“As a Gwich’in person, I know my family’s food security, culture, spirituality and ways of life are at stake.”
—Jody Potts, Native Movement regional director
“It is our belief that the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the caribou are the same. Harm to the Porcupine Caribou herd is harm to the Gwich’in culture and the millennia-old way of life.”
—Jonathan Solomon, Gwich’in Elder
The plan is to send giant trucks and lay out vast gravel fields, despoiling a paradise at the far north of Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is an invasion, an industrial war zone mentality envisioned for the far north of Alaska. Not for the local peoples’ benefit and certainly not for one of the largest ungulate populations on earth, the caribou. One has to wonder in this time of climate upheaval if this is really the best this administration can offer future generations. Is this a parting gift that says in essence, we will deface the last great pristine ecosystem America has to offer, because this is what America has been about for a long time now. Some 1.5 million acres could be leased for the profits of the oil and gas industry out of a total of 20 million.
But while this action may be a last minute effort to usurp one of the last great wilderness areas left on the planet, the battle may not end well for the administration if a law just passed in France has anything to do with it. It seems that French President Macron has just taken a radical decision for ensuring the future of the planet by making ecocide an offense with implications for countries worldwide. It started with the Paris Climate Accord in 2015. Now the destruction of nature will heretofore be considered an offense in the French Constitution with 10 years jail time and many millions of euros in fines if found guilty. You can’t have “joie de vivre” if there is no life. America at some point soon, will have to follow suit. Nowhere in America is this more urgent than with ANWR.
While many debate the legal claptrap surrounding this administration’s public land giveaways to the oil and gas industry, it should be seen for what it is, the potential ruination of a large part of a remarkable ecosystem — it is not just a political decision, but the embodiment of evil. But the expenses incurred in having to drill in so remote an area is having many energy companies think twice. This corrupt vision that has its sight set to sell leases for as little as 5 dollars an acre, and uproot the last wilderness of its kind in all of North America, is morally reprehensible and the incarnation of the very party that has sold-out the possibility of a livable future to the fossil fuel syndicates. The question is would the push to find oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be a boon to the oil and gas companies or a complete boondoggle. The search for oil would uproot a place of utter sanctity for the Gwich’in, Inupiat and many other tribes of Alaska. Almost 12 billion barrels of extracted crude oil will add to the global warming of our time which is taking on insidious proportions. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is emblematic of the final struggle to save what is left not only of the American wilderness but also the planet.
The landscape is the wild that welcomed Old World nomadic tribes migrating to the New millennia ago. This is the last sanctuary of its kind this country, this continent and indeed the Western Hemisphere, will ever know. While it is true some groups among Exxon, Houston’s Hilcorp Energy Co., Colorado-based Armstrong Oil and Gas, Elixir Energy of Australia, Borealis Alaska Oil and Conoco Philips already have productions facilities on the North Slope of Alaska, and all of whom could all vie for leases, many realize that the financial returns won’t be worth it. With the pandemic in full swing, the expenses up north could be astronomical and spending has already had to be cut back.
The fact that the present administration wants to rush leases is proof of the subterfuge oil companies will need to do their work. They have already had a bad year as renewables are catching up to fossil fuels. It might take years to actually drill so that whoever will have bought leases before the new administration takes over, will have to wait for environmental review. Ann Navaro, a former litigator with the law firm Bracewell LLP, remarks that courts in lease cases may “well decide the relevant agencies did not comply with environmental laws.” In that case the court might send the case back to the agency to reconsider the issue, with or without vacating the lease. If that were to happen the agency would have to start from square one. Navaro adds, “I would say it’s not a common outcome of litigation, but it certainly can happen,” and Biden’s administration could take it upon themselves to rethink the entire process and block the operations.
Brook Frisson, a senior attorney with Trustees for Alaska, trusts that Biden’s administration “will use its executive authority” to reverse the present administration’s leases. Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Trustees for Alaska, affirms that “Whoever wins these leases will walk into a minefield of litigation.” For decades this remarkable gem at the top of the continent was protected and of course opened to potential “development” in 2017. More like desecration. The Bureau of Land Management said the Republican-led administration had “taken a significant step in meeting our obligations by determining where and under what conditions the oil and gas development will occur.” Their obligations run counter to the first peoples who have been the victims of racist polices by the BLM for decades. How the BLM and political factions describe the first peoples of Alaska has always been directed at subjugation and mineral extraction. As Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a Lakota elder, underscores from the XL pipeline in the Dakotas, “Civilization’s job is to implant fear.” Whatever the fossil fuel industry has done, it has not taken the first peoples of the lower 48 states or Alaska into consideration. They have wreaked havoc on the land, the soul of its first peoples and the spirit of every single species there.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest caribou herd in North America at 200,000. The Gwich’in and Inupiat are the native peoples who are being adversely affected and poisoned by the oil companies. Already this summer several hundred environmental groups have voiced their opposition, and banks such as Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, Chase and Citibank are among two dozen firms, at least, that refuse to take part in what would amount to the wholesale dismantling of an entire region, from innumerable bird, fox, dall sheep, musk ox, polar bear populations and vast caribou herds.
The Gwich’in people call this area iizhik gwats’an gwandaii or the “sacred place where life begins.” Or ends if the Biden administration is kept from rolling back the plan. The Athabaskan people of which the Gwich’in are one tribe, have been here for thousands of years. Giant 90,000 lbs seismic testing thumper trucks looking for oil would wreak havoc on the land and denning polar bears. Any drilling imposed on that land would in essence be an environmental crime of enormous proportions. The human rights violations are numerous because the tribes would see the land of their ancestors polluted beyond description forever. As with Republican led oil and gas operations all across America, the sanctity of the land has been ignored, especially in the last four years. It is a decision that is run along purely political lines.
The fight for the Arctic Refuge is one of the key determinants of our time. An ecological, spiritual and existential determinant for all future generations. I have never been to the far north but I wish it to remain as close to the way the earth has created it as possible because future generations will need to know that something still lingers at the highest latitude of the imagination, that a place still breathes without the aberrations, assaults and abuse of the human species. When we brought our son when he was 7 to the Serengeti, the world was in the midst of the slaughter of the greatest land being on Earth, the African elephant and while Tanzania and Africa has been able to come back from the brink of utter catastrophe in halting much of the illegal poaching, wildlife is still menaced by construction projects, dams, pipelines, roads and even trophy hunters who have to impose their will on the wild at every chance they get. Already 70 percent of the animal population of the world has vanished in the last two generations.
Two of the great central figures in saving the Serengeti in Tanzania were Bernhard and Michael Grzimek, whose book “Serengeti Shall Not Die” I read as a 14-year old a year before I first went to Kenya. Bernhard even lost his son in his twenties as he was doing surveys of the immense wildebeest herds in his airplane as it crashed with a vulture, whose very population are now also disappearing all over Africa. They wrote in their great dedication to the Serengeti and the wild, “Only Nature is eternal, unless we senselessly destroy it. In fifty years’ time nobody will be interested in the results of the conferences which fill today’s headlines. But when, fifty years from now, a lion walks in the red dawn and roars resoundingly, it will mean something to people and quicken their hearts whether they are bolshevists or democrats... They will stand in quiet awe as, for the first time in their lives, they watch twenty thousand zebras wander across the endless plains.”
Or the hundreds of thousands of caribou that are the core of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is the American Serengeti. We need a corridor for the mind to know that something still thrives beyond the human frame. Citizens the world over, children, the native peoples especially, they who have depended on the land for millennia must have a place of refuge where their spirit can marvel at untrammeled space, and still honor the ground where ancestors lived, where the human industrial state does not seep into every stream and where time is free from the human onslaught.
An elder in Alaska wondered about all the trucks and roads and technology that would encroach on the land. She was gravely concerned about the caribou. She asked, “What is it going to do to them? What is going to happen to the path they go through every year? Is it going to make them sick?” She talked with serious concerns about the wildlife because everywhere the oil rigs had impacted native villages near the coast on Prudhoe Bay, where already so much oil has been drilled. “A lot of people have cancer because of oil development. Before the oil people were healthy getting food from the land and the fish.” Now look at the people. Especially the native people who have to pay the price of living on the land that was once theirs. While Alaskan residents get anywhere from 800 to 2,000 dollars a year as an annual dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund, funded by the oil industry, few question what is sacrificed in the process. The answer is the land and the first peoples of Alaska. And while even some of the tribes have received financial benefits from oil, it is not to everyone’s liking.
Kunaan Smyth, who is Inupiat, underscores how even among her tribe, many are divided about the benefits of the oil industry. Last year, in 2019, the elders declared a climate change state of emergency, which should impact any and all decisions made about the future of ANWR. It seems the younger people whose future is at stake and the older ones who knew the land before the oil industry overwhelmed this part of Alaska, and who are the keepers of an ageless wisdom, do not want the Arctic Refuge disturbed, while those in their 30’s and 40’s simply want the money.
And then there is the systematic racism of the BLM when working with or referring to Inupiat or Gwich’in culture. It has been a long time since Kunaan’s grandmother was forcibly sent to boarding school and even beaten, but today the elders are speaking out about global warming and the deleterious effects of entire villages eroding and that will have to be moved, and the climate affecting the harvest of seals or other animals. “Plants are not growing properly and children are becoming sick,” she says. What exactly are the rewards then? Sila, the consciousness that informs all life is definitely being affected. And Kunaan knows from the stories and knowledge of the old ways, that if you do something bad, the force and mind that is Sila, the Earth will react. The Earth has indeed reacted.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Another indigenous voice who won’t sit back is Bernadette of the Gwich’in peoples whose voice rings out with a clarity and vehemence that is rare in our time. She speaks of the old days with a depth forged from centuries, even millennia inherited from the wisdom of the ancestors. Her people crossed over from Asia generations ago and have known hard times. During the Russian occupation of Alaska, during bitter cold winters, during times of hunger. The elders say the hard times would come again. “I see it happening. We were raised to protect the Arctic and the sacred place where life began. Always knew it,” Bernadette says with a sagacity that belies her 44 years. “Many people have gone down the wrong path.”
She went to the mountain near Arctic Village where her ancestors used to go and started to cry with the beauty of the lakes and the trees and understood why the ancestors had gone there. She asked for forgiveness for being disconnected. She remembered and started to listen to the Creation story when “people could speak with the animals.” Bernadette started to question how people could live with “so much concrete, the concrete jungle. You have to have land.” She emphasized that her people ask for nothing but that the mainstay of her people, the caribou be left alone. “Did you know that a two-day old caribou can outrun a wolf?” she asks. “Even when we were hungry, we would never go to the calving grounds. It was sacred.” When they did hunt, the Gwich’in did not kill the first caribou they saw, they took the bachelors and left those who took care of the young alone. Respect. Something the modern world could do well to learn.
The tapestry of the world, from the droppings of the birds from several continents that fertilizes the land that feeds the plants, that nourishes the herds, is something nothing can buy. “We are the land. We are the animals,” said Bernadette. “Our people’s migration routes and the caribou were identical. With climate change people no longer get the caribou; they have to travel further to the Canadian border to hunt. It’s dangerous to travel that far. Many other tribes are being ignored as well.” For Bernadette, the climate changes were predicted years ago by the elders, the elders who are her “people’s scientists.” What the dominant society is doing or planning to do in the Arctic refuge is a sacrilege but she insists, “We’re not going to sit idly by and be pushed around. Gwich’in don’t go down that easily. This fight came to our door.”
She is ashamed to say that the Alaska Delegation never met with the tribes. “Thousands of bird and fish have died. Ticks have spread over the herds. 33 native communities are having their way of life erode.” Bernadette is trying to speak out and is concerned the outside world is not hearing her. Her “strength comes from the Creator and the ancestors.” “Leave the Arctic refuge alone,” she says. The collision of two entirely different world views is being played out at the top of the continent, where people can still find refuge, a place of remarkable silence, the world will need to survive. Bernadette knows that climate change is very real. Even the shamans knew that things would change — that there would be food shortages and that the animals would change. That black bear and even moose would become more aggressive. “Climate change doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor,” she says. “All differences must be put aside. Our children will not be able to survive. I have hope, faith and prayer. I will never go down without a fight. The whole process is sloppy and disrespectful, embarrassing. They continue to disrespect the first peoples. To take care of the land, which some tribes have forgotten, was the first instruction.”
Asked how she thinks things will go, she answers, “I’m not worried because we can survive off the land, but we have to save the land.” Bernadette will soon meet with the new administration. It is gratifying for her to know that there are those who understand that their “identity is not up for sale” or their “way of life negotiable.” “The land is our store,” she exclaims and it is a miraculous one. In hearing her words, many people in the wider world have already changed their minds and are starting to come around to the Gwich’in way, whose roots go deep. Much deeper than the very shallow, and often racist disregard for a people who are the spiritual incarnation of the land.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Bernadette tells something from way back from the elders who had vision, that a time would come when people who have destroyed their world would ask for the native people’s help and vision how to take care of the world and maybe even survive. We have reached that time. In asking, we should listen and learn, for there is little time left. Bernadette has never seen a polar bear. She says they are staying on land much more because the ice is melting. One came near a school in Kaktovik where several young girls were playing outside. One man upon seeing how close it was to the girls, ran as fast as he could up to the polar bear and smacked it hard on the behind. The bear, surprised at what had just happened, turned away from the girls and ran off at top speed and didn’t come back.
If Biden’s campaign was based on the battle to hold onto the soul of America, one could say that the most wondrous, irreplaceable and ultimately priceless jewel of what is left of America’s soul resides in the soil, way up in the north of that great unfathomable domain called Alaska. It is the greatest part of the cosmos of what is left of the American wild. If we were to lose it, America would lose the very best of what remains of its identity when it started the National Park System established in 1872 and a place of eternal abiding will simply die. What America does to the Arctic Refuge will be a critical compass and litmus test to what we do with what remains of the Earth. Since WW2 America and the industrialized world have spent endless billions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction. America may have won the war, but she lost the peace. The recent fires in California and Colorado are just one manifestation of slow inexorable loss. Those fighting for its future cannot and will not capitulate. That is why Bernadette is adamant and so impassioned for her peoples, the ancestors and the four legged ones without whom humans have no chance of making it to the clear light of the future. We will either learn to salvage and maybe restore the world or go off the cliff like the proverbial lemmings. This is why Bernadette exclaims quite simply, with tenacity and gentle fury, “Leave it alone.”
“We have a general duty to be humane, not only to such animals as possess life, but even to trees and plant.”
—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), “Essay on Cruelty”
“Man is an actor. He acts all manner of men and each one is a lie. Only the animal in him is real.”
“God bless America. Let’s save some of it.”
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.