Gwich’in Leaders Travel to New York to Tell Banks: Defend the Arctic Refuge

By Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director, Gwich’in Steering Committee

This week, I traveled more than 4,000 miles from home to meet with major banks and urge them to help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from destructive oil drilling and exploration. In all the years I’ve worked to defend this place, we’ve been focused on trying to make our voices heard in Congress, and I never thought I’d be sitting in a conference room on the 43rd floor of a bank’s global headquarters in downtown New York City talking about the Arctic Refuge. Times have changed. We have an administration in Washington, DC that have already made up their minds about drilling on the coastal plain. They are trying to jam-pack a review that should take years into just a few months so that drilling can start as soon as possible. It’s time for us to get creative and to work with people and institutions we wouldn’t have thought to work with before to protect the sacred place where life begins. We met with many of the top banks in the country — JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and more — to urge them to use their power to stand with the Gwich’in and pledge not to support drilling in the coastal plain.

This isn’t the first time the banks have heard from us. This spring, we were joined by more than 100 environmental and Indigenous rights groups and a group of institutional investors representing $2.52 trillion in assets in sending letters to oil companies and the banks that fund them calling on them not to initiate or support any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. But this week I had the opportunity to meet with them face to face and explain the importance of protecting the coastal plain and the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, what we call “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

I know it can be hard for people who live in a place like New York City to understand what our lives are like and why this place matters to us so much. They can’t imagine what it would be like to live in our traditional ways and subsist off the land because it’s so far removed from their own experience, and maybe it sounds unrealistic to them that we share a spiritual connection with the Porcupine caribou herd. But my people have lived in this place for thousands of years, and the hearts of the Gwich’in Nation and the Porcupine caribou herd have been linked since time immemorial. Our creation story tells that the Gwich’in will always keep a part of the caribou heart, and the caribou will always keep a part of the Gwich’in heart. The future of the Gwich’in and the future of the caribou are the same. “What befalls the caribou; befalls the Gwich’in.”

In our meetings this week, I explained how drilling in the coastal plain, where the caribou calve their young, would harm the herd and disrupt the migratory route they’ve been following for centuries. I told them how this would threaten the Gwich’in way of life and food security of my people, who depend on the caribou for 80% of our diet.

I also shared how Alaska is ground zero for climate change, a problem that drilling for more oil in the Arctic would only make worse. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have villages that are washing away and sinking into the ocean. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is the last thing we need. I explained to them that any corporation that’s seeking to destroy this sacred place, whether they’re Native or not, does not represent the Gwich’in people, who stand united in our defense of the coastal plain. The Arctic Refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath. It’s the heart of my people and our food security, our way of life, and our very survival depends on its protection. Our identity is not up for negotiation.

It’s not easy to do this work. Even when I’m exhausted and I’d rather be home with my family, I know that I can’t give up. At our last Gwich’in gathering, our elders reminded us that we come from strong people, who survived some of the coldest, harshest winters. They protected this land for us, and we have the same responsibility to future generations.

They reminded us to: “Tell the world we’re here, do it in a good way, and don’t compromise.” . Giving up is not an option. Therefore we will continue to be land protectors and we will keep fighting in every hearing, every Senate office, every courtroom, and every corporate boardroom. The Gwich’in Nation will stand up to anyone who seeks to destroy this place.