FAIRBANKS — Last week, the Department of the Interior issued its formal notice declaring its intention to begin the leasing process for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The notice makes it clear that the department plans to rush drilling onto lands my people consider sacred.
Alaska’s own officials have worked hand-in-hand in fast-tracking drilling interests because they see the coastal plain — a region essential to the Gwich’in people’s identity and survival — as an area for extracting oil. As senior senator, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has failed to represent and protect the voices of all Alaskans. She has disregarded our human rights to appease the oil and gas industry and further her political aspirations.
Let me issue a declaration to those who refuse to listen. The Gwich’in people will not be silent. We will not stand down. We will fight to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the sacred lands of the Arctic Refuge every step of the way.
We call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “the sacred place where life begins.” Our culture and communities have relied on the caribou and coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge for our survival and health for millennia.
Yet DOI wants to aggressively push drilling without seeming to care about the real impacts of drilling on caribou and my people. President Donald Trump even joked at the Republican National Convention that he barely knows or cares about the Arctic Refuge, but decided to open it to drilling because no one else had been able to do it before.
How else can we describe these attitudes and motives except as exploitive, disrespectful and willfully ignorant of the Gwich’in people who have relied on and safeguarded this region for millennia?
Power and politics blind these officials from seeing the singular beauty and bountiful nourishment provided by the coastal plain, its sacredness and all it has given us and can continue to give our children and grandchildren if we protect it.
Drilling in the Arctic Refuge will slice through the heart of these sacred lands, the heart of my people. The push to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is a direct threat to my people. It is an attack on our culture and way of life.
Let me be clear. The Gwich’in, and all who stand with us, will fight to protect this sacred space. We will fight in every hall, every hearing, every election, every courtroom and every place of power; we will fight every step of the way.
Bernadette Demientieff is a member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She is from Fort Yukon.