Protecting the Arctic Refuge is Non-Negotiable

Bernadette Demientieff  /  6 Min Read  /  Activism

Polar bear mom and cubs on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I’ve recently returned from a whirlwind trip, visiting four states in the Southwest and then off to Washington, D.C. to participate in a week of action on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation, all in the name of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its fragile Coastal Plain, located in the northeast corner of Alaska.

It left me with a range of emotions: renewed energy, fear, hope.

You see, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its Coastal Plain is life for us and for the Porcupine caribou we depend on. We call it “the sacred place where life begins,” as it is the birthplace for our caribou.

As we often say, “Where the caribou go, so do the Gwich’in.” For the Gwich’in people, protecting the Coastal Plain is about upholding our rights to continue our Native ways of life. It is a human rights issue. It is our identity and it is not negotiable. The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.” This is why traveling to Washington, D.C. is so important to me, my people, the caribou, my children and future generations.

Photo: Gwich’in Steering Commitee

Gwich’in leaders Kris Statnyk, Bernadette Demientieff, Lorraine Netro, Mabeleen Christian and Minister Pauline Frost thank Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) for his leadership in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Gwich’in Steering Commitee

Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

Gwich’in leaders Kris Statnyk, Bernadette Demientieff and Mabeleen Christian and Alaska Wilderness League staff Lois Norrgard meet with staff from Rep. Tim Kaine’s (D-VA) office, urging him to protect the Arctic Refuge and the Porcupine caribou, their food security. Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

While in D.C., I met with members of Congress and their staff. Some you could tell were with us, but others were withdrawn in their support for protecting the Arctic Refuge. These meetings are the hardest of all.

I shared our stories about the caribou with members of Congress and their staff members. We are caribou people. We are both physically and spiritually connected to the Porcupine Caribou Herd and have been for more than 20,000 years. About 9,000 Gwich’in people in 13 villages live along the Porcupine Caribou Herd migration route in northeastern Alaska and northwest Canada.

Any threat to these caribou is a threat to our people. We are alarmed. We see the changes in our climate, our land, our animals and our way of life. Better adapted to cold temperatures than warmer ones, the caribou herds are in decline—the Associated Press reported a steep decline in population for the Central Arctic Herd, which has dropped about 50 percent over the last three years. Caribou are starving because the rivers and lakes they need to cross are no longer frozen.

Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

Gwich’in leaders Kris Statnyk, Bernadette Demientieff and Mabeleen Christian thank Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) for his leadership in protecting the Arctic Refuge. Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

Photo: The Wilderness Society

Bernadette Demientieff, Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and an Arctic protector gather in support of the Arctic Refuge. Photo: The Wilderness Society

The Arctic Refuge is important to Americans across the nation. We know that oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge would only serve to compound the devastating impacts we are already seeing from climate change throughout the Arctic. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

And, it is a refuge for our veterans and others who are looking for a place of healing. Many of our veterans who returned from combat with struggles, they went to the refuge. They, too, have all ended up standing united with us, and they too feel the magical spirit within this amazing place. The last thing that we need is more drilling.

During the week of action, we stood in prayer at a service organized by Creation Justice Ministries. Lorraine Netro and I offered prayers at the service and we explained the Gwich’in people’s connection with the Episcopal Church, which has made it a priority to stand with us to protect our ancestral homeland.

Photo: Alaska Wilderness League

Gwich’in leaders from Alaska and Canada participate in a prayer service with Creation Justice Ministries to tell the story of the Gwich’in people and teach what it means to defend “the sacred place where life begins.” Photo: Alaska Wilderness League

Yet, soon after I left D.C., the House Budget Committee announced its 2018 fiscal budget which includes budget reconciliation instructions to the House Natural Resources Committee requiring them to find ways to reduce the deficit—essentially a veiled attempt to drill in my homeland. This terrible action follows the release of the White House’s budget proposal, which includes $1.8 billion in speculative revenues from drilling in the Arctic Refuge. When the White House announced its budget, budget director Mick Mulvaney declared that opening the Arctic Refuge was “a critical part of what we’re seeking to do, and it is a priority for the president.”

For us as Gwich’in, our home, our very existence and identity is under threat. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a sacred place. We want to continue to live our cultural and traditional way of life with the Porcupine Caribou Herd. It is our basic human right to continue to feed our families and practice our traditions.

Last summer, I traveled to Arctic Village, Alaska, to participate in the biannual Gwich’in Gathering. This was the first time that I brought my kids to the Gathering—to teach them about their homeland and why it should be protected. The Gathering is a time for rejuvenation and renewal, for bringing together family and friends, and for planning the future together. Together we are one Gwich’in Nation. Together we are stronger and more sure of the future we will leave to our children.

Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

Gwich’in leaders Kris Statnyk, Bernadette Demientieff and Mabeleen Christian meet with staff from Arctic champion Rep. Jared Huffman’s (D-CA) office. Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee

We need to work together right now, more than ever, to protect what we have left. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is America’s last beautiful, wild and unique place for our people to have, something untouched that connects us all. Don’t be fooled to think that because we are far away that you will not be affected by what happens up here. What happens here will make its way to your home. So let’s stand united and protect what we have left together. We must protect our homeland and protect the future of the Gwich’in.

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