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Fighting for the Sacred Place Where Life Began - The YEARS Project

Fighting for the Sacred Place Where Life Began

In a humble village nestled into the eastern tip of Alaska, filled with pristine coniferous forests, vast arctic tundras, and untouched barren grounds, lives an independent seven-thousand-membered tribe whose fundamental spirit and life honor Mother Earth. An old story is passed from generation to generation about how the Gwich’in and Caribou were once one tribe. But over time, they agreed to separate and a pact was made. The Gwich’in promised to share the land, providing for and protecting the Caribou and in return the Caribou would support the people. This way, the Gwich’in and Caribou would always share a heart, their lives forever intertwined. 

The meaning of their land expands beyond surface-level origins. In the late 1900s, other Alaskan Aboriginial groups agreed to give away their land claims for $1 billion, but not the Gwich’in. Their tribes turned this offer down, knowing the importance of their people and culture that embodied the land they needed to protect. But, as native people lost their homesteads, the Gwich’in tribe became more and more vulnerable and have been fighting for their lands since the 19th century. 

After purchasing Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867, the United States invited settlers to homestead on Gwich’in land. American settlement was slow, as people were deterred by the new land and harsh weather. But in the late 19th century, gold was discovered in the Canadian Yukon Territory driving thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska to experience the explosion of the Klondike Gold Strike. It was not soon after the gold strike, when people found the 19.3 million-acre Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, lush with rich, natural resources. Settlers found the affluent oil-filled plains to be a plentiful economic boost, immediately delving into oil drilling possibilities. As the ecosystems turned in ache and pain, and life pumped out of its heart and soul, President Eisenhower found momentary relief for the land, but twenty years later the wilderness sanctuary was opened to the public for exploitation and has been under attack ever since.

Present day Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has captured the attention of many humans, but not because of its beautiful rivers and pristine valleys. It is estimated that beneath the beautiful landscape holds nearly 12 billion barrels of oil that have private investors and drillers hungry.  President Trump’s 2017 declaration exposed ANWR to the public, granting oil leasing and development on America’s last great wilderness.

The 19 million acres for sale not only house the last of the Gwich’in tribes in the world, but they are also home to the Porcupine Caribou. Sarah Agnes James, a leading board member on the International Indian Treaty Council speaks about stories passed down through generations, saying that the shared area, “‘...was the land of plenty, my mom calls it…’ It was so noisy that people had to yell at each other to understand each other.” The mutually beneficial coexistence is the reason why the Gwich’in tribe found its name as ‘Gwich’in’ directly translates to ‘The Caribou People.’ The indigenous group has habited ANWR for millenia and has an unbreakable bond with the landscape.  Also known as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Began,’ the Arctic Village is where the Gwich’in create life, right next to where the Porcupine Caribou Herd dwells too.

To the Indigenous people, hunting is a crucial way of life. More than 95% of Alaska depends on imported food while the Gwich’in tribe instead rely on these caribou populations that migrate these lands. Because the Arctic Village is located hundreds of miles away from civilization they rely on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where almost 90% of their diet is fresh caribou meat. If ANWR was opened to drilling, there would be an increase in noise from development and drilling and it would scare away the herd. If the caribou travel to the foothills, they face dangerous predators. If they travel higher in the mountains, it’s too cold. Caribou also play an important role in recycling nutrients back to the plant communities while also being a food source for wolves and sometimes bears. The small, narrow coastal strip lining Section 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the only place with the perfect conditions for the caribou to thrive, and for the Gwich’in to protect them

Caribou are also integrated in the Gwich’in lifestyle in more ways than just their diets. When harvesting caribou the tribe utilizes every part of the animal: their tents, kayaks, weapons, instruments, even their utensils, are all created from different parts of the caribou. In the cold winters members of the Gwich’in tribe wear their traditional caribou skin outfit that shows the utmost respect for the animal and highlight their appreciation and blessings for their ancestors. The caribou allow the Tribal residents to preserve their traditional path of life and to return protection to the caribou life. Here the Gwich’in and caribou populations mutually depend on each other. Sarah James describes their bond to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, “We care so much for the caribou - we take care of them and in return they take care of us. We’re in their heart and they’re in our hearts.” 

Immediately following the 2017 announcement the Gwich’in knew they had a duty to serve and protect wildlife to fight for not only their people but also their land. Members of the Gwich’in tribe packed their bags and left their homes to travel over four thousand miles to rally and protest at the National Mall by the U.S. Capitol. They united and chanted for the rejection of President Trump’s bill. This call for action struggled with gaining traction at first. Alaska is often overlooked, as people just see the state as a block of ice, but having fewer voices did not stop the Gwich’in. Tribal members spoke about wanting a secure food source, healthy land, and healthy animals because without it, the Gwich’in will be forced off their lands. Interviews, media posts, and word of mouth, travels miles and miles across the country, gaining more support.

They continued to push against the Bill for the rest of the year, uniting together to gain recognition and by the following year, their movement submitted almost half a million public comments and petition signatures to the Department of Interior. But their determined activism did not stop there. The movement spread across the US as activists discovered more to the story: the large-scale banks were funding the drilling in ANWR. There was a boost in rallies that publicly called out Chase and others for funding oil drilling and fossil fuels as the Gwich'in Steering Committee met with banks. As a result of these strides, Chase Bank, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, and other banks, stopped funding oil drilling in ANWR.

These protests leapt into the following couple of years, calling for action from the government but hit a roadblock in 2020. Amongst the pandemic, much of the Gwich’in tribe’s effort was put on hold. People in the Arctic Village were affected by the virus and along with travel restrictions, the Tribe is unable to continue their efforts and coordinate legal battles. Despite the change in leaders, President Biden has still made minimal efforts to protect Gwich’in lands. The Biden administration agreed to temporarily suspend oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but only to review the leasing program. Therefore, ANWR’s undeveloped wilderness is still not protected, it’s just put on hold.

To the Gwich’in tribe, ANWR is more than just a piece of dirt to auction off. ANWR is a place of sanctuary. ANWR is where a humble village gathers to honor the earth and appreciate true nature. We need to keep these untouched lands, untouched. We need to protect the pristine valleys and vast tundras of the Last Great American Wilderness. Join the fight for ANWR by protesting, rallying, and creating as much voice as possible. Together, we can protect the land of the Gwich’in tribe. Our purpose is not advocacy or activism, our purpose is life. Fight for the sacred place where life began.