refuge is being planned for December in Tahoe City.

“I’m asking for help. I’m coming to you for your senator because mine isn’t listening anymore,” Demientieff said. “The corporations don’t speak for me or my people. I’m tribal. I speak for the tribes of Alaska. We are the ones who are going to be affected. We are the ones that live there, and we want this protected for the future and for our children. This is their birthright.”


Written by Kela Killam, 2018. Photography by Brennan Lagasse. For further reading please visit the Gwich'in Steering Committee official website or learn what you can do at the Alaska Wilderness League official website by clicking either buttons below.