As Gwich’in, we will never stop fighting for our land
Despite losing the election, the Trump administration is barreling ahead with oil and gas development in the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, known as the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In a last ditch effort, they issued a call for nominations to lease this sacred land to oil and gas companies.
If the lease sale moves forward, it would likely happen mere days before the January inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Once this happens, it will make development much more difficult to stop because companies will have the legal right to extract oil and gas in the refuge.
In the midst of this global pandemic, instead of focusing on how they can be supportive of Indigenous communities, the Trump administration continues to disrespect and disregard sacred land to our people.
This rush to develop is dismissing and ignoring our voices and is in violation of our right to free, prior and informed consent. It will have a devastating impact on the land and animals of the refuge. As Indigenous Peoples, we are spiritually and culturally connected to the land, the water and the animals. Any harm to them is harm to the Gwich’in.
We call the coastal plain, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” Since time immemorial, we have had a spiritual, physical and cultural connection to the Porcupine caribou. The caribou have the longest land migration of any animal on the planet. Every year, the caribou travel thousands of miles through Canada and Alaska to the coastal plain where they give birth to up to 40,000 calves in a two-week period. This area is so sacred to us that we never step foot there, even in times of extreme famine.
I pray we never have to answer the question: What does “the sacred place where life begins” look like during and after oil and gas exploration and development? To us, this encroachment is sacrilegious — like someone driving a bulldozer through a church. The intense physical invasion of industry to this pristine and life-sustaining environment would be catastrophic to every aspect of our health, safety and wellbeing.
Seismic testing, proposed to begin in December by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), would bring 90,000 pound trucks applying thousands more pounds of force and vibrations into the ground, having serious impact on not only the caribou but for denning polar bears and the surrounding fragile tundra. This type of oil exploration is so harmful that the land still bears scars from seismic testing that happened here 40 years ago.
The high-risk development process will inject pollutants into all of our natural resources. Land and water will absorb waste waters and production fluids, saltwater and other hazardous substances. Drilling will also rob us of valuable freshwater, which will be used to build ice roads and ice pads, for well stimulation and production and to supply workers’ base camps. Exhaust from construction equipment and power generation will travel great distances through the air. Not to mention the risks of oil spills or pipeline leaks that are routine to the industry. Women and children are especially at risk given the high rates of sexual violence and human trafficking that often follows extractive projects.
These risks are compounded by the fact that neither oil and gas producers, nor governments, offer protection or rapid remedy to impacts from these environmental and human rights disasters.
We don’t only feel attacked by the Trump administration, but we are also under threat from climate change. The Gwich’in and other Indigenous communities already bear the brunt of the negative impacts of the global climate crisis. The Arctic is warming at three times the rate than the rest of the world. Birth numbers of the caribou are diminishing, every year large numbers of fish are dying in the warming seas and our people have witnessed flocks of birds falling dead from the sky. Warming temperatures have introduced ticks to the area for the first time in known history, and with ticks, we fear disease. Hunters, with years of experience, are dying after falling through ice in areas that are usually frozen at this time of year. (These issues and more are detailed in our Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit Report.)
We are doing everything we can to protect the coastal plain and the land and wildlife in the Arctic Refuge. The Gwich’in and allied groups have taken this fight to elected leaders, financial institutions, insurers, the United Nations and the courts. We have facilitated legislation, litigation and advocacy with banks, energy suppliers and insurance companies.
And these efforts are working. Recent polling of voters shows the majority of people in America oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge. To date, more than two dozen international financial institutions have created policies that prohibit funding drilling projects in the Arctic Refuge, including five of the six major U.S. banks. Insurance company Axa recently made public a commitment to not insure Arctic oil and gas exploration. And in August, the United Nations answered our petition and are currently investigating U.S. human rights violations.
Despite all this, and despite the fact that Biden has reopened the door to protecting the Arctic Refuge, the Trump administration’s push to develop the area is a reminder that our lands and lifeways will always be in danger if we allow profits over people.
We are real people. We are mothers and grandmothers. And we are not asking for anything but the ability to live and thrive off the land that the Creator blessed us with.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, is Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in. She was raised in Fort Yukon and spent her summers in Venetie. She sits on the Advisory Board for NDN Collective, Native Movement AK and the Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Creation Care and Environmental Racism.