Broken hearts
For centuries, the Gwich’in and the caribou have relied on each other in northeast Alaska. It is said that their hearts are interwoven. Now, the push for oil threatens the Gwich'in homeland, known as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins) Porcupine caribou herd females and calves along Jago River in coastal plain area proposed for oil drilling, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photos by Pam Miller, Arctic Connections.
Porcupine caribou herd females and calves along Jago River in coastal plain area proposed for oil drilling, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photos by Pam Miller, Arctic Connections.

Editor's note: Faith Gemmill was raised in a tiny village in Northeast Alaska, Vashraii K’oo (now known as Arctic Village) which is about 110 miles above the Arctic Circle. Her community is one of the smallest Gwich’in communities and is the farthest north Gwich’in village in Alaska. The village sits on the south side of the East Fork Chandalar River, which is the boundary that separates the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from Gwich’in land. This tribal land is surrounded by the 19 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The majestic Brooks Range Mountains serves as the boundary that separates the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the protected area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Though most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is protected land, the most important area, the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge, the 1.5 million acre coastal plain, is not currently under protected status. Congress decided that this area would be set aside as a study area (whether there was oil there and they should drill it or whether the wildlife values of the area were such that it should be permanently protected along with the rest of the Arctic Refuge). The decision about the coastal plain would be made through an act of Congress one day. There is constant pressure to drill for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This issue is now one of the most controversial issues of our time. The fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being debated ferociously in Congress; the Gwich’in voice is seldom heard in this debate. This is their story.

Faith Gemmill

Our people have always been reliant on the bounty of the land to provide for our needs. One of the most important animals we rely on is the caribou. I remember being taught how important the caribou is to our culture, our life. The caribou is central to Gwich’in culture, spirituality and social structure. We even have a creation story about the caribou.

In our Creation story it has been told that the Gwich’in came from the caribou, when there was a separation of humans from the animals. We have been told that there was an agreement between the caribou and the Gwich’in. From that time on…

“The Gwich’in would retain a part of the caribou heart and the caribou would retain a part of the Gwich’in heart…”

Jimmy John, Gwich'in from Arctic Village on Chandler River.

We have a spiritual bond with caribou and this is why the Gwich’in have steadfastly opposed oil and gas exploration and development of the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the past fifteen years. The Gwich’in Nation is composed of 15 isolated villages in Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada; we are a trans-boundary tribe consisting of 8,000 members. The Gwich’in continue to live a subsistence-based way of life that is reliant upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd. We speak with one voice in opposition to proposed oil and gas development of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit- The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

This area we consider sacred, it is the birthplace and nursery of the 123,000 member Porcupine Caribou Herd. Not only does the coastal plain support newborn caribou calves but also serves as a nesting area for over 135 species of migratory birds, a year round home to musk oxen, habitat for 36 species of fish, and important on-land denning habitat for polar bears. The Gwich’in people have an ancient belief that special places where animals go to bring forth life are very sacred, we do not intrude on those places during the time the animals are nesting, spawning, denning or birthing their young. Our belief system is of reverence and respect for all life forms. We are taught to respect the animals; we are connected to them in spiritual kinship. Besides, the teaching of our value of respect for animals, we have been taught to have a deep reverence and respect for the land. We rely on the land and the animals to meet our needs for survival in the North. We are the stewards of the lands within our traditional territories; and this is one of our highest priorities.

The Gwich’in rely upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd to meet our essential physical, cultural, spiritual, economic and social needs. We have maintained our ancestral way of life since time began, and we want to bestow this birthright upon our future generations. Oil development of this sacred place will have devastating impacts on our way of life, and the very health and well- being of the Gwich’in.

When we first learned of the proposed oil development of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we held the Gwich’in Niintsyaa gathering of 1988 in response to the threat. The Gwich’in Nation had not convened a traditional gathering such as this in over 150 years. We held this traditional meeting with the purpose of discussing the issue and making a collective decision on behalf of our people and the future of our children. Our elders, leadership and young people from every village were present at this traditional meeting. The elders led us in prayer and ceremony daily to guide our people in making the right decision on the matter. We unanimously decided to seek permanent protection of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. We speak with one voice to seek permanent protection of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I believe within my heart that the Gwich’in struggle to protect the Arctic Refuge came from a spiritual foundation. That is why this sacred area has not been violated. The other foundation of the Gwich’in struggle is that for us this issue is about the basic inherent fundamental human rights of the Gwich’in to continue to live our ancestral way of life. These rights are affirmed by Civilized Nations in the International Covenants on Human Rights. Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights read in part:

“In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence.”

We were told by our elders during the Gwich’in Niintsyaa gathering that we must educate the public about why we take such a strong position against oil development in the calving grounds and we must “Do It In A Good Way” and if we heeded this directive, we would be successful. So this is how we begun our grassroots campaign to protect Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit.

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains at this time the last 5 percent of Alaska’s Arctic coast that is still protected, 95 percent of Alaska’s Arctic coast is already open to oil and gas development. Why should the oil companies and their allies within the State of Alaska be gifted the last protected area, while they have so much already?

Prudhoe Bay truck on gravel road. The North Slope oil field extracts oil year-round, 24 hours a day.

The oil companies that seek access to the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge are British Petroleum (BP), ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and ChevronTexaco. The Pro-development allied forces are President Bush and his administration, The Alaskan Delegation, Teamsters, Arctic Power, The Alaskan State Legislature and For profit Native Corporations.

The dynamic that continues to play a role in this struggle is a historic act that haunts Alaskan Natives to this day, and we pay a dear price even now…The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 caused an alignment of the oil companies and the Federal Government. There was an urgency to settle the land claims in Alaska to provide access to our land’s riches for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Thus, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) was enacted. Once ANCSA became law, our Native lands became “corporate assets” of newly created for-profit Native Regional and Village corporations. Very few Alaska Native villages opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; two Gwich’in villages, Arctic Village and Venetie, opted out of ANCSA and chose to keep title to their lands. ANCSA conveyed ancestral lands to corporations, instead of the existing tribal governments, because Congress considered tribal governments an impediment to assimilation.

Native corporations are compelled to partner with multinational companies to allow access to their lands, which are now the corporations “assets”. ANCSA created this system where we now see our beautiful homelands being traded for profit, and irreparably destroyed. This is the legacy of ANCSA. I truly believe that the intent of the US government when they imposed ANCSA on Alaskan Native was to meet certain objectives 1. Access our ancestral homelands for resources 2. Create division among native peoples in Alaska (corporations vs. tribal) 3. Assimilate our Native peoples so that the ancient connection between ourselves and our lands is severed. Now the situation is that these government created Native corporations have one sole purpose, profit and the Native corporations continue to bridge unholy alliances with big transnational companies. Our lands and the health of our peoples are compromised by our own corporations too, and the corporations are not accountable to our Native peoples. When people hear that the Native people in Alaska want development, it is not the Native people, but it is the Native corporations that seek oil development of the Arctic Refuge and other areas in Alaska.

Though the Gwich’in and Inupiat corporations may not agree on the issue of drilling the Arctic Refuge, our elders have told us that we must still have respect for them. We understand that the reality is that the true forces and opponents of the Gwich’in are the oil companies and their allies in powerful positions in the State of Alaska and the US Government.

Although the Inupiat Arctic Slope Regional Corporation is the force that seeks development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and their campaign always highlights the “positive” aspects of development, there is an element of that story that does not get told.

Prudhoe Bay oil fields sprawl across more than 1,000 square miles of arctic tundra, the size of the state of Rhode Island.

The Gwich’in have maintained throughout these years that oil development is harmful; studies that have been done in regard to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge come to the same conclusion. I would like to stress the real impact the oil companies are leaving here in Alaska, and on the health and well being of Alaska’s Environment and the Native people that rely upon the land to provide for our subsistence needs.

A couple of years ago, there was an elder who spoke out publicly in the Arctic Sounder about the health of the Central Arctic Herd (the herd that is in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay) and he stated that the caribou from the Central Arctic Herd, is not fit to eat. The meat is a yellowish color.

In this debate about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, instead of trusting in thousands of years of stewardship and expertise of Native Peoples, Policy makers would rather believe accredited scientists so….

In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences found significant impacts to caribou resulted from oil development in its landmark study, Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope. The study cites impacts to caribou:

Conflicts with industrial activity during calving and summer disturbance, caused lower reproductive success for the Central Arctic Herd female caribou. The Porcupine Caribou Herd has a lower growth capacity and ability to resist natural and human-caused stress.

It also cited numerous impacts to the people and the environment of the North Slope;

• “Alterations to the North Slope physical environment have had aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual effects on human populations.” (p.222)

• “The committee heard repeatedly from North Slope Inupiat residents that the imposition of a huge industrial complex on the Arctic landscape was offensive to the people and an affront to the spirit of the land.” (p.223)

• “The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) fundamentally changed the relationship between North Slope Alaska Natives and the environment they had occupied for thousands of years. The effects of that change accumulate to the present.” (p.216)

• “North Slope residents also reported that traditional subsistence hunting areas have been reduced, the behavior and migratory patterns of key subsistence species have changed, and that there is increased incidence of cancer and diabetes and disruption of traditional social systems.” (p.224)

• “In addition to stress contributing to adverse health effects, oil development has increased the smog and haze near some villages, which residents believe is causing an increase in asthma. The stress of integrating a new way of life with generations of traditional teachings has increased alcoholism, drug abuse, and child abuse. Higher consumption of non-subsistence food…has increased the incidence of diabetes.” (p.225)

• “That few who live in the North Slope Borough are directly employed by the oil and gas industry has been noted for almost two decades (p.235-236)

• “In addition, Inupiat at Prudhoe Bay find they are a small minority in a primarily white workforce that can sometimes express hostility toward Alaska Natives. The jobs available to the Inupiat often are seen by them as menial or as token jobs.” (p.236)

• “Hunting the bowhead [whale] has been the Inupiaq cultural anchor as change has come to the North Slope. The ongoing, accumulating effects posed by offshore development, in the form of perceived threats, would be diminished only by clear evidence that the technology exists to mitigate large oil spills in broken ice. There is no evidence to date that such cleanups are possible…the size of bowheads makes them an extremely important food source.” (p. 219)

In summary oil development on the North Slope is causing severe harm to the land as well as to the health and well being of those that live with this development on a daily basis. There is no way that anyone can trust promises of oil companies and native corporations. The truth about all the oil development on the North Slope of Alaska is finally being revealed and governmental studies, combined with traditional ecological knowledge are concluding that oil development compromises the environment and has major impacts on wildlife, habitat and human populations.

The Gwich’in are really in a tough battle, but we will not lose hope, we are standing strong despite the powers that be in Congress and the State of Alaska. Since President Bush was elected into office the Arctic Refuge has been attacked constantly. We managed to defeat drilling provisions in the US Congress at least six times in the past two years. The most recent victory was the defeat of the provision to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the National Budget Bill. This victory was great for us since we won the vote on the eve of the war with Iraq.

Since the drilling proposal in the Budget Bill was defeated in the Senate, and anytime the proposal to drill in the Arctic Refuge moves in the Senate, it causes a stalemate and basically blocks passage of the bill that the language is buried in. We would hope that Congress would realize that Americans do not want to drill the Arctic Refuge, and they would honor their own constituents. But at this time the Refuge is once again hanging in the balance. The House of Representatives passed a version of the National Energy Bill that included a provision to drill the Arctic Refuge, but the Senate passed version of the National Energy Bill does not include any drilling language. At this time both the House and Senate are convening to merge both bill’s in the Energy Conference Committee, and they intend to come out with a comprehensive National Energy Bill to be voted on soon. We would like to see that the Arctic Refuge drilling provision is not included in the final version of the Energy Bill. Key Members of the Senate Energy Conference Committee need to be pressured to take the Arctic Refuge drilling provision out of the bill at this time. We still need pressure from constituents on their own Senator and Congressmen as well. Every single vote counts in the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Congress must realize that including drilling language in the energy bill, H.R. 6, or its conference report would seriously undermine efforts to bring comprehensive energy legislation to final passage.

When Congress finally does pass a National Energy Bill, I would hope that it would emphasize a course toward less reliance on fossil fuels and more reliance on renewable energy, which would protect unique and fragile places such as the Arctic Refuge from irreparable damage, as well as promote the concept of defending the inherent fundamental human rights of all people to

Arctic Village with Brooks Range mountains in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in background.

enjoy in perpetuity. The Gwich’in elders call for protection of the Refuge is part of a bigger vision, a vision for all humanity…We understand that the Earth’s resources are being depleted at such a rate, that the Earth cannot sustain life if we continue our path of unsustainable destruction for our energy consumption needs, it is time for us to change course as far as energy is concerned. That is what our elders told us in 1988, they said “ Tell them we do not do this for ourselves, we do this for all people.” The message of the Gwich’in must be heeded. The North is under attack now, and we need help to protect the last piece of land on our Arctic coastline that is still intact. I urge you to become involved in this battle and let your voice be heard. No drilling in the Arctic Refuge. As long as Indigenous Peoples continue to fight these battles for these sacred places, we are fulfilling the vision of our ancestors and protecting our future unborn. This in itself is a sacred responsibility that we have been endowed with by the Creator. It is now time for us to unite in spirit and stand for these last places.


About the author

Faith Gemmill currently serves as the program coordinator of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She is Neets’aii Gwich’in and works on behalf of the Gwich’in to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development.


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