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Returning to Alaska

The Search for permanent protection in the Arctic
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By RACHAEL BLUM  |  Moonshine Ink

Flying high above the rugged Alaskan landscapes in a small bush plane, I couldn’t believe I was on my way back to one of the most remote places in the world.

In August 2014, I was fortunate to adventure to Alaska with six students from Sierra Nevada College to engage in a week of cultural immersion. After receiving an invitation from respected Gwich’in tribal elder Sarah James, we traveled to Arctic Village, Alaska. The purpose of the trip was to take a course on the traditional ways of the local tribe and speak to the importance of protecting the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a place that has been called “the last great wilderness” by scholars and environmental advocates — from oil drilling.

It was one year later, and I found myself back on a bush plane traveling to that same remote village. Humbled and honored to follow up on our work from the previous year, I graciously accepted an invitation from SNC professor Brennan Lagasse, booked flights, and headed north to the Arctic Circle.

As expected, the natives were friendly, accommodating, and eager to rekindle relationships. They gave us the opportunity to participate in local activities, including eating traditional meals like caribou, moose, and fry bread; fishing; beading; and helping with the daily chores of feeding sled dogs and reinforcing houses. These activities surrounded and highlighted the greater theme of our trip, which was to learn more, via discussions with tribal members, about the Gwich’in culture and the threat to drill for oil in ANWR’s coastal plain. The plan is also known as the 1002 area because of its location, in section 1002, of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

The Caribou People

Located approximately 300 miles south of the ANWR coastline lays humble Arctic Village, home to one subset of the Gwich’in tribe. Gwich’in directly translates to “The Caribou People.”

Before colonization, these people were a nomadic bunch who moved with the caribou. After this was no longer possible due to colonization, they settled in an area that is currently threatened by global warming — seen in permafrost and river changes — and the possibility of oil drilling in the north. The caribou are one of the few sacred symbols left in the culture; without them, Gwich’in culture and Arctic Village would cease to exist. Drilling for oil would put the future of the porcupine caribou herd at risk because the proposed 1002 coastal shore drilling site is where the caribou birth their young and begin their epic migration throughout Alaska.

After the calving process, the caribou make their way south through Arctic Village where the native’s culture lives on and is supported by caribou meat. Hunting is a major way of life for the Gwich’in people; it supplies food, clothing, community, and culture.

The Looming Threat of Oil Drilling

We were asked to go north to learn about the proposed 1002 drilling site and its threat to Gwich’in culture so their story may be passed on to the lower 48. They believe that the more people who develop a relationship with the tribe, the more likely they are to achieve their goal of permanent protection for the 1002.

“If you drink polluted water, god dammit, you’re gonna get sick! It’s understood.” Elder Gideon James proclaimed to the group, “I hate to raise my voice but some people are so damn incompetent with their high paying jobs they don’t understand that damage and unbalance in the earth is our fault.”

After visiting with these resilient locals, it is clear the environmental impacts to come from developing the coastal plains of Alaska are irreversible and potentially crippling to a village and a culture. Yes, we all utilize the far reaches of petroleum products, but are 10 years of cheaper oil worth the extinction of a culture?

Village Faces

Audrey was our main host this trip, teaching us how to forage for berries and tea, catch fish using willow branches and traps, clean and cook Pike, and bead traditionally. Extremely generous with her abundant knowledge and minimal material goods, she was constantly offering something. Gifting our group anything from fresh moose meat to beaded gifts, along with her constant sprinkling of life.

Our original contact was Sarah James. A short, round woman with a white ribbon of hair dancing down her back. The 74-year-old gave us an extensive tour of the village, using her spirit and knowledge to defend the Gwich’in way of life and the environment that surrounds her home. Her main message is expressing why the tribe says no to oil, despite promises of financial support.

Charlie, an ageless man with everlasting energy, adds the hunting and land conservation piece of Gwich’in culture to the story. During last year’s visit, our class was fortunate enough to see Charlie in his element — hiking, educating, camping, and hunting in the mountains. We hiked into the bush learning the different flora and fauna of the area, setting ground squirrel traps, and seeking out caribou.

Another familiar face full of wisdom and stories in the village is Gideon James. Approaching his 80s, this extremely active man always has something going on; Gideon can be found hauling food for his many sled dogs, beading, adding on to his house, or writing letters to President Obama, who recently took a trip to Alaska to promote environmental issues. His days are full of intention and passion as shown throughout his small cabin full of purpose. We were fortunate enough to visit with him inside his cabin where Gideon heatedly explained the environmental and political issues experienced within the village and northern Alaska, “Our political leaders don’t understand what it takes to keep the land and waters clean.”

It’s About More than Just Oil Drilling

It’s rare to have the chance to travel 2,200 miles north to get a firsthand look at what is happening on the ground. What started as a college class has become a life changing experience wrapping culture, wisdom, friendship, and politics into an opportunity to tap into something larger than myself, that I will carry forever. It is hard to fully express how incredible this experience, place, and the people living here are, but they deserve our attention and whatever support we can offer.

To learn more, visit the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s Facebook page at facebook.com/ourarcticrefuge.

 
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May 10, 2018