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Beach: Gwich’in honor 20 years of resistance

Old Crow, Canada, was the site of the July 14 – 18, 2008, biennial Gwich’in Gathering. The Gwich’in Nation reaffirmed the position originally taken in 1988 to oppose oil and gas development in the calving and nursery grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Gwich’in leader Clarence Alexander spoke about efforts to hand over the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – known to the Gwich’in as “the sacred place where life begins” – to the oil industry. Twenty years ago, as chief of Fort Yukon and chairman of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, a consortium of tribal governments in Alaska’s Yukon Flats, Alexander spearheaded the official position of the leadership of the Gwich’in Nation to oppose oil and gas development in ANWR.

“The direction came from the elders when we gathered up the first time in 100 years. It’s the same goals and objectives and renewing of our relationship to continue and to be unified in our efforts to keep our way of life,” Alexander said. “Since 1988, the younger people that have been continuing the work we put in place for them and new efforts are being stressed. And we retained our language, and culture and way of life.

“We cannot allow ourselves to sit back; we must become involved with all the issues that affect our lives. In order for us to be healthy people, we need to maintain our environment. T’ee teraa’in, striving to maintain our survival. It means the way we are, who we are – our code of ethics would have to be working all the time to retain that. We adopted a word called inclusive so that it will be available for all walks of life.

“They’re looking for loopholes for getting in refuges, and the Arctic Refuge is adjacent to Yukon Flats. Nothing changed – the infiltration is still the reality and we will continue with the help of others to keep our lands safe, clean and healthy; clean air; and clean water for the future. We cannot destroy everything for six months of fuel. Right before our eyes, all avenues are being used to destroy what we have as our way of life.”

After the Gwich’in Nation’s position was first declared at the 1988 Gwich’in Gathering in Arctic Village, Alaska, Gwich’in Gatherings have convened in various Gwich’in communities. Currently, there are 24 bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that include drilling in the Arctic Refuge. The people of the Gwich’in Nation have relied on the Porcupine River caribou herd for 20,000 years and today still rely on the caribou.

“Proponents of development are preying on the fears of the American public by destroying this wildlife sanctuary. They are not saying that there would only be a few pennies’ difference at the pump 10 years from now. Development would cause permanent damage to the last intact Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystem, and Gwich’in have the most to lose. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not offering any real relief to Americans,” stated Sarah James, Gwich’in Steering Committee chairperson.

Luci Beach is executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee in Fairbanks, Alaska.