One woman, one month, one film, one bicycle: creating change one mile and one person at a time. That is how I would describe the journey I undertook this summer as I bicycled along the East Coast from Washington, DC, to Bar Harbor, Maine. During this adventure of more than 1,000 miles, which I called “1,000 miles for 1,000 allies,” I stopped to show my film – “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak”– about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the connection the indigenous Gwich’in people have to the land. In doing so, I set out to build a community of allies who would ask their congressional representatives to support legislation to permanently protect the Arctic Refuge and its Coastal Plain from the threat of oil and gas development.

I shared my short documentary at more than 20 venues in 11 eastern states, ranging from the Longworth House Office Building to private home screenings. And in every state I visited I found that regardless of background, people were able to connect to the compelling story of the Gwich’in people and their fight to protect and preserve their culture and traditions.

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In Ossining, New York, I was invited to share my film with 45 Catholic sisters. After viewing the documentary, the response was as simple and direct as it was heartwarming: now is the time for all people to act from a compassion beyond our political perspectives and respect the relationship between the Gwich’in and the Coastal Plain.

In Damariscotta, Maine, a 10-year-old girl in the audience was moved to write to her member of Congress, asking for protection of the Refuge’s Coastal Plain:

The drilling will scare away the caribou mothers. So that means the caribou will die out. Because they only give birth there, once the caribou die out the Gwich’in people will have to leave and their culture will die out till there are no more Gwich’in people.

A woman from Union Township, Pennsylvania, was moved to reach out to her local paper and share her plea to Congress:

There should be no drilling in this area…We are to be good stewards of our resources and not think just in the present, but think long term in preserving this country for not only the Gwich’in tribe, but also for our own children and grandchildren.

And at the final presentation in Bar Harbor, Maine, a man approached me after the viewing and said: “Miho that was so powerful. I cried.”

This amazing journey started back in 2010 with a single phone call to Sarah James, a Gwich’in elder and spokesperson for the Gwich’in Steering Committee. I asked if I could come visit her in Arctic Village, on the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and interview her to create a short video about her work protecting her people’s sacred land. Though we had never met before, her response was quick: “We need more people like you,” she said. “You can come up and we can talk.”

When Sarah and I finally connected in person, I found my trip taking on a life of its own, extending for multiple weeks. I was asked if I would join the biennial Gwich’in gathering and interview other women to make a film. Despite having no budget and no formal training in filmmaking, I said yes to Sarah’s invitation and interviewed many of the women in attendance at the gathering, asking them about what protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge means to them. I listened to their stories, their fears should the Refuge be opened to drilling, and their hopes for future generations.  This is how my short film “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in WomenSpeak” came to be.

As a full-time teacher with very little time for myself during the school year, it took three summers to finish the project. The film advocates protecting the Refuge as an issue of basic human rights for the Gwich’in people who have lived in the region for thousands of years. The Gwich’in call themselves “caribou people,” as countless generations have physically, culturally and spiritually relied upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd. In their language, they call the Coastal Plain “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” because the herd has calved and nursed its young there for millennia. In accordance with Gwich’in beliefs, the birthing grounds of the Coastal Plain are sacred and as such the Gwich’in people are not supposed to enter those lands.

Earlier this year, President Obama transmitted to Congress his recommendation for additional Wilderness in the Refuge, including the Coastal Plain. By recommending protection, President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell have done the right thing, and I thank them. Now we need Congress to act and pass legislation to protect it for once and for all – for all generations to come. My bicycle film tour has ended for this year, but the work must continue. I ask Congress and all of you to join me and become a part of 1,000 allies to stand with the Gwich’in people.

Aida is an environmental educator based in California. Learn more about her award-winning film, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak,” online at www.mihoaida.com/gwichin. The film is also currently showing at the Green Unplugged Online Film Festival: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/storyteller/Miho_Aida#/myFilms