Gwich’in at the Crossroads in ANWR Development

Two centuries after first contact, the Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada find themselves at the crossroads of once again reinterpreting their relationship to the land as resource base, as taxing government, and as commodity, a unit of exchange.

Since the initial Gwich’in gathering in Arctic Village, Alaska, in 1988, the Gwich’in have been fighting for their sustenance and for the biological integrity of their environment.

Firstly, the fight for our lives goes along with the threat to the Porcupine caribou herd by oil development on the Arctic coastal plain and what it will mean for the Gwich’in people’s primary food resource.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most important intact ecosystem in North America, and is of national and international concern. What makes the refuge stand apart from any other proposed development is that the land base is very small and it would be completely covered with surrounding infrastructure. No one can suggest that it could be otherwise. The disruption to wildlife would have far-reaching consequences.

It is our wholehearted prayer that the ANWR should be protected, and to that end the Gwich’in will persist in their efforts.

The second issue is the reinterpretation of their relationship to their lands. This has been a thorny process that has been taking shape for some time.

The Eastern Gwich’in (Canadian) got their First Nations land claims in the early 1992. Shortly after that, they entered into an agreement with Yukon Territory for the co-management of Vuntut National Park in northwestern Canada.

The Gwich’in Tribal Council (Canadian) has also set up the framework for entering into agreements with for-development ventures on its lands and rights of way across its lands. These include partnerships with oil companies. These developments are taking place away from the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds.

Now the American Gwich’in are faced with a conundrum of their own in the form of a land exchange with the federal government in the Yukon Flats Fish and Wildlife Refuge and the related need to form a borough government.

Doyon Ltd., the local regional Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation, laid down the groundwork for this land trade more than 30 years ago.

The late Morris Thompson, Doyon’s chief executive director at the time, was the main architect for this venture. Of course, Thompson was not alone. He had the backing of the board of directors, many shareholders, the local community in interior Alaska and the cooperation of Alaska’s delegation. The meetings to establish this trade demanded many man-hours of negotiations and the establishment of the legal framework for this land trade to take place.

Essentially, the land exchange involves 200,000 acres of land. Doyon and several village corporations’ lands, spread out across the Yukon Flats, would be exchanged for one block of land in the upper Beaver Creek Region, where oil and gas are thought to exist in recoverable quantities.

The status of the land would not change. Furthermore, there are two proposed road routes into the region, should the reserve prove to be worth the recovery. One proposed route would go along existing public corridors; the other, less preferable route would go through the YFFWR lands and would require further exchanges of lands for every mile built (an estimated 50 miles).

The preliminary exploration would be carried out on temporary ice roads that would melt with the thaw.

The YFFWR is 9 million acres of land and comprises the larger portion of the upper Yukon River Basin.

Doyon and village corporation lands are checkerboarded into the YFFWR along the Porcupine, Birch and Yukon rivers. This makes for complicated land-ownership patterns.

Local residents depend upon the land for a great deal of their meat foods and have lived with the land not as a commodity to be developed, but as a common resource for sustaining themselves. This is viewed as traditional land usage.

The rub here is between two divergent attitudes toward the land, its usage and the role of the Gwich’in within the larger communities of the state, and the political and economic climate of our times.

To some of the local residents, this land exchange represents a threat to their traditional way of life. To others and those in Birch Creek, this represents a positive step where they can participate in local economic development and enhance their life in the villages and still have plenty of land surrounding them for subsistence usage.

<i>Adeline Peter Raboff is a Gwich’in writer who resides in Fairbanks, Alaska.