Protect Arctic Refuge to support indigenous communities

By Bernadette Demientieff

In the northernmost part of the U.S. is a place like no other, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s Coastal Plain, its biological heart, spans more than 1.5 million acres and is full of wildlife. It is also at the heart of a Native culture that has existed on its lands since time immemorial. The Arctic Refuge is the home of my people, the Gwich’in. We have relied on this irreplaceable land for our existence for as long as we can remember.

Recently, I traveled to Arctic Village, Alaska, to participate in the biannual Gwich’in Gathering. The Gathering is a time for rejuvenation and renewal, for bringing together family and friends, and for planning the future together. This year’s Gathering was all of this and more — we found love, support, unity and joy coming together as one Gwich’in Nation. Together we are stronger and more sure of the future we will leave to our children.

Gwich’in like me are fighting to protect the Arctic Refuge because we understand that if this special, spiritual place is lost, so is our way of life. Our children deserve to see the world and live off the lands as it was in the beginning and not just when we are done using it.

We are a caribou people, and we call the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or “the sacred place where life begins.” The Porcupine caribou herd is 140,000 strong and annually engages in the longest land migration on Earth to the Coastal Plain, where they give birth to their calves and life begins anew. We have relied on these special creatures for food, clothing and our subsistence way of life for thousands of years. At our gathering, we passed a resolution recommitting to protecting the Porcupine caribou herd and the lands of the caribou.

Despite its importance to us and to hundreds of species of wildlife, the Arctic Refuge is in danger. The oil industry and its allies have had their eyes on our homeland for decades. They are unconcerned with destroying our way of life and the home of Porcupine caribou herd. Oil companies and their friends in Congress have tried to ignore my voice and that of thousands of Alaska Natives who have stood up to demand justice through the protection of the Arctic Refuge.

Fortunately, millions of Americans recognize that protecting the Arctic Refuge is a human rights issue. And the voices joining ours are growing ever louder and more diverse. By sharing our stories, we help all Americans understand that they have a connection to the Arctic and an obligation to protect it.

Just recently, Lorraine Netro — a Gwich’in leader — attended two summits, one in Yosemite to speak with Outdoor Afro and one in the Grand Tetons to speak with GreenLatinos. At each, she conversed with leaders about protecting the Gwich’in way of life, and the importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, and the protection of sacred lands. By joining together as part of the We Are the Arctic coalition, they make our movement strong.

Our ancestors took care of the Earth for us, and now it is our responsibility to take care of her. Personally, I want to take care of the Arctic Refuge for future generations and for my children. I look forward to working with other indigenous communities, Congress and President Barack Obama to protect this sacred place. Please join us to protect the Arctic Refuge once and for all.

Bernadette Demientieff is the acting executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Originally published at on August 15, 2016.