With the Trump administration seeking to open up Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge to industry, Gwich’in communities throughout North America gathered online to reaffirm their commitment in the fight for caribou.
From September 24 to 26, Gwich’in leaders across the NWT, Yukon, and Alaska used a Zoom conference to provide updates on happenings across the Gwich’in nation.
Hosted by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, attendees also learned about the history of the Gwich’in peoples and celebrated with dancing, singing, and storytelling.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the committee, told Cabin Radio: “We just felt that this is a time that we need to see the love, and support, and the unity and the strength that we have.”
This year’s in-person Gwich’in gathering, a biannual tradition, was set to take place this July in Old Crow. However, it was cancelled due to concerns surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virtual edition is in part a way of recovering lost time together, but it also comes with a new sense of urgency.
In August, the US Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision outlining plans to start a leasing program in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. allowing oil and gas drilling in the area.
The refuge, 30,500 square miles in size, serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou herd, a sacred and long-held source of food and culture for Gwich’in peoples in the North. As a result, the US decision has triggered international protests.
Gwich’in communities should feel reassured their leaders are not giving up in the fight for the caribou, Demientieff said.
“I felt that our people needed to hear from our leaders, ‘Look, we’ve survived worse,’” she said. “We are strong people … and we’re going to get through this, and we’re here for each other, and we still continue to stand as one.”
The Gwich’in Steering Committee, alongside 13 other organizations, has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in the hope of halting exploration in the area.
The lawsuit alleges the proposed leasing program in the refuge fails to comply with “laws governing agency processes and protecting land, water, and wildlife.”
The United Nations has called for an investigation into the US Record of Decision, with the organization’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stating the project could infringe on the human rights of Gwich’in peoples.
Video clips gathered from community members across the North, discussing what the refuge means to them, their families, and their communities, were to be played during the gathering.
“We’re not gonna make it easy for them – that I know,” Demientieff said. “We come from strong people. They survived some of the coldest, harshest winters so that we could be here.
“And we owe that same dedication and respect to our future generations. It’s not going to be easy for them to just come in, railroad their way into our homelands, and do whatever they want.”
‘The fight came to us’
Geraldine Blake, 27, is from Tsiigehtchic in the NWT. She is one of seven youth on the Gwich’in Youth Council, a chapter of the Gwich’in Steering Committee first formed at last year’s Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit in Fort Yukon, Alaska.
The youth council meets each month and frequently uses social media to shed light on issues surrounding Indigenous nations and express solidarity with other communities, such as the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Blake has been actively involved in the fight against drilling in the refuge.
Geraldine Blake, chair of the Gwich’in Youth Committee. Photo: Gwich’in Steering Committee
Last December, she travelled to Toronto on behalf of the Gwich’in Tribal Council alongside representatives from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. There, she met representatives from major Canadian banks – CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank, and TD – and lobbied for them to pull funding from oil and gas projects in the refuge.
“It was quite the experience,” she laughs. “It was pretty exhausting and chaotic, having to repeat yourself over and over to five different [banks], and try to convince them that it’s not worth investing in our culture [and] our land destructively.”
Blake grew up knowing she wanted to join the fight to protect the refuge and Gwich’in homelands, which goes back decades. She said she does this work for her young cousins, nieces, and nephews.
“I want them to live the way I grew up, with healthy fish and healthy caribou, and moose, clean water,” she said. “All the important things that we need to survive.”
Demientieff added: “We’re not environmentalists. We’re not activists. We are mothers, fathers … worried about our children’s future.
“We didn’t go looking for the fight. The fight came to us.”