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First Nation fights to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Earlier this month, the Trump administration advanced its plans to auction drilling rights in the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to block oil exploration in the rugged Alaska wilderness.

The refuge is just inside Alaska’s border with Yukon. ANWR was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, to protect immense areas of wildlife and wetlands in the United States. This same refuge system also led to the creation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which conserves the wildlife of Alaska.

Vuntut National Park is located in northern Yukon  Canada. Its name comes from the  Gwichʼin for am...

Vuntut National Park is located in northern Yukon, Canada. Its name comes from the Gwichʼin for among the lakes.
Chris Kyrzyk

And just across the border in Yukon, Canada, are three Canadian National Parks, Ivvavik, Vuntut, and Kluane National Park and Reserve. Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks are on the migration route of the porcupine caribou herd and are major waterfowl habitats.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a contributing author for The Hill, writes that if the leases move forward, just mere days before Joe Biden is sworn in as the next president of the U.S., “it will make development much more difficult to stop because companies will have the legal right to extract oil and gas in the refuge.”

Arctic Refuge contains the largest area of designated Wilderness within the National Wildlife Refuge...

Arctic Refuge contains the largest area of designated Wilderness within the National Wildlife Refuge System, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” [The Wilderness Act, 1964].
U.S. Department of the Interior

No one has ever said President Donald Trump cared about anyone or anything but his own best interests, and Demientieff points out that even in the middle of a global pandemic, “instead of focusing on how they can be supportive of Indigenous communities, the Trump administration continues to disrespect and disregard sacred land to our people.”

Indigenous peoples, or as they are known in Canada – First Nation peoples, are very much connected both culturally and spiritually to the land, just as the Native American tribes are in the United States. And any harm to the land, water, or wildlife is in essence, also harming the Gwich’in.

Caribou calving grounds in the ANWR: 1983–2001

Caribou calving grounds in the ANWR: 1983–2001
United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The Gwich’in has a name for the coastal plain where the drilling will occur. It is called Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” Demientieff explains: “Since time immemorial, we have had a spiritual, physical and cultural connection to the Porcupine caribou. The caribou have the longest land migration of any animal on the planet.”

“Every year, the caribou travel thousands of miles through Canada and Alaska to the coastal plain where they give birth to up to 40,000 calves in a two-week period. This area is so sacred to us that we never step foot there, even in times of extreme famine.”

Reindeer  or caribou  are the only members of the deer family in which both males and females have a...

Reindeer, or caribou, are the only members of the deer family in which both males and females have antlers.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, the chief of the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation in Yukon, said the survival of the Porcupine caribou is linked to the survival of his nation, its culture, and identity, according to CBC Canada. And the Porcupine herd is extremely important to the Gwich’in.

“To this day, our children are born and are fed caribou broth [and] teethe on the bones, as our elders are fed choice parts from the caribou. So in every way, shape, and form, even our government and our way of life are informed by the Porcupine caribou herd.”

Porcupine caribou herd in 1002 Area  Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Porcupine caribou herd in 1002 Area, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Talking about Trump’s push to start drilling in the ANWR, “It’s all about development for development’s sake. So at this time, we do find ourselves in a last-ditch effort, like David versus Goliath, to ensure the protection of these lands, the protection of our nation moving forward,” he said.

Even though First Nations tribes and environmentalists are working to get banks and other lending institutions to refuse to take part in any energy projects in the refuge, it is the inauguration of Joe Biden that really gives people hope that there is a way to save the ANWR.

Opponents of drilling in the refuge hope that president-elect Joe Biden will follow through on his campaign commitment to permanently protect ANWR and other public lands from energy exploration.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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