by Marc Peruzzi | photographer Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society.
Behind the drama of the moment of our tribalized politics, Alaskan Senators, oil executives are quietly subverting democracy as they push to rapidly open drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s pristine Coastal Plain.
If left unchecked, the legal end run will inarguably kill polar bears, add to global warming, permanently scar the landscape, and threaten the lives of both caribou and the native mountain people that share ANWR with them. Bernadette Demientieff, tribal member and executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, is trying to stop them. We caught up with her as the federal government was dismantling the laws put in place to protect what’s been called America’s Serengeti.
“The first Gwich’in gathering in 180 years happened in 1988. We gathered at that time because of oil and gas development. The leaders formed the Steering Committee. Our purpose is to maintain the cultural and spiritual connection between our people and the caribou.
The caribou are our identity. We honor them, we don’t worship them. There was a time when we were able to communicate with them, and we made a pact that we would always take care of each other. We don’t go to their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain. That’s how sacred that place is to us. I’ve never known a Gwich’in person to go to the Coastal Plain. The caribou have been migrating there for two million years. The bugs are so bad that they can kill a newborn calf, but the caribou can see predators coming. The herd is healthy because, until now, we’ve protected their grounds. Ninety-five percent of the Arctic is open to oil and gas exploration. ANWR is the only five percent that’s off limits.
Eighty percent of our diet is caribou. Nothing goes to waste: boots, drums, tools. When the caribou do arrive, it’s like a celebration. When you hunt, you don’t just kill any animal that you see. You make a connection. And you thank the creator. When we hunt, we only take what we need. My freezer is full of caribou.
Today, climate change threatens the caribou. I have some pictures that I just received from Gwich’in hunters. When you skin the animal, there’s a white growth on the meat. We’re getting these reports from hunters. Animals with worms in the stomach. Big green sores. White sticky paste. People are just cutting them off. I was boiling some bone marrow the other day. When I pulled out the meat, it was dark brown. It’s usually white. I shared a picture of it on Facebook. People told me that when the animal gets sick it starts in the bone
Our animals have these things called ticks. I never even knew what they were until five months ago. I thought they were tumors. We’ve never seen them before. It’s from climate change, but my elders are my scientists.
We’re doing training on Arctic advocacy. Over the past few years it’s been busy, trying to stand up to a corrupt and dysfunctional administration. We use social media a lot, but starting in November we’ll be going to bigger communities inside and outside of Alaska to share more. I get culture shock in the States. So much concrete. You get road rage walking. When I do this training I have to let them know that. I’m a village girl fighting for our human rights.
The tribes will have to live with the aftermath. We’re real people with jobs and children. And they’re making decisions about our future without involving us. If they have hearts, then they should look there.
There was supposed to be a government meeting at Fort Yukon about drilling. The day they held the meeting was the day we were honoring our traditional chief.
They gave us one week notice. When we told them about our celebration, they said they were coming anyway. Because they were honoring the chief, hardly anybody came to the meeting.
I told them, ‘The studies you’re working off of are from 1983. Do you have any new studies?’ They got defensive. And I’m a respectful person.
This is all just another form of genocide. It’s 2018 and we shouldn’t have to fight for our human rights this way. I would encourage people to check out our website ourarcticrefuge.org and write to their representatives and editors. We collect the letters. It makes us feel less alone. I believe in my heart that unity is the only good thing that will come out of this administration.”