The Gwich’in people have called the northeastern lands of Alaska that spill into Canada home for more than 40,000 years. These lands are still theirs, except today they’re being threatened by oil and gas drilling.
The Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday the first steps in its attempt to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s (ANWR) coastal plains in Alaska. By Friday, the public will be able to submit comments to help the bureau determine what to include in the drilling project’s Environmental Impact Statement, per the announcement.
The ANWR, the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, stretches roughly 19 million acres and hugs the lands of the Gwich’in First Nation. Its 1.5-million-acres coastal plains may hold 7.7 billion barrels of oil. That’s why President Donald Trump is keen on drilling it. (Well, actually, he wants to because his friend told him to, but that’s a separate story.)
For the Gwich’in, however, no amount of oil or money is worth messing with these lands. They’re too sacred, Bernadette Dementieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Earther. You see, the Porcupine Caribou Herd calves here, and local indigenous people rely on this herd for food (for 80 percent of the Gwich’in diet, actually), as well as a part of their long-held cultural identity.
“All our communities are on its migratory route,” Dementieff said. “Our ancestors settled us that way so that we can continue to live off the caribou. All our stories and songs and dances are connected to the caribou herd. They are a part of our identity, and our identity is not up for negotiation.”
Unfortunately, the Trump administration isn’t paying much mind to those who oppose drilling in the refuge—even though that includes 70 percent of U.S. voters, according to a survey from Yale University. Congress took action last year to squeeze an ANWR drilling clause into the GOP tax bill, and it got through. Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who likes to brag about her “environmental” agenda, was the driving force behind the move.
Now that the federal government has officially launched the environmental review process, opponents won’t stop fighting to keep industry out. They’ll be submitting public comments, too. They’ll let the government know how this will impact them—and their human rights.
“Right now, we feel attacked by this administration, and an attack on the Arctic refuge is an attack on the Gwich’in people,” Dementieff said.
In fact, Dementieff will be making this exact argument later Thursday to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is taking place in New York City until April 27. “We’re going to take this fight to every level of government possible,” she said.
Dementieff doesn’t know whether her testimony will amount to much, but she knows she has to keep trying. As her voice started to break, she explained that she needs to fight for future generations, and for her grandchildren.
“I’m going where I need to go in hopes that somebody will listen,” she cried, “but we will never give up, and we will not allow them into the Arctic refuge.”