Alaska Natives Ask for Southwest Support to Protect Their Homeland

May 24, 2017

FAIRBANKS, AK — A group of Alaska Natives are in the Southwest this week. They’re stoking opposition to a bill that would authorize oil and gas drilling in their homeland, including parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

southwest tour

Two women from the Gwich’in Tribe are presenting their story and a showing of a short film about their battle to save their ancestral lands and the caribou herd that has sustained them. Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said the herd is a central part of their heritage – which is why her tribe has taken a firm stand against development for decades.

“Just like the Native Americans with the buffalo, they have that spiritual and cultural connection, that’s that same connection that we have to the Porcupine caribou herd,” Demientieff said. “The Gwich’in Nation used to migrate with the caribou herd for over 20,000 years. What befalls the caribou, befalls the Gwich’in.”

Supporters of the tribe want to block oil and gas drilling by giving wilderness protection to 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have introduced House Resolution 1889, the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act. 

But Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has sponsored Senate Bill 49, to permit drilling on 2,000 acres of the refuge. 
And, just this week President Trump introduced his budget which includes drilling in the Arctic Refuge to raise budget revenues. “For us, protecting this place is a matter of physical, spiritual and cultural survival,” said Demientieff. “It is our basic human right to continue to feed our families and practice our traditional way of life. Development in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain, like what is proposed in the President’s budget, would be a human rights violation. Our identity is not negotiable.”

Fawn Douglas, a member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, said the Gwich’in Tribe’s struggle is very similar to the Southwestern fights to protect natural treasures in their hometowns.

“They’re trying to protect their homelands from any development,” Douglas said. “And to think about any part of that being desecrated or ruined by any mining or development is just absurd. And they’re going through the same battle, the same fight.”

The Gwich’in Tribe says the caribou herd’s migration and calving areas would be disturbed if Congress approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They’re hoping that attendees will write their representatives to urge protections for the area.

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