A Gwich’in Perspective

A guest blog posted by Matthew Gilbert, Arctic Village, Alaska

Why are the Gwich’in people raising such a fury over their land and animals?

When the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) passed in 1971, it turned hunter and gatherers into business people overnight. Arctic Village opted out of this corporate-oriented legislation to maintain control of their traditional lands. Simply put, my community, along with eight other Alaska villages, chose land over a monetary settlement.

In fact, three of our distinguished leaders, along with 90% of Arctic Village residents voted to keep and control our lands. ANCSA did not influence our perception of mother earth, our unyielding Christian and Native beliefs, and our cultural identity.

When the word “subsistence” is used everyone understands that this term defines our means of survival in every sense of the word and more. We rely on the caribou for our main food source, stories, dances, clothing, antlers, decorations, and survival gear in the cold north. The caribou will undoubtedly be affected and endangered by the industrial development proposed for the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, which also happens to be the birthplace of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

Concentrated calving has occurred on the coastal plain “1002 area” in 27 of 31 years according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This 1.5 million acre region is a sensitive reproductive area within a wildlife refuge, not a place for oil field development. There is no question. An oil and gas developed refuge will threaten the survival of the caribou and the Gwich’in Athabascans who live in 15 villages in Alaska and Canada.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd has sustained our people and our culture for nearly 20,000 years. Our campaign to protect the refuge is our way of helping to protect this vital resource. We are not against oil & gas development, although we do not promote it in sensitive regions. We do promote alternative energy to sustain our modern society as all the world should. One hundred years ago our people were nomadic, yet today our small village has already established solar panels and recycling programs. The world needs to move in the direction of renewable energy. It is our only hope, it is the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s only hope, and it is the only hope of the Gwich’in people.