Bernadette Demientieff needed just two months to pull together a coalition of tribal members and congressional representatives that support protecting the Arctic National Wildfire Refuge (ANWR). As executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Demientieff has been working tirelessly to build opposition to the Trump administration’s plan to extract fossil fuels from the refuge.
On Tuesday, about 15 tribal nations and six members of Congress came together in D.C. to announce they were joining Demientieff and the Gwich’in in opposing any extraction in the ANWR’s coastal plain, which makes up 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s vast 19 million acres. That small piece of the refuge is everything for the Gwich’in, whose food security and culture revolve around the Porcupine caribou herd that calves there.
That’s why Democrat House representatives Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Don Beyer of Virginia, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and Jared Huffman of California are speaking out against the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to bring oil extraction into the ANWR. This month marks 58 years since the refuge’s formal establishment in 1960, and this announcement aims to celebrate its pristine beauty.
“This administration treats the people of Northern Alaska as political targets, not as Americans with legal rights, and openly puts corporate demands ahead of the public interest,” said Rep. Grijalva in a statement sent to Earther. “The Arctic Refuge is a special place where real people live and real species have room to sustain themselves, and we need to keep it that way.”
He went on to note that the refuge will be “near the top” of Congress’ priorities this coming session. The increased representation of Native American voices in the House is sure to help keep attention on the issue.
Members of Congress aren’t the only ones who feel strongly about protecting ANWR. Representatives with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Ponca Nation, Navajo Nation, Lummi Nation, and other tribal nations joined the Gwich’in during its announcement in D.C. today.
Mekasi Camp Horenik, a member of the Ponca Nation, can relate to the struggles of the Gwich’in. Phillips 66 runs a refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he lives. He worries about how the emission of pollutants may contribute to the high rates of cancer Native Americans face in the state. He doesn’t want to see more communities plagued by these concerns.
“I just want to show unity among all people, not only indigenous people but as human beings,” Horenik told Earther, “that we’re unified as a global community, that what happens to one another, we need to be in solidarity no matter what it is.”
Richard Smith, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, sympathizes with those who hunt the Porcupine caribou. He didn’t get to partake in a traditional buffalo hunt as a teen because there simply aren’t enough buffalo anymore. He doesn’t want Gwich’in traditions to suffer the same fate.
“The caribou is their delicacy,” he told Earther. “It’s their lifeline. It’s how they eat. It’s how they stay warm. They still make their clothes out of the hides.”
He’s right. That’s why the Gwich’in are fighting to protect the land on which the caribou raise their young. Ultimately, however, this fight goes beyond them, Demientieff said. This is a fight for the American people and their public lands.
This new coalition is hoping to raise broader support for its cause, both in government and among the general public. But it faces an uphill battle. The Trump administration is committed to opening up ANWR’s coastal plain, and it has the support of Inupiat corporations and other pro-drilling interests. These Alaska Native corporations were hoping to begin seismic tests this winter, which would help them determine the amount of oil underground.
“This is one of the last untouched ecosystems, and we live there,” Demientieff said, referring to the broader region surrounding the refuge. “We matter. We are real people. We are mothers, fathers. We have jobs. We’re not asking for nothing. We just want to keep our identity. We want to keep our environment healthy for future generations.”
Note: The original piece did not include information on what Bernadette Demientieff meant when she said, “We live there.” The Gwich’in do not literally live within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as the quote implies. This land is so sacred to them that they do not enter it.