Gwich’in land defenders say they’re breathing sighs of relief after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the US presidential election.
Throughout his four-year term, outgoing President Donald Trump pushed for the development of oil and gas drilling within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd.
Biden, however, has repeatedly opposed exploration in the refuge and promised to halt those plans on entering the White House.
Ken Smith, Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in Inuvik, described a “great sense of relief” on seeing Biden and running-mate Harris win.
“We have now a president-elect that has committed to protecting this sacred area to the Gwich’in,” Smith said.
“Come January, we will have a president that will have veto authority over any proposed plans to develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“That’s a significant shift from where we are today.”
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and a leading voice opposing Trump’s plan, said news of his defeat brought her to tears.
“I just started crying,” she said. “I was so happy… we’re grateful that we have somebody in there that actually respects Indigenous people, that we’re going to have a president that understands land needs to be protected, and that actually believes in climate change.”
Joseph Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board in Old Crow, Yukon, said northern Canada was “very happy.”
“Lower 48 is way below us and yet we’ve never had so much interest in this election before,” he said. “We’re on-side with Biden and Harris.”
Caribou are a source of food, culture, and spirituality for Gwich’in, Inuit, and other circumpolar Indigenous peoples. Smith calls the animals “the very essence” of the Gwich’in.
“It is the primary source of sustenance for our people,” he said. “Our culture, traditions, language, and history are based upon our activities, which have been to follow the Porcupine caribou herd to feed, clothe, and in some cases, shelter our people.
“It’s such a critical resource for the Gwich’in, and that’s why we stand so strongly against any proposed development on the coastal plains of Alaska.”
A threat to the caribou is a direct threat to the Gwich’in, Demientieff said.
“This is not an environmental issue, or just about the caribou or the polar bears,” she said. “This is about human rights. This is about a whole people’s way of life, and sometimes people are not aware of that.”
Banks pledge to deny financing
The election result is one of several recent victories for the Gwich’in.
In the past month, three major Canadian banks – the Royal Bank of Canada, the Bank of Montreal, and Toronto Dominion – each stated they will deny direct financing to oil and exploration projects in the area.
Those announcements followed years of Gwich’in lobbying, including trips to Toronto and Washington, DC aimed at convincing banks to pull their funding.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be much harder,” said Demientieff, who went to Washington. “It gave me hope and we will never give up. We don’t have a choice. We can’t give up.”
Biden and Harris take office as president and vice-president respectively on January 20, 2021.
When they do, Demientieff and Smith said, the Gwich’in will hold them to their word.
“We’re setting up a meeting right now to go and speak with Biden,” Demientieff said.
“We come from strong people and we are strong people. We’re not going to allow anybody to just come into our homeland and do whatever they want.”