From Assignment to Ally

Keri Oberly  /  7 Min Read  /  Activism

A photographer learns what it means to be an ally while on assignment on Gwich’in lands.

In late summer, the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates to Northwest Canada for the winter. The herd has the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth, over 1,500 miles a year between their winter range and the calving grounds on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Gwich’in call the coastal plains “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). For decades the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the caribou and their way of life against industrial development, this battle is under imminent threat today. Photo: Keri Oberly

The sound reverberated across the tundra—one bullet was all it took, and the caribou went down. It was a crisp late summer morning on the ancestral lands of the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in, when I joined my friend, the traditional hunter Gregory Gilbert, on a caribou hunt (Gregory has since passed away). We walked closer to the animals and Gregory offered his prayer in Gwich’in, “Mahsi’ k’eegwaadhat gwinzii neechy’aareehee’aa” (Thank you God we’re going to eat good). I knelt on the soft tundra and watched Gregory gracefully field dress the caribou, with my camera down, fully present, witnessing this symbiotic relationship—I knew this moment was greater than an assignment. I felt what was at stake for the Gwich’in.

In the summer of 2018, I was invited to collaborate on a photo project with the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Gwich’in led organization that represents the unified voice of the 9,000 Gwich’in people. The group fiercely advocates for the Porcupine caribou herd, food security and the protection of sacred lands of the Gwich’in people who live in 15 villages across the Arctic, each village established along the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd.

The Gwich’in have been fighting for decades to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known to them as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Trump administration has taken aggressive steps to fast track oil and gas drilling lease sales and development here. Extracting resources on sacred land is irreparable and to do so without permission of sovereign nations is a human rights violation. Harm to the land is harm to the Gwich’in people. Nature is their grocery store, medicine cabinet, teacher and healer. Traditional foods like caribou, moose, fish and berries are an integral source of food in a region where a bag of frozen vegetables can cost more than $20. Witnessing Gilbert prepare the caribou gave me a glimpse into the Gwich’in’s sacred connection to the land and animals and drove me to be an authentic ally—fighting to ensure all life is treated with the respect and dignity that is deserved.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, gave me her thoughts on what it means to the Gwich’in, and some advice on how to be an ally.

“Over the years we have had many photographers, reporters and allies come to help tell our story. They come in and they get what they need and leave never to be heard from again. A true ally should come to our homelands with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Take the time to connect with us and really understand our spiritual and cultural connection, not just to the caribou but to the land and animals. Spend time with our families and take the time to go out on the land to learn our ways of life. Use the gift the Creator blessed you with to help tell the stories of the people who are silenced and ignored. And then return many times.”

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Centuries ago, the Gwich’in used vadzaih tthał (caribou fences) to hunt the Porcupine caribou herd. These fences not only allowed the Gwich’in, then living nomadic lives, to gather a large harvest, but also to take a break and rest from following the herd during its long migration route. Built along the migratory route, the Gwich’in would work together to sneak up on the grazing caribou and chase them into the fenced enclosure. Once the caribou were inside the fence, hunters would block the opening and use bows and arrows to harvest the ones who turned back. The rest of the herd was chased to the corral, where snares made of moose skin babiche were used to harvest the remaining caribou. Vadzaih tthał were abandoned around the 1850s when French Canadian fur traders arrived in Fort Yukon with muzzle-loading rifles. However, some were still used as recently as the 1920s. This partial reconstruction of a vadzaih tthał was built by the youth of Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ as part of an educational project to teach traditional knowledge to younger generations. In late summer, the Porcupine caribou herd migrates to the Northwest Territories in Canada for the winter. The herd has the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth, over 1,500 miles a year between their winter range and the calving grounds on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Bob Gilbert scans for animals on a spotting tower next to his family’s cabin outside Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Years ago, Bob remembers waking up one morning and the cabin was surrounded by caribou, something that is unheard of today: the rapid growth of willow trees has prevented the caribou from coming down to the river.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Waiting out a rainstorm, traditional hunter Gregory Gilbert scans for caribou on a nearby ridge. The Gwich’in live in 15 villages across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada; each village was established on the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd. Today, with the impacts of global warming, the herd only migrates past a few villages.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Gregory Gilbert, Jewels Gilbert, Brennan Firth and Byron Bluehorse head back to Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ after a successful caribou harvest that will fill their freezers for the winter months. They always thank the Creator, the land and the animals for nourishing the mind, body and spirit of their people. Caribou is not just what they rely on for food, it is who they are. It is in their dances, songs, clothing and tools.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

(Left) A caribou’s stomach lining dries on a set of antlers harvested by Gregory Gilbert. The stomach lining is a favorite with dry meat, one of the many different ways the Gwich’in prepare caribou. “This is my grocery store,” says Raymond Tritt. When their freezers are running low, the Gwich’in will hunt and trap even when it is minus 60 degrees. Raymond says when it is that cold he puts his hands inside the caribou’s stomach when field dressing it to keep them warm. (Right) The Gwich’in believe the caribou’s heart is part human, and the Gwich’in’s heart is part caribou. They believe the fate of their people and the caribou are entwined. Stories from long ago say that Gwich’in elders were able to communicate with the caribou, and made a pact with them: if the caribou take care of the Gwich’in, the Gwich’in will take care of the caribou. For decades the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and their subsistence way of life against industrial development. They say the animals can’t talk, so we must talk for them.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Elder Gideon James prepares to cut a moose bone that he uses to make jewelry, at his home in Vashrąįį K’oo. The Gwich’in use all parts of the animals; nothing is wasted. A vocal advocate for protecting the caribou and sacred land, Gideon said, “When you defend the sacred, you defend the animals.”

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Kelly Fields hangs strips of caribou to dry in her cache in Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon), Alaska. The caribou was sent down by a family member in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Today, the Porcupine caribou herd only migrates through a few of the 15 Gwich’in villages. Many families will send caribou meat to family and friends in villages that don’t see caribou anymore and vice versa with salmon, moose and berries.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

A freezer full of caribou and moose meat that will last a family over the winter months in Gwichyaa Zhee.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Freezers full of processed food at the Midnight Sun Native Store in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Jerrald John, a local hunter said, “I can buy a steak for $30 that will only feed me, or I can buy a box of shells for $30 and feed my entire community.”

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

The Gilbert family and friends take a break from picking berries to eat moose soup cooked over a fire, the preferred method when cooking traditional foods. The Gwich’in fear for the future of their children and grandchildren: if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is opened to oil and gas development they believe it will threaten the very existence and identity of their people. To the Gwich’in, wilderness is not luxury; it is a way of life.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is an 800-mile pipeline that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. One of the richest states in the country, Alaska depends on one industry, oil and gas, to fund its state spending. Republicans have been proposing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development for decades. Each time it has come close it was denied by Democrats or vetoed by President Clinton. In 2017, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski snuck the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for industrial development into the tax bill that President Trump signed into law. Aggressive steps have since been taken to fast track development.

From Assignment to Ally
People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Known as “people of the land,” the Gwich’in have depended on this land and the Porcupine caribou herd for their subsistence way of life for over 20,000 years. The herd is essential to the tribe’s way of life, providing them with food, medicine, clothing, shelter and tools. Climate change is increasingly impacting the herd. With unpredictable weather, local hunters in Vashrąįį K’oo have to travel farther to harvest caribou, which is more costly and dangerous. Gregory Gilbert, a local hunter and trapper, said the caribou act like they are lost; even the animals don’t know what to do.

People of the Caribou. All photos: Keri Oberly

Centuries ago, the Gwich’in used vadzaih tthał (caribou fences) to hunt the Porcupine caribou herd. These fences not only allowed the Gwich’in, then living nomadic lives, to gather a large harvest, but also to take a break and rest from following the herd during its long migration route. Built along the migratory route, the Gwich’in would work together to sneak up on the grazing caribou and chase them into the fenced enclosure. Once the caribou were inside the fence, hunters would block the opening and use bows and arrows to harvest the ones who turned back. The rest of the herd was chased to the corral, where snares made of moose skin babiche were used to harvest the remaining caribou. Vadzaih tthał were abandoned around the 1850s when French Canadian fur traders arrived in Fort Yukon with muzzle-loading rifles. However, some were still used as recently as the 1920s. This partial reconstruction of a vadzaih tthał was built by the youth of Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ as part of an educational project to teach traditional knowledge to younger generations. In late summer, the Porcupine caribou herd migrates to the Northwest Territories in Canada for the winter. The herd has the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth, over 1,500 miles a year between their winter range and the calving grounds on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bob Gilbert scans for animals on a spotting tower next to his family’s cabin outside Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Years ago, Bob remembers waking up one morning and the cabin was surrounded by caribou, something that is unheard of today: the rapid growth of willow trees has prevented the caribou from coming down to the river.

Waiting out a rainstorm, traditional hunter Gregory Gilbert scans for caribou on a nearby ridge. The Gwich’in live in 15 villages across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada; each village was established on the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd. Today, with the impacts of global warming, the herd only migrates past a few villages.

Gregory Gilbert, Jewels Gilbert, Brennan Firth and Byron Bluehorse head back to Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ after a successful caribou harvest that will fill their freezers for the winter months. They always thank the Creator, the land and the animals for nourishing the mind, body and spirit of their people. Caribou is not just what they rely on for food, it is who they are. It is in their dances, songs, clothing and tools.

(Left) A caribou’s stomach lining dries on a set of antlers harvested by Gregory Gilbert. The stomach lining is a favorite with dry meat, one of the many different ways the Gwich’in prepare caribou. “This is my grocery store,” says Raymond Tritt. When their freezers are running low, the Gwich’in will hunt and trap even when it is minus 60 degrees. Raymond says when it is that cold he puts his hands inside the caribou’s stomach when field dressing it to keep them warm. (Right) The Gwich’in believe the caribou’s heart is part human, and the Gwich’in’s heart is part caribou. They believe the fate of their people and the caribou are entwined. Stories from long ago say that Gwich’in elders were able to communicate with the caribou, and made a pact with them: if the caribou take care of the Gwich’in, the Gwich’in will take care of the caribou. For decades the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and their subsistence way of life against industrial development. They say the animals can’t talk, so we must talk for them.

Elder Gideon James prepares to cut a moose bone that he uses to make jewelry, at his home in Vashrąįį K’oo. The Gwich’in use all parts of the animals; nothing is wasted. A vocal advocate for protecting the caribou and sacred land, Gideon said, “When you defend the sacred, you defend the animals.”

Kelly Fields hangs strips of caribou to dry in her cache in Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon), Alaska. The caribou was sent down by a family member in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Today, the Porcupine caribou herd only migrates through a few of the 15 Gwich’in villages. Many families will send caribou meat to family and friends in villages that don’t see caribou anymore and vice versa with salmon, moose and berries.

A freezer full of caribou and moose meat that will last a family over the winter months in Gwichyaa Zhee.

Freezers full of processed food at the Midnight Sun Native Store in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Jerrald John, a local hunter said, “I can buy a steak for $30 that will only feed me, or I can buy a box of shells for $30 and feed my entire community.”

The Gilbert family and friends take a break from picking berries to eat moose soup cooked over a fire, the preferred method when cooking traditional foods. The Gwich’in fear for the future of their children and grandchildren: if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is opened to oil and gas development they believe it will threaten the very existence and identity of their people. To the Gwich’in, wilderness is not luxury; it is a way of life.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is an 800-mile pipeline that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. One of the richest states in the country, Alaska depends on one industry, oil and gas, to fund its state spending. Republicans have been proposing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development for decades. Each time it has come close it was denied by Democrats or vetoed by President Clinton. In 2017, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski snuck the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for industrial development into the tax bill that President Trump signed into law. Aggressive steps have since been taken to fast track development.

Known as “people of the land,” the Gwich’in have depended on this land and the Porcupine caribou herd for their subsistence way of life for over 20,000 years. The herd is essential to the tribe’s way of life, providing them with food, medicine, clothing, shelter and tools. Climate change is increasingly impacting the herd. With unpredictable weather, local hunters in Vashrąįį K’oo have to travel farther to harvest caribou, which is more costly and dangerous. Gregory Gilbert, a local hunter and trapper, said the caribou act like they are lost; even the animals don’t know what to do.

These photographs were made on the unceded territories of the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in, Gwichyaa Gwich’in, and the Lower Tanana Dene Peoples of Alaska.

Gwich’in land defender Jody Potts told me why she accepted me as an outsider and ally in their efforts to show the importance of protecting their food security and sacred land. I share her thoughts, with her permission, not to validate the project but rather show the importance of intention, respect and collaboration as an outsider.

“In my life I have worked with a number of journalists, film crews, organizations and ‘allies,’ but have never had as positive of an experience as I did with you when you followed my children and I on a caribou hunt,” she said. “You were observant and listened and followed with care, respect and dignity all while being nonintrusive and nonextractive.”

Demientieff and Potts also mentioned the importance of building trust between journalists and communities. Photographers on assignments on Indigenous lands need to amplify the voices and experiences of Indigenous Peoples. They should only do work that centers around the community, and not the photographer’s or publication’s agenda. They should always ask permission before capturing a photo of a tribal member, and again before that photo is published. If you aren’t having conversations with the community and your work isn’t driven by the advice of the community, then you aren’t being an ally.

The two-hour drive to the hunting grounds went quickly on that late summer day with Gregory Gilbert, filled with the sound of light rain and conversation in Gwich’in between Gregory and Raymond Tritt. I sat behind them and marveled at the power of the rugged landscape, listening to the complex yet beautiful Gwich’in language and feeling extremely privileged to be there.

Gregory knew exactly where to intersect the caribou on their 1,500-mile migration to their winter grounds in Canada’s Northwest Territories; he had been raised on this land by a strong, traditional Gwich’in family, and lived and raised his own children and grandchildren the same way. We reached the day’s hunting spot, and as they loaded their guns Gregory handed me the binoculars and pointed to the mountain. At first, I saw only stillness amongst the fall colors. Then, I noticed the land was moving. Hundreds of Porcupine caribou were migrating toward us.

We arrived back at the village that night having taken three caribou, and returned to a successful moose harvest by Gregory’s daughter, Jewels Gilbert, her partner, Brennan Firth, and other members of the community. The next day, tribal members cut up the caribou and moose. Elders passed down knowledge to younger generations on how to properly cut different parts of the animals and prepare it for the cache. Everyone was in high spirits, sharing stories, laughing and eating freshly cooked caribou and moose soup around a fire.

I continue to meet with the Gwich’in multiple times a year: on lobbying trips at congressional leaders’ offices; for activism efforts such as delivering more than 100,000 comments to SAExploration headquarters in Texas, urging them to give up their plan to drill in the Arctic; or simply to attend events, weddings or visit a fish camp. The tribe is like family, and they often ask when I’m going to move to Alaska, to which I jokingly reply, “Once heated flip-flops are invented, so I can wear sandals year-round.”

This experience not only changed me but changed the way I work. I sought out a local Indigenous women’s group in California and now join monthly talking circles as a listener and offer my help when needed. I approach work as a collaboration, driven by the needs of the community and what will benefit people. I continue to educate myself on the true history of Indigenous Peoples, to understand both the violent colonial history and the continued injustices, violence and racism happening to Indigenous Peoples across their land. And I am no longer afraid to put the camera down and be a human first.

Check out the Climate Justice Reporting Guide from Covering Climate Now for best practices on how to cover climate change as a fundamental matter of racial, economic and environmental justice.

Protect the Arctic and Stand with the Gwich’in

The current administration is proceeding with plans to give oil and gas companies the right to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Gwich’in are fighting to protect their future, but they can’t win this battle alone.

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