ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska ? "Caribou is not just what we eat, it is who we are," said Sarah James, one of eight spokespersons who represent the 7,500-member Gwich'in Nation in Alaska and Canada.
In this small village of 152 people 80 miles above the Arctic Circle where there are no roads or grocery stores, the caribou provide 75 percent of the protein the people eat, she said.
"Caribou is in our dances, our stories, songs and the whole way we see the world. It's our boots and our mittens. Caribou is how we get from one year to another."
James has made that explanation countless times over more than a decade since she was chosen, along with seven others, to go tell the world about the struggle they face as traditional people to protect the caribou and keep their simple way of life.
When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 was being considered, Arctic Village chose not to go the way of corporate structures and instead agreed to keep its traditional government which decides issues by consensus.
As oil exploration and drilling took hold on Alaska's North Slope, the Gwich'in became concerned about the impacts oil development might have on their main source of subsistence ? the Porcupine caribou herd, so named for the Porcupine River.
At that time, the herd was larger, about 170,000 strong, but any change in their migration route or environment could cause those numbers to drop, they reasoned. The Porcupine herd annually migrates in the spring and fall across 700 miles of rugged mountains, frozen rivers and deep snowdrifts to reach its calving grounds on the coastal plain.
Following the traditional way of dealing with problems, the Gwich'in consulted the eldest person among them, Myra Kaye, who was then more than 100 years old. She advised them to call a meeting of all Gwich'in peoples to air their concerns, an event that had never occurred in her lifetime.
Chiefs from 14 Gwich'in communities spread across eastern Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon called a historic meeting in Arctic Village in the summer of 1988. James said the people listened at length to the elders' stories of the caribou's important place in their lives.
And at the end, the elders chose eight representatives from each community to serve on Gwich'in Steering Committee and gave them the mission of taking their plight to the international community in hopes of gaining support for their cause.
Since then, James and her counterparts have traveled the world on a shoestring budget made up donations from the environmental community and other Native organizations.
The venues they speak at are often college campuses, community meetings and environmental gatherings, but it doesn't really matter how big or small the event ? what's important is to tell their story, James said.
"For our people, it's a human rights issue," said Stanley Natchoole, a natural resource specialist from Old Crow First Nations in Yukon Territory who monitors the health of the herd. "We have a right to continue our culture and our way of life as we have for 20,000 years.
"If we went into someone's back yard and threatened their livelihood, they would surely object. The survival of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich'in people should take priority over oil development."
According to U.S. Geological Survey scientists who study the herd, there's been a steady decline in their numbers from a peak of 178,000 in 1989 to 123,000 today. The results of a 12-year study released in late March said oil development poses a potential threat to caribou and other wildlife that are already fighting the effects of global warming.
The Bush Administration quickly downplayed the findings and ordered the Interior Department to undertake a new analysis in 10 days that examined more limited oil exploration.
The results of that analysis issued in early April said oil wells limited to the northwest corner of the refuge would do little or no harm to caribou that calve on the coastal plain. But biologists and politicians alike scorned the new assessment, saying it was politically motivated.
Norma Kassi of the Vuntut Gwich'in of Old Crow in Yukon Territory said that in Canada, they have been careful to avoid oil development in order to protect the herd on which her people depend.
"It is estimated that there's only a six-month supply of oil in the region and the trade-offs aren't worth it," she said. "Our entire existence is based on the caribou. To open this sacred place where the caribou migrate to give birth, would devastate the herds. They don't need to do it."
Their struggle has gained much international support including 200 Indigenous organizations and communities throughout North America, said Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
"There is a human face to this issue whose voices have not been heard by much of the American public," he said. "Congress and President Bush have no right to threaten the way of life, culture, environment and subsistence of the Gwich'in people.
"We call on the American public to stop this act of colonial terrorism by Bush and Cheney against a people that just want to be left alone, to live in peace and be able to practice a culture that has sustained them for thousands of years."