Gwich’in Steering Committee
Speaking with One Voice
The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Our elders recognized that oil development in caribou calving grounds was a threat to the very heart of our people. They called upon the chiefs of all Gwich’in villages from Canada to Alaska to come together for a traditional gathering – the first in more than a century. At the gathering in Arctic Village we addressed the issue with a talking stick in accordance with our traditional way, and decided unanimously that we would speak with one voice against oil and gas development in the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Our unified voice is expressed in a formal resolution, Gwich’in Niintsyaa.
Time and time again, the Gwich’in Steering Committee has presented testimony in front of the US Congress, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, and public hearings. Without this testimony many would not know that this is a Human Rights issue to the Gwich’in.
Our achievements would not have been possible without the ongoing wisdom and guidance of our elders and our many friends and supporters.
The Steering Committee
Neets’aii Gwich’in, Arctic Village
Sarah James was raised in a traditional Gwich’in lifestyle and did not begin speaking English until she was 13 years old. Living in the small community of Arctic Village, she has traveled widely, from Washington, D.C. to foreign countries, speaking out for the rights of indigenous peoples through grassroots activism. In recognition of her leadership, she has received many awards. In 1993 Sarah received the Alston Bannerman Fellowship award. In 2001, she received a Ford Foundation “Leadership for a Changing World” grant given to “outstanding but little known leaders”. She, along with the late Jonathon Solomon Sr. and Norma Kassi, received the Goldman Environmental Prize for “grassroots environmentalists” in 2002. Sarah also received the 2002 National Conservation Land Trust award. In 2004, she was the recipient of the “Ecotrust Award for Indigenous Leadership” and she received the 2006 Alaska Conservation Foundation “Celia Hunter Award”. In 2009, Sarah was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Sarah is very thankful for the support of the Gwich’in Nation, her community, her son and her family. She credits the hard work of the Gwich’in and other people throughout the United States and the world as having greatly contributed to her successful efforts.
The impetus for her activism and the strength of her convictions may be best summarized in her own words, spoken in 2006: “This is my way of life. We are born with this way of life and we will die with it. It never occurred to me that something had to wake me up to do this. Nothing magic happened to me. Our life depends on it. It’s about survival; it’s something that we have to protect in order to survive. It’s our responsibility. It’s the environment we live in. We believe everything is related”.
Carolyn Lennie was born in Inuvik and raised in Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories, Canada. Carolyn’s parents are Fredrick and Grace Blake and her Grandparents are Fred and Elizabeth Blake of Tetlit Zheh and Dale and Rose Clark of Tsiigehtchic. Carolyn is married to Sammy L. Lennie and raised six children together. Carolyn and husband Sammy raise their six children in both the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit cultures.
Carolyn achieved a diploma in Management Studies from Aurora College and is pursuing a Bachelors of Arts Degree majoring in Rural Development in Tribal Governance with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Carolyn is currently serving in various leadership roles at the community level as the President of the Gwicha Gwich’in Council, the President of the Renewable Resource Council, and the Chairperson of the Tsiigehtchic District Education Council and at the regional level as a Board of Director for the Gwich’in Tribal Council and an executive member of the Beaufort Delta Education Council.
Carolyn believes in preserving our culture, language, and traditional practices for the benefit of our future generations.
Gwichyaa Gwich’in, Fort Yukon
Kay Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Her father is from Fort Yukon, and her mother is from Old Crow, YT Canada. She is a Gwich’in Elder and serves on the board of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. Kay served for three terms as an Alaska state legislator and spearheaded passage of the state’s Indian Child Welfare Act and the first Indian repatriation legislation. Kay has worked for the Gwichyaa Gwich’in Tribal Government of Fort Yukon as an Indian Child Welfare Act advocate, and the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteer program of Alaska, assisting children/young people in state custody by promoting their best interest at Office of Children’s Services (OCS) hearings, at school and in court. Kay received the 2008 UAF Alumni Achievement Awards for Business and Professional Excellence. Kay is a descendant of Archdeacon Robert McDonald, she quietly and determinedly speaks for protecting the sacred Coastal Plain of the Refuge.
Teetl’it Gwich’in, Fort McPherson, NWT
Elizabeth Vittrekwa is from the Teetl’it Gwich’in from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories. Her parents are Charlie & Mary Snowshoe. Her Grandparents are Edward & Elizabeth Snowshoe and Ronnie & Laura Pascal. She is married to Peter J. Vittrekwa and together they have 5 children and 2 Grandchildren. Elizabeth recognizes her parents, grandparents, her husband and the Creator for instilling in her cultural and traditional values that give me the incentive to help in the protection of our land and animals.
She completed the Office Administrative Diploma Program and worked in various organizations. She was a representative on the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council, the Renewable Resource Council and the Local District Education Authority. Presently, she is a community member on the Leadership Resiliency Program in Fort McPherson.
Neets’aii Gwich’in, Venetie
Ernest Erickwas raised in K’ahtsik (Roberts’ Fish Camp) and Viiihtaii (Venetie), Alaska. His maternal grandparents were James Roberts and Myra (White Eye) Roberts and his paternal grandparents were Paul Erick and Natalie (John) Erick. Ernest has been with the Gwich’in Steering Committee since its inception in 1988. He has served as 1st Chief of the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government and 1st Chief of Venetie Village Council. Additionally, he has served as Regional Board Member to the Yukon Flats School District and has over 20 years serving as Indian Child Welfare Tribal Judge.
Ernest is an avid hunter, trapper, fisherman, and dog musher. He has a great love for his family and community and works hard at keeping our traditional Gwich’in language and culture alive and well.
Gwichyaa Gwich’in, Fort Yukon
Clarence Alexander was raised at “Shoo Taii” or the “Happy Trail”. He was 1st Chief of Fort Yukon from 1980-1994 and has worked extensively to clean up the Yukon River, resulting in the closure of numerous open-burning dumps and the removal or recycling of millions pounds of waste. In November 2011 Clarence received the Citizens Medal from President Obama for demonstrating how much good a dedicated leader can accomplish.
President Obama praised Alexander for his environmental work protecting the Yukon River Watershed, his involvement on the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, and his efforts to preserve cultural traditions. Alexander co-founded the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.
Back home, Clarence works hard on ensuring that the Gwich’in language will be spoken for generations to come and is a strong steward of education.
A Tribute to Jonathon Solomon Sr.
“It is our belief that the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the caribou are the same. We cannot stand by and let them sell our children’s heritage to the oil companies.”
Johathon Solomon, Sr., The Seattle Times, Monday, March 5th, 2001
Jonathon Solomon passed away on July 13, 2006. Jonathon served on the Gwich’in Steering Committee since its formation. He drew upon decades of experience and knowledge from the Rampart Dam fight to the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement, which helped to put the Gwich’in Nation in a stronger position to protect the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. We will continue to draw strength from his legacy.
Jonathan’s legacy was honored with a Senate Tribute on July 19, 2006.