Dispatches from the Desert

May 23, 2017

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the world’s last untouched wild places. Now, much like public lands across the Southwest, it’s facing the greatest threats in decades.

Members of the Gwich’in Nation, who have relied on the Arctic Refuge for survival for millennia, are traveling from the Arctic across the desert Southwest to raise the alarm and find common ground with communities that depend on public lands. We recently stopped in Las Vegas, Nevada where a warm welcome from leaders of the Las Vegas Paiute and Moapa Paiute Nations greeted us.

It was a very long ride. I was getting tired and decided that as soon as we got there I was going to sleep. That did not happen. One look and I automatically fell in love. I took a few minutes to thank Creator for bringing us to this land and for helping us understand the beauty of it. As I stared at the night skies my heart felt so grateful and honored to be there. The stars felt so close I literally fought my sleep because I didn’t want the night to end. We sometimes don’t realize what we have, what Creator provides for us. These Ancestral Homelands are special in so many ways, they connect us all and we must stand united to protect them for all time.

I felt so connected to the land. I even saw a falling star. And I wished that we would all unite and succeed in protecting our ways of life. This tour is truly a spiritual awakening. I am continuing to learn and strengthening our ties to our Native relatives in the southwest.— Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee

We woke up at 6:00 a.m. to take a tour of the new, and now threatened, Gold Butte National Monument. As we hiked through red rock formations, we paused to take in rock faces featuring petroglyphs ranging in age from 200 to thousands of years old. We also saw firsthand the reality of the need to protect this place—a bighorn sheep etching splashed with bullets.

The protections offered to Gold Butte by its national monument status are some of many now at risk under a Trump administration directive to review national monuments across the country. The intent of the review is clearly to roll back, and possibly even eliminate national monuments, much to the dismay of those whose history they protect.

My mind was wandering when we were on route to Gold Butte. I was tired and wondering what was at our destination deep into the desert. Camping out in Alaska includes a rifle and camping in the wilderness. Arriving at the camping spot took me away, especially the hill that is called First Rock. The hill had a red glow as the setting sun was hitting it. Beautiful.

Interacting with members from the Paiute tribe brought me back to my home and the Gwich’in Nation People. We so look alike.

Hiking into the rocks and seeing the petroglyphs was awesome. The first thing I thought about was the Pueblo Tribe and how they used to live in the rocks. Connecting with other tribes is empowering my mind to unite in support with other tribes. — James Nathaniel Jr. is a Board Member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The fragility of this place in the desert is like the tundra of the Arctic, and reminds us that we have to fight to protect both places to continue to sustain the life that has been here and continues to thrive. We are connected to these lands from very near and also very far.

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