For thirty years, the Gwich’in people of northern Alaska and Canada have fought against proposed oil development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The coastal plain is the birthplace and nursery for the Porcupine caribou herd, a land that the Gwich’in call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit: “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
The Gwich’in people have lived in concert with the caribou for thousands of years, but their way of life is now imperiled by an oil-leasing rider slipped into the tax bill passed by Congress late last year.
This backdoor measure means that the coastal plain of our greatest wildlife refuge may be transformed into a sprawling web of roads, pipelines, drilling pads, air strips, and facilities, accompanied by noise, oil spills, traffic and air pollution. There is no way to hide the reality of an oil field.
According to a study by the United States Geological Survey, if drilling in the Arctic Refuge reaches levels similar to other areas on Alaska’s North Slope, the caribou population would drop significantly, leading to more volatility in the herd.
The Gwich’in have made repeated visits to Washington, D.C., to meet with government officials and testify at hearings, pleading that under no circumstances should Congress authorize oil drilling on the “Sacred Place.”
Gwich’in elders teach that no one should even set foot on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain during the months when caribou give birth. They find it incomprehensible that anyone would ever open this vital and sanctified land to industrial oil development.
And yet, ignoring the Gwich’in and the majority of Americans who oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the Republican-led Congress approved the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with a provision authorizing oil and gas leasing on the coastal plain. It offers as much as 800,000 acres of coastal plain to the highest bidders, and creates a new purpose for the Arctic Refuge: oil and gas development.
It was a stunning loss for the Gwich’in after the long fight to protect their homeland, their cultural and spiritual way of life, and the caribou. Heartbroken, with tears streaming down their faces, tribal delegates consoled each other in a congressional hallway.
After four centuries of appropriating tribal lands and suppressing Native American cultures, Congress continues to disenfranchise one of America’s most traditional tribes for the sake of oil extraction. This proposed development also violates the original purposes of the Arctic Refuge: to protect its “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreation values,” and “to provide an opportunity for local residents to continue their subsistence way of life.”
In 1975, I was a young school teacher starting a new job in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in community on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shortly after I arrived, my neighbors Allen and Margaret Tritt greeted me in their log home. I was also met with a rich, meaty aroma coming out of the kitchen, where a steaming pot contained the entire head of a caribou.
Curious children surrounded me, speaking their Gwich’in language and wearing beautiful beaded moccasins sewn from caribou skin. In one corner of the room, a caribou hide was draped over a spruce pole. Margaret was preparing to tan the hide using a scraping tool crafted from a moose leg bone. Near the ceiling, strips of drying caribou meat hung from a clothesline. Caribou jerky was a staple.
I later camped with families on Dachanlee, a tundra ridge overlooking the vast boreal forest and Brooks Range. This was an ideal place to intercept caribou during their fall migration.
When successful hunters returned to the village, they shared the bounty with elders and others, making sure that every member of the community had fresh meat. Generosity is a central part of Gwich’in culture.
Today, through the long winter and relentless cold of northern Alaska, villagers still hunt caribou, gather wood to heat their homes, and pass traditions along to their young ones. On special holidays, they dance into the early hours and hold community feasts called potlatches.
Caribou songs. Caribou dances. Caribou stories. Caribou drums. Caribou vests and dresses. Caribou leg skin boots. It’s no wonder that the Gwich’in call themselves the Caribou People. The caribou and the Gwich’in are inseparable.
Long ago, mainland American Indians were forced off their tribal lands and tens of millions of the buffalo they relied on were slaughtered for commercial purposes. The 200,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd, protected by an international agreement between the U.S. and Canada, is our only modern equivalent to the bygone buffalo.
The Gwich’in and their profound relationship with the caribou represent a vibrant, living part of our national heritage. Honoring this ancient and uniquely adapted way of life in the Arctic is far more valuable than any oil that might be found beneath this tiny part of the coastal plain.
The Arctic Refuge coastal plain comprises only 5 percent of Alaska’s North Slope, with the remaining 95 percent already reserved for the oil industry—an area roughly the size of North Dakota with a growing web of pipelines and roads that connect many producing oil fields. Given this industrial sprawl, doesn’t it make sense to keep one pristine stretch of coast, the birthplace of the Porcupine Herd, off limits to development?
There are other ways to fuel our civilization, particularly in light of climate change. But there is only one Gwich’in culture.
Defenders of the Gwich’in and the Arctic Refuge are taking action. Legislation was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would repeal the Arctic Refuge oil leasing provision in the tax bill. The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, or H.R.5911, would restore protections for the Arctic Refuge and honor the Gwich’in way of life.
We all need to stand with the Gwich’in, so that in one hundred years they will still be singing their caribou songs, performing caribou dances, and thriving on a free roaming herd whose birthplace in the Arctic Refuge is permanently protected.