PHOTOS COURTESY OF RACHAEL BLUM & BARRY AVNER
“We are the caribou people. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are. They are in our stories and our songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our way of life and without them we would not exist.”
These are the words of Sarah James, an elder of the Gwich’in tribe of Arctic Village, Alaska. A threat to the caribou is a threat to the Gwich’in way of life, and according to a Sep. 20, 2005, Washington Post article, James has been fighting to preserve the Gwich’in way of life since it was first threatened by drilling prospects in 1988. In an effort to spread awareness of her tribe’s predicament, James reached out to Brennan Lagasse, Sierra Nevada College adjunct professor. Their collaboration led to the creation of a SNC special topics class that travelled to Arctic Village in August, 2014.
On Oct. 10, six SNC students held a presentation to share their recent experiences with the Gwich’in people during the special topics class entitled, “Holistic Sustainability in the Arctic.” During this class, students lived with the Gwich’in tribe and spent one week exploring their culture. In that time they hiked through the land surrounding Arctic Village, hunted caribou, ate ground squirrel, collected berries, fished and participated in a mountaintop memorial gathering for a well respected tribe elder.
“The real goal was to go up there and make friends with the natives, and they wanted to make friends with us so we can do what we’re doing now and spread the word, write letters, and get people asking questions and fired up with what’s happening,” said Senior Rachael Blum, who turned the experience into her capstone course. “The 1002 area (debate) has been going on for a long time and it’s probably going to continue so the more attention we bring to it, maybe that can end soon.”
According to a USGS geographical assessment “the ‘1002 area’ is a 1.5-million-acre part of the coastal plain that holds potentially large oil and gas resources, and is an important wildlife habitat.”
The class was able to witness some rare sights while staying with the Gwich’in people. During a hunt, their guide shot and killed a caribou, which he then field dressed and packed out on an ATV with the help of the students.
“It walked up this valley right up to us, and Charlie (the guide) was saying a few times after this happened that the caribou offered itself to us. It was a special thing because it was rare for us to be there when he was able to kill a caribou,” Senior Aaron Vanderpool said.
According to Rachael Blum, Charlie mentioned that only about one out of every hundred people that visit actually get to see a caribou killed.
Students who took the class supplemented the trip and aided the Gwich’ins by writing a letter to President Obama requesting the preservation of area 1002, creating artistic booklets called ‘ZINE’s’ describing their experience, writing articles for the environmentally themed website “Ecowatch”, making donations for the protection of Gwich’in culture and hosting a presentation on Oct. 1.
“I’ve been to Alaska more than pretty much anywhere else and I’ve never had a trip like that,” Lagasse said.
The whole crew poses for a picture on the mountain overlooking Arctic Village. From left to right: Tom Letson, Brennan Lagasse, Philip Chiesa, Rachael Blum, Kimberly Brault, Barry Avner, Aaron Vanderpool.
Brennan Lagasse, SNC adjunct professor, recieved a phone call at his home in Tahoe from Gwich’in elder Sarah James inviting him and a few SNC students to their village in Alaska.
Junior Kimberly Brault listens to Senior Tom Letson’s banjo music in front of a few roasting caribou heads.
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