Indigenous at the center of Arctic Refuge debate

Kayla Heidenreich, Editor

As the caribou migrate through the Brooks Mountain range under the Alaskan midnight sun, they are completely unaware of the fact that their entire ecosystem is on the brink of destruction.

A rules change last year to allow oil drilling in the 1002 region of the Arctic Refuge would not only affect it’s delicate tundra ecosystem, but also the people of the Gwich’in Nation, the indigenous tribe whose life sustains off of that land.

“We’re proud to be Gwich’in, we’re proud to be caribou people,” said Sarah James, an elder of the Gwich’in Nation. The word Gwich’in translates to “people of the land”. “We love our food. We love who we are. So we’re never going to give up on that.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located on the northeast corner of Alaska with the coastline on the Beaufort Sea. It consists of 9,286,722 acres. Although the area is large, there are only two villages located on this land: Kaktovik and the Arctic village. Kaktovik is located on the most northern coastline and the Arctic Village is located on the southern border of the refuge. The section called the “1002” is located in the Kaktovik region on the northeast section of the refuge. This is where future oil drilling is planned.

One of the reasons why this directly affects the Gwich’in people who live across the entire refuge is because of the porcupine caribou herd. The porcupine caribou and the Gwich’in have a very special relationship full of dependency and respect.

“The caribou have a piece of the Gwich’in heart in them, and the Gwich’in people carry a piece of the caribou heart inside us,” said James.

The porcupine caribou migrate in a pattern through the Brooks Range and end up in the 1002 region where they have their babies. To the Gwich’in this place is known as “the sacred place where life begins.” The ecosystem is so delicate and fragile that the Gwich’in do not even travel there. Without the caribou there would be no Gwich’in.

“We are caribou people. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are,” said James.  “They are in our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world.  Caribou are our life.  Without caribou we wouldn’t exist.”

The Gwich’in Nation is fighting to save its delicate ecosystem and the main way they are doing this is through sharing their story with others.

Brennan Legasse is a professor of sustainability at Sierra Nevada University. He teaches the Arctic Refuge class with a goal to help share the Gwich’in people’s story and make people aware of the issues going on in Northern Alaska.

“I don’t think there’s enough [media coverage of the Arctic],” Brennan Lagasse, “Even with people who are clued into social and environmental issues in the world, some have no idea this place exists, they have no idea this particular conflict up there exists.”

The refuge has been an area of contention for decades between preservationists and the oil industry.

“What you would like is a risk-free environment either from nature or from man,” stated Roger Herrera, a former executive consultant to BP America, said in a 1979 testimony to the Department of Interior. “And you’re never going to achieve that. Man probably can control the environment a little better than nature apparently does.”

Chevron and Texaco are leading the charge to drill for oil in the 1002 and many Alaskans support the idea. Drilling provides jobs and opportunities for many local Alaskans that otherwise would struggle to find work.

Chevron has not replied to attempts e-mail requests for comment.