The Film Tour Begins

May 22, 2017

Members of the Gwich’in Nation traveled from communities in the U.S. and Canada to Arizona to ask for support in the ongoing fight to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. James Nathaniel, board member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee; Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and her eight year old daughter Lexine; and Jeneen Frei Njootli who is from Old Crow, Canada and currently lives in Vancouver, arrived on May 18th in Phoenix, AZ.

All in all, Jeneen, James, Lexine, and Bernadette were embarking on an extended journey together. Phoenix was just the beginning of a 10-stop tour through the desert southwest to call for action to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, and connect with indigenous leaders in communities along the way.

It couldn’t have had a better start.

James is from Chalkystik, Alaska; Bernadette grew up in Fort Yukon [Gwich’in name?]; and Jeneen is from Old Crow, Canada but the three prepared to speak with one voice, on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation. They brought a film to share called “The Refuge”, recently created by the clothing company Patagonia to highlight the decades-long struggle to protect the coastal plain from oil development in order to protect the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd. These caribou are central to the survival of the Gwich’in Nation.

“What befalls the caribou befalls the Gwich’in people,” explained Bernadette at the first film screening in Tucson, AZ at the Screening Room downtown.

The Gwich’in were welcomed by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation , a powerful and heartfelt start to the journey. The “audience” of the film screening that first night in Tucson was just as engaged as the Gwich’in. What started as a Q&A after the film turned more into an open discussion between indigenous leaders from communities in the Arctic and communities in the southwest.


“We’re connecting to issues down here,” said Bernadette. “This is all linked; we are trying to survive and keep our identity alive.”

Rep Gonzales was quoted in Public News Service saying, “We’re part of Mother Earth. The people from the Arctic, they depend on the Caribou and they live off of the earth. And so, we stand with them in trying to stop anything that would further harm their environment.”

The next day in Phoenix was equally powerful, with over forty people showing up at noon at the Burton Barr Library downtown. Senator Jamescita Peshlakai warmly welcomed the Gwich’in delegation.

“I’m learning how to teach other people,” James said. “This is all new to me. I’m going to take this back home. The bottom line here is: unite.”

The Q&A at Burton Barr lasted about one full hour, with the audience asking questions ranging from the impacts of climate change on the Arctic to wildlife management.

“I’m surprised at how many people didn’t know protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is a human rights issue,” Bernadette said. This underscored the need for this tour, and for continued communication and education.

James added, “I was trying really hard during the Q&A to differentiate between climate change and stopping oil development. Nobody knew that we are fighting to stop the oil. There were many questions about land, animal management, and climate change, but the issue we are here for now is the oil drilling.”

Just before leaving Arizona, the Gwich’in delegation had a wonderful breakfast with Carletta Tilousi. Carletta is a Hava Subai Councilwoman who traveled to meet them in Phoenix. She shared experiences from her work since age 16 to fight uranium development and for her people.

“It sounds identical – what they are dealing with, and what we are dealing with, “Bernadette said. “It sounds so familiar, and now I don’t feel alone. I have so many thoughts on how to bring more unity not just to Alaska tribes, but this way also. I have some ideas that I can’t wait to bring back.”

Jeneen said, “ I’m grateful to connect with some of the local Indigenous leaders, protectors, mothers, advocates and allies. Our paths are crossing now for a reason. Their support, shared struggles and efforts are not only vital but also moving. Everyone we met has expressed interest and necessity in working together to protect our lands, waters, beings and ways of life.”

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