Far Away and Close: Training for Arctic Refuge Alliance

by Julianne Lutz Warren

Photo by Ken Madsen

There were these looming animals coming downhill toward me. They had four long legs. I thought at first they were moose, but they weren’t. They were dark-eyed with wide noses and something like colorful ribbons hanging from pairs of fingering antlers. The streamers tangled around the animals’ heads and firm bodies. Somehow I felt these beings must be caribou, though surely they were strange ones.

First Entry

You know that uncanny feeling when something in your day life jolts a still-sleeping dream vividly awake? That’s what happened about an hour into the meeting hosted by the Gwich’in Steering Committee in Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall. As a newcomer to Fairbanks, Alaska, I had never been to the Hall before. In fact, I had tried three other buildings before finally finding it. I crossed over the parking lot’s snowpack, now softening in spring sunlight. I entered through heavy double doors into an open and large meeting room with a blood-orange floor. Like the log exterior, the interior was knotty wood. Rows of small rectangular tables were set up. Each sat two people facing a raised stage backed by large windows. Hung over the stage was the sky blue flag of the Gwich’in Nation. The “o” in “Nation” is a round red planet silhouetting the face and antlers of a caribou who is standing erect, nose stretching upward.

I was here for “Arctic Refuge Advocacy Training.” This was an intensive workshop on the history, politics, and avenues for defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain from oil and gas drilling. The coastal plain is the traditional calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd with whom the Gwich’in Nation has long been intertwined — nutritionally, culturally, and spiritually. This training, in other words, was for Gwich’in people and others wishing — as allies — to help them protect their ways of life. The two-day meeting was led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s executive director Bernadette Demientieff with support from Trustees for Alaska’s attorney Brook Brisson and Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign representative, Alli Harvey.

I entered a tad late. Bernadette was amid telling how her organization, formed back in 1988, had already been working for thirty years as a unified voice resolved to defend the coastal plain from persistent industry threats. After sitting down at a table in the back row, I tried to listen while getting my bearings. I was next to a woman who had nodded it was okay for me to take the chair next to her. The backs of almost all of the other twenty-some heads grew dark hair. Mine is blonde.

My eyes lingered on the flag’s bright image over Bernadette’s head. It was then that the previous night’s peculiar animals jolted to mind, only to be absorbed just as quickly into the present moment. Dreams come and go like that. This one also left a more lingering imprint. I felt in my bones that no matter how genuine my care for the land and its life, I was approaching as a stranger from a relative distance.

This tension between distance and intimacy raises an uneasy question. How might I — a woman of Dutch and Welsh descent born into middle class white, suburban America — properly make common cause with a group of Alaska Natives whom my people had colonized?

The Law’s Passage

It was March now. Just three months earlier, on December 20, 2017, President Donald Trump had signed a law — P.L. 115–97 — disregarding the needs of Gwich’in Athabascan people and striking their heart. This law legalized oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain, the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, also the biological heart of the Refuge.

The coastal plain (also perfunctorily called the “10–02 Area”) is known by the U.S. government as the 1.6 million-acre eastern region of the “North Slope” (the land north of the crest of the Brooks Mountain Range and between Canada and the Chukchi Sea) of Alaska.

Before Alaska statehood, the federal government already had segregated an 8.9 million-acre part of northeastern Alaska — including the coastal plain — in recognition of its special values for wildlife.

After statehood, in 1960, this entire 8.9 million acres became the Arctic National Wildlife Range.

In 1980, The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act designated the range as a “wilderness area” — excluding the coastal plain. The Act also encompassed the whole range, both wilderness and plain, and doubled its size to create the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (cursorily “ANWR”).

The 1980 Act’s Section 1003 prohibited oil and gas leasing and development in the whole Refuge, including from the original range’s coastal plain, unless authorized by an act of Congress.

The new law P.L. 115–97 is that congressional authorization.

When Congress passed this law, they did not do it out in the open, democratically. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Chair of the US Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, arranged to attach the drilling legislation to a bill that could not be filibustered and would only require 50 votes. The $1.1 billion federal share of coastal plain lease sales projected over the coming decade thus became a budgetary line item appended to the 2018 tax bill — explained in two brief, final pages. The Senator admits that she did this quietly to avoid triggering opposition.

In passing this law, Congress openly disregarded Gwich’in People along with seventy percent of registered voters who are against Refuge drilling (including a majority of Republicans). A strong majority, for various reasons, do not want to use this swath of charismatic wildland as an energy warehouse.

Before P.L. 115–97, the coastal plain had been the only five percent of the North Slope at least temporarily protected by statute from drilling. It was a refuge from surrounding extractive uses. Put another way, it was the only five percent protected for non-commodified, non-industrialized life.

Reflection

Long before there was a U.S. government, and even long before the emergence of a Western culture of division — that is, a culture that forces land into tugs-of-war between industrial civilization and “wilderness” — there have been caribou and Gwich’in People. Gwich’in, as well as Iñupiat Peoples, have lived as members of “the Refuge” region for millennia.

The Refuge’s ancient coastal plain, recently repurposed by a swift Congressional coup, is a 110-mile long and relatively narrow twenty to forty-mile-wide band of tundra between the Beaufort Sea and Brooks Range. This unique place grows nutritious, milk-enriching plants between breezy ocean, discouraging mosquitoes, and rugged mountains that thwart wolves. These features encourage caribou cows of the Porcupine Herd to tuck in, bear and suckle their calves in springtime.

Gwich’in People know this ground as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit or “the sacred place where life begins.” This nursery is so sacred, they do not even step into it, not even in times of famine.

My effort to grasp such respect for the life-givingness of this landscape brings to mind some lines of agrarian poet Wendell Berry: “Ask yourself: Will this satisfy/ a woman satisfied to bear a child?/ Will this disturb the sleep/ of a woman near to giving birth?”

Ask myself: Can I begin to imagine closing the distance in my perception between a woman and caribou cow, a human child and a calf?

Entanglements

I wasn’t sure at first how to read my table mate, a woman, perhaps my age, with what seemed slightly teasing eyes and a smooth face. She had nodded, though, and moved her papers aside, making space as I looked at the empty chair next to her. I set down my insulated bottle full of hot tea as un-disruptively as possible. I sipped at my drink throughout that first morning, glancing a little nervously at my neighbor, gauging her affability. Later, she asked me if my bottle kept my drink really hot. I said it did. We agreed on how hard it can be to find such a worthy vessel. I clutched my bottle proudly, as I munched on half a powdered donut during a break.

We introduced ourselves. Her name was Aleta Ketzler. As we talked more, I learned that Aleta was from Fort Yukon. Her dad, at the age of 93, had died less than a year ago. His name was Simon Francis, Sr. Aleta showed her dad’s picture on her phone. I admired his beautiful fur and skin clothing. We also ended up excitedly exchanging moose pictures for a few minutes — hers from hunts, mine taken standing on the deck of our house. Aleta and her family would be heading to their camp up the Porcupine River this summer, maybe for the last time. Her dad had grown up there, and returned with his own kids to trap and hunt. Simon Francis knew how to do things, to build and make boats, sleds, and snowshoes. As Traditional Chief of Fort Yukon, he also taught others.

Aleta also shared a well-known story about her dad. Simon Francis had been the youngest of many children, she said. When he was seven, his parents took him along the river from his birthplace of Whitehorse, Canada to the home of his Aunt Bella and Uncle Adam Francis in Old Village. This was land that would become part of the U.S. state of Alaska, not far from the southeastern edge of the Refuge. Simon Francis’s parents left him with this aunt and uncle, who were childless, to raise as their own. Aleta said, happily, the three had adored each other. I said, “wow,” looking straight at her. Hearing this is a great gift, I said. I never bore a child, though I wanted to. The idea of relatives entrusting me with one born to them allowed me to imagine another possible world of sharing. Considering afresh how one pair’s fecundity can be culturally joined with another’s also helped me make the leap to how human beings’ intergenerational survival might be tied to that of another kind of being — that is, to caribou.

Ask yourself: “Will this satisfy/ a caribou cow satisfied to bear a calf?/ Will this disturb the sleep/ of a caribou cow near to giving birth?”

Digging for Truth

Caribou cows with newborn calves are particularly sensitive. They will move as much as a mile-and-a-half away from human disturbance. Within the relatively narrow sweep of coastal plain, there is not much alternative space into which displaced cows could move their young. This is especially relevant because the processes and infrastructure that would be required to take oil and gas from the Porcupine Herd’s calving grounds are far more significant than the industry-representing politicians say. “Responsible development is limited to just 2,000 federal acres within the 1002 Area — just one ten-thousandth of all of ANWR,” Senator Murkowski insists, with the Alaska delegation in hearty agreement. Yet, details of the 2018 Congressional Report on ANWR illuminate how misleading this claim is.

Under P.L. 115–97, the ground calculated into that 2000-acre limit includes only airstrips and the area touched by piers holding up pipeline. It does not acknowledge the amount of land strapped under pipelines, nor “temporary” roads, which would sprawl across far more space. Seismic evidence suggests coastal plain fossil hydrocarbons would not be in one big well, but in many smaller dispersed areas. Mining the coastal plain would thus require many scattered drilling pads, connective pipes, and roads, which would also add expense. And, even before the roads, pipes, and facilities got built, the industry would send in a fleet of fifty-six-thousand-pound “thumper trucks” driving in grids spaced at a half-mile or less to update seismic testing. Additionally, the new drilling techniques touted by developers as environmentally advanced, are not only pricier than older ones, they require fluids of undisclosed content. Water would be drained from Refuge rivers. Along with the threat of oil spills, then, chemical brews used in drilling would become waste injected and left behind under the permafrost, the same permafrost that is melting due to climate change from burning oil and gas. Of course, this is the very same permafrost that has been supporting the coastal plain soil and vegetation supporting caribou giving birth to their calves supporting Gwich’in People and culture for millennia.

Injury and Healing

The Gwich’in Nation would feel mining consequences the most, urges Bernadette repeatedly to journalists, legislators, and every audience she can reach. “We will lose our food security and our way of life,” she reiterates, “To me this is not an environmental decision, but a cultural one. This is about the human rights of the Gwich’in People.” It is also about the flourishing of present and future generations. In 2016, youth contributed to The Ni’inlii Declaration. This was crafted at the Nation’s biennial gathering in Vashrii K’oo or “Arctic Village” located just south of the Brooks Range and the Refuge boundary. “We live between two forever-changing worlds,” the youth stated, “and we need to find our own voice and have it be heard.”

Gwich’in experience already includes all-too-recent historic injustices and looming threats imposed systematically by colonial power — power that takes what is wanted for its ruling classes while repurposing or discarding all else as useless or harmful. In 1867, the U.S. government paid Russia a few cents per acre for lands never ceded by Alaska Natives to either country. Alaska Natives and their lifeways were not valued by the U.S. government, who set about trying to assimilate them into “civilization.” This process included educating Alaska Native children away from their parents and their ancestral lifescapes to recast the youth in the dominating culture’s image. It forbade children speaking first languages in boarding schools and thwarted traditional practices by definition interwoven with their home places. This process also took control of those places, re-conceiving them as corporate warehouses of commodities — fur, gold and copper, fish, timber, oil and gas. Unpolluted waters, unmarketable species, self-renewing land-communities as wholes, and a habitable global climate were discounted…or uncounted.

Trying to separate the inseparable — people from each other, cultures from land, one part of land from another — has predictably traumatic consequences. For Gwich’in People, still unfolding harms include increasing food insecurity. Putting the Porcupine Caribou Herd at risk means putting interwoven spiritual relationships, culture, and eighty percent of traditional Gwich’in diet at risk. Meanwhile, imported food sold at village stores is extremely expensive, like milk at over ten dollars a gallon. The suicide rate among young Alaska Native men is three times higher than their non-Native counterparts. There has been a surge in use and deaths by opioids among Native communities that is likewise far higher than for other groups. Toxins from far away are carried on wind and water currents, enter the Arctic food chain, including nursing mothers. The list of statistics indicating historic systemic injury to Gwich’in and other Alaska Natives is long. Systemic harms, including opening the Refuge to drilling and climate change, undermine conditions for successful subsistence and health.

In this room, I hear the Gwich’in People’s enduring, fiercely resilient spirit wanting to heal, training to fight for the coastal plain and the caribou. They shouldn’t have to do this; they shouldn’t have to keep doing this generation after generation. They surely shouldn’t have to do it alone.

Reflection

Until I moved to Fairbanks and made my first Gwich’in friends, I had thought of the Refuge, and wanted to defend it, primarily in unpeopled terms. Like many Euro-settlers, even if I never set foot in it, I liked to imagine mysterious lands running with captivating non-human animals like polar bears, musk oxen, caribou, snow geese, and at least 134 other bird-kinds. I liked to imagine a place so different from what I’ve known that it makes other worlds feel possible. I liked there to be an “away” because I have learned that my usual “here and now” is neither sustainable nor healthy. I attended vet school and became a wildlife ecologist out of love for other-than-human animals. Threats to the flourishing of all kinds of beings in an age of unprecedented human-caused extinction, pain me deeply and rouse me to action.

Twentieth-century ecological-ethical thinker Aldo Leopold came to see that single resource management was a form of land abuse cutting against long-evolved interdependencies. Land-abuse recovery, Leopold helped me to grasp, would require deep shifts in my own dominating culture and its systems to move from degenerative to re/generative land uses. But, part of that shift Leopold did not directly engage, nor had I until more recently, was enlarging respect for pre-existing, lifescape-adaptive cultures. There are cultures that don’t need deep shifting, but rather release from persistent colonizing attitudes and systems.

In her raps, Alaska Native artist AKU-MATU (Allison Akootchook Warden, Iñupiaq) voices pain while elevating a geography of self-liberation and community healing:

surrounded by riot gear

no refuge

no space for peace

she stands still

her power

extending into the earth

her heart holds

the tide now

when your decolonized mind

sees the madness

the disease

take a moment to transform it

visualize the most healed version

hold that space

In this room, I am surrounded by Gwich’in people holding “that space,” even while generously welcoming me into it.

I need to check myself, again. Colonizers, even those of us trying not to be, may end up appropriating not only land and culture, but also taking credit for soothing the very wounds they have made.

Ask yourself: Am I helping hold space for silenced voices? Am I taking space for myself, perpetrating my birth-culture’s harmful domination rather than being part of transforming it?

Vision and Borders

The 2016 Ni’inlii Declaration concludes with this conviction: “Gwich’in will stand together and safeguard our vision of the future and ensure its delivery into the world through our youth with guidance from our Elders and Vit’eegwigwaach’yaa this will come to pass.”

A young Gwich’in man stands now during our second day of training dedicated to “Public speaking and telling your story.” David Smith of Vashraii K’oo/Arctic Village bears witness to his people’s entwinement with caribou and the coastal plain. There is a common saying, “Where the caribou go, so do the Gwich’in.”

The Porcupine Herd generally winters within the Northwest Territories of Canada and migrates north to the coastal plain in Alaska in spring and back again — up to 3,000 miles annually. The caribou herd, not the imposed political boundary, determines where Gwich’in live. In 1987, the U.S. and Canada signed an international caribou conservation agreement. The Gwich’in People across the landscape are not letting either settler government forget their treaty.

The Gwich’in’s 13 villages and tribes — about 9,000 people — are spread along the Herd’s traditional routes on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Earlier that day, Sharon James, a woman with a ponytail and warm smile at the table next to Aleta and me, had patiently pointed out on a map locations of some of these villages, including her own of Birch Creek. She told me an old story about tribal scouts tripping over the tangled antlers of two caribou bulls who had died locked in a fight. Buried under snow, their frozen meat had saved the starving people who set up a village in that spot.

While the Porcupine Herd has ranged within the same big area for many thousands of years, precise migration paths are variable. The ribboning patterns of colorful aurora, David told us — his eyes dancing with his insight — help hunters predict springtime routes. In spring, first the pregnant cows travel to the coastal plain. Later the bulls with the yearlings head north to join them. David stressed how hunters must respect the bulls traveling with the Herd. They are teaching the young where to go and what to expect. It is better for the community to kill a lone bull, he said, as he waved an extended hand antler-like. David ended with a challenge. Come visit him in Arctic Village. Actually walk on Gwich’in ancestral land, maybe even encounter some caribou. Anyone who does will understand why inseparable Gwich’in ways of life and the Refuge supporting them must be defended from oil and gas industries.

Reflection

I could smell lunch cooking as David talked. The simmering caribou stew smelled warm and sweet. A vegetarian would not do well living in the Arctic. As I chewed, the meat became part of my body as it has brought health to generations of Gwich’in people. Caribou people eat whom they honor as part of themselves. I am going to have to keep thinking about that.

Valuations

A Bible story from my Christian upbringing returns to mind when I consider the ways oil and gas pushers weigh up the Refuge. In Genesis 25 a starving hunter named Esau agrees to sell his birthright to his brother Jacob, a cook, for a single bowl of stew.

Of course, fossil hydrocarbons are not even edible. And, politicians intending to auction off oil and gas leases on the coastal plain would be doing so in exchange, not for their own, but for others’ birthrights, that is, for the capacity of this land to renew life and human culture..

The actual U.S. federal calculations go something like this: According to average figures from the 2018 Congressional “Overview,” during the forty-year presumed life of the fields, the coastal plain might yield over seven billion barrels of oil. This might amount to a single year’s supply for the U.S. at current use rates, although the new law also does not prohibit export of the Refuge’s oil and gas. The report also finds it unlikely, at current values, that coastal plain natural gas would be economically recoverable.

In terms of oil revenue, the high-end projected federal total, again spread across forty years, might come to $296 billion, with another $175 billion funding Alaska. The estimated federal income would not even pay off half of this current year’s budget deficit. For Alaska, the money would not cover even a single human generation’s worth of annual state budgets.

At the same time, keeping global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down for habitable climate conditions requires keeping at least two-thirds of already proven oil and gas reserves underground, not discovering more.

Far from balancing any budget, leasing the coastal plain would be a senseless, regrettable theft of public trust. For a mere bowl of oil, drilling and burning more fossil hydrocarbons would undermine the very foundations of Gwich’in lifeways, as well as a habitable global climate, durable economies, justice and democracy.

Reflection

I think of the words of another poet, an urban one, Sharon Olds: “Dear Dirt,” she writes, “I am sorry I slighted you,/…It’s as if I had loved only the stars/ and not the sky which gave them space/ in which to shine./ Subtle, various,/ sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,/ you’re our democracy…”

If one of the basics of democracy is that those who are affected by a decision get an equitable say in making it, then, when it comes to the coastal plain — the dirt must be heard, the rocks, rivers and atmosphere must be heard, the cotton grass, caribou, the caribou people must be heard, and, all of the seventy percent of U.S. registered voters who do not agree to drilling in this public land must be heard. We must listen to each other. We must not hesitate to act. Justice is a duty. Grace is a gift. Earth is an alliance.

Working Together

Throughout our training Bernadette and others facilitated discussions on teamwork. How to keep oil and gas machines from entering the coastal plain? How to keep the land’s wholeness, beauty, and health?

P.L. 115–97 was written aggressively. A National Environmental Policy Act analysis typically includes a “no-action alternative,” which means leaving things as they are. In the case of the coastal plain such an alternative would have meant no drilling. This option is overshadowed, however, by the new law’s requirement for lease sales.

Additionally, the administration is fast-tracking these sales and drilling plans.

Derailing them is possible, however.

Immediate Action Points: Comment in the Scoping Process

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is tasked with implementing P.L. 115–97. They are doing so in a rush that is democratically erosive, culturally exclusive, and environmentally reckless. The haste also reveals the deceit in Senator Murkowski’s promise to “do it right.”

The law requires the Bureau of Land Management to hold at least two lease sales within ten years, the first to happen before 2022. The Bureau intends to move even faster than that. They want to hold the first lease sale in 2019. This means hurrying the public commenting process and procedures of scientific review.

The Department swiftly opened the 60-day public commenting period, starting April 20 to close June 19. The purpose is “to identify relevant issues that will influence the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement and guide its development.”

For due process, an immediate action BLM needs to take is translation of all coastal plain communications into and from Gwich’in and other Native languages — languages of those who would be most directly affected by leasing and drilling.

There are two ways to submit comments — in writing and in-person. On May 9, the BLM announced a minimal number of meetings — six within Alaska and only one outside, in Washington D.C. If a community raises strong interest, however, the BLM may agree to schedule additional meetings.

Later, after the Draft Environmental Impact Statement has been released, there will be another period for public comment and meetings.

Legislative and Political Action Points: Lobby Congress and Make Elections Count

Given the brevity of P.L. 115–97, likely due to limitations placed on it as a tax bill stow-away, aside from the “no-action alternative,” there are plenty of details that Congress could insist be fleshed out. These include attention to compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (see above), including e.g., shrinking industry “footprints.” Legal challenges will also require proper judicial review. These could include meeting the 1987 U.S.-Canadian agreement “to avoid or minimize” caribou-disruptive activities and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Congress also could outright reverse P.L. 115–97. On May 22, California Representative Jared Huffman and colleagues introduced the “Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act” that would repeal the drilling law. Congress also could pass a bill to establish the coastal plain as Wilderness (two have already been introduced H.R. 1889 and S. 820), which also would be consistent with the January 2015 “Arctic NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan.”

Pulling off the above will require lobbying Congress and organizing to elect Refuge health-supporting candidates.

Corporate Leveraging: Deter Oil and Gas Corporations and Re-orient Funders

Complementing legislative tactics are campaigns targeting the fossil fuel industry and their lending banks.

Curbing climate change risks will require moving hundreds of billions of dollars to decarbonized ventures, stranding those left in fossil fuels. With the 2015 Paris Agreement, most of the world’s countries are in this transition.

Fiscal and ethical arguments mesh. The global, grass-roots fossil fuel divestment campaign, for instance, is grounded in a moral argument. In the words of founder Bill McKibben: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage.”

Within the context of global energy and financial transition, the case against more drilling anywhere is strong. There are additional deterrents to entering the coastal plain. In the Arctic, difficult access and harsh weather contingencies make fossil fuel mining a particularly risky — and expensive — business, and one with considerable reputational hazards. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, for instance, has already directed a letter to oil and gas companies and their banks warning that if any initiate coastal plain drilling, their brand “would be associated with trampling on human rights, destroying one of the world’s last remaining intact wild places, and contributing to the climate crisis.” This letter was signed by over one hundred organizations and is supported by another letter from investors representing $2.5 trillion in assets.

At the same time, on the reinvestment by side, the U.S. has been seeing “explosive growth” in renewable energy jobs, yet has been outpaced by the EU and China, indicating even more potential. Wind industry jobs are already double that of coal, and solar employs even more. Alaskan communities are already moving forward in renewables. Remote communities have integrated renewables into their power grids better than anywhere else. As this report supported by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Greenpeace explains, Alaska is poised for energy transition.

Negative and positive tactics targeting the fossil fuel industry and funders are both needed. Negative ones include divestment and lobbying against companies, e.g. ConocoPhillips, BP, and ExxonMobil and against lenders funding them (as the World Bank has already chosen). At the same time, positive approaches can promote reinvestment in re/generative energy economy transitions, including by tribes, particularly within Alaska (Native Corporations are attached to, but do not necessarily speak for Nations or tribes).

Hearing Voices

“Don’t speak for others” was on the list of basic “Arctic Refuge Advocacy Training” principles. This was one I needed to practice in our last exercise, which was to rehearse personal narratives of entwinement with the Porcupine Caribou Herd, dependent upon the coastal plain.

We were assigned to small groups. As the only non-Gwich’in member of a cluster of four, what could my role be except to listen, respect the space for others to speak, encourage others’ voices? Coming from a colonizing culture, perhaps performing this shift of my own norms would be the most important contribution I could offer.

My three teammates were David Smith, who had stood up earlier to share about hunting and caribou bulls, and Sharon James, who had helped me with the map, along with Brenan Firth from Tetlit Zheh (aka Fort McPherson, Canada), whom I had not yet met.

When it came time to present our prepared stories as a team, Sharon spoke first. She appeared to freeze a little, perhaps a bit nervous. I overcame a flickering impulse to jump in. It seemed right to ask a simple question: “How did it feel when you were at school away from your village?” After this prompt, Sharon’s words flowed. David, likewise, then, asked an eliciting question of Brenan, helping amplify his soft-spoken manner. David gave his story last.

Reflection

During our group’s story-telling, I had felt a deepening sense of community. This felt really good. Yet, I still felt a bit anxious about my role, about how I fit in or might not. I also kept wondering whether I could trust myself not to trip up and perpetuate my culture’s offenses.

Ask yourself: Why should Gwich’in People trust an outsider like me, someone whose closest approach to a caribou herd had been a weird dream?

As our team debriefed, I blurted out — What, if anything, as a non-Gwich’in ally, might you want or not want from me? To improve, David reiterated his earlier message: Come visit his village.

As we all returned to our tables, getting ready to leave, Aleta brought me a tall cup of hot caribou broth. The day before, she had given me extra soup for my dog, who was waiting patiently in the car. After rinsing out my trusty tea bottle, I handed it over with a grin to Aleta as a small keepsake.

Before I left, Sharon leaned toward me with a bit of a laugh, “You’ve been Gwich’inized,” she said.

I felt a little more awake.


Julianne Warren is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition and other writings about ecosphere interrelations. She writes in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she is also a council member of Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition. She also keeps strong ties with her birth state of New York. You can learn more about her work here: www.coyotetrail.net