For the ninth time in two decades, Alaska Native groups are rallying to quash oil drilling legislation that threatens their survival.
The plan to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic refuge on the northernmost coast of Alaska has been proposed in U.S. Congress eight times, and eight times environmental and church groups, Native Americans, and the general public have successfully derailed it.
As the ninth legislative attempt to permit oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) approaches a final vote in late September, a group of Native Americans have set up a six-week vigil near the capital building in Washington, D.C. to warn the public about the effect that legislative changes would have on arctic tribes.
Stationed beneath a tree in a triangular park across from the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum, three native people drum, sing and speak to the public about the effects of the plan. They have the written support of 400 of the United States’ 700 federally recognized tribes.
If Congress passes the plan, the country’s largest porcupine caribou herd could be driven from the refuge, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Geological Survey.For the 7,000 members of the Gwich’in Nation whose survival depends on caribou, scaring off the herd would change their way of life in the same way that the decimation of the buffalo altered the lives of the plains Indians.
"We’re caribou people," says elder Sarah James, a full-blooded Gwich’in who has traveled here from her home in Arctic Village Alaska, which lies on the southern boundary of the refuge, 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The caribou birth and nurse their young on the coastal plane of the refuge. According to James, if the calving grounds are disturbed by drilling, pollution, or people, the calves will be forced into the foothills where there are more predators, or to the coast where there is no food.
The caribou herd migrates 1,400 miles across Alaska and Canada every year. In spring, the herd travels to the coastal plain where they typically give birth to between 40-50,000 calves and feed off the area’s nutrient-rich plants.
The plain is also an area where polar bears make their dens, a nesting place for 135 species of migratory birds, and a year-round home to the prehistoric musk oxen. Wolves, white owls, and arctic foxes also live in the refuge.
For these reasons, the Gwich’in call the area "Iizhik Gwatsan Gwandaii Goodlit," which translates to "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."
Gwich’in peoples sing caribou dance songs and tell caribou stories, and when they shoot caribou, they use every part of the animal.
"Seventy-five percent of our diet is still wild meat, and most of it caribou," James says. "Caribou are also used for clothing and our shelter. It’s everything; it’s who we are," she says.
Since 1988, James has been on the board of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group formed by decision of a council of chiefs from all the Gwich’in tribes.
The committee, which fully supports the vigil, has non-profit status, and is tasked with educating the public about the effects of drilling in the refuge. A mass rally in front of the Capitol building is planned for September 20.
A Zogby International Poll conducted on December 21, 2004, found that 55 percent of the public is against drilling in the refuge, compared with 38 percent who back it.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates it will take 15 years of exploration and development before companies can begin pumping oil from the refuge. Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that the entire fuel supply in the refuge would satisfy current U.S. demand for six months.
The Bush Administration, which supports the plan, argues that pumping domestic oil will improve national security by decreasing America’s dependence on foreign sources; Alaskan legislators are eager to usher in the economic boom that would accompany fuel development.
The latest attempt to open the refuge has been tacked onto the 2006 budget bill.
According to Clayton Thomas of the Cree Nation, who is the Native Energy organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, "[The bill] is back door antics for the Bush administration to set up a legislative precedent to open up all of America’s protected areas to oil and gas development." If the refuge goes, other protected areas like the Rocky Mountains, South Dakota, and the Everglades in Florida will follow, he says.
Kelvin Long of the Arizona Diné, or Navajo Nation, has also joined the Gwich’ins’ cause in Washington because he believes Native people must stick together to save ancient knowledge and sacred spaces.
"As indigenous people there’s very few of us left even here in North America that speak our own language, know our prayers, can identify plants and hunt and butcher the animals," he said.
"We’re the last ones hanging on to the culture; I want to be here and stand next to them."