One thing lies at the heart of Gwich’in tribes’ opposition to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: caribou.
At Arctic Village’s annual spring carnival in April, men gathered around a plastic folding table for a contest to see who could skin a caribou leg the fastest. Their knives worked swiftly from knee to cloven hoof, hands tugging meat, tendon and hide from bone.
Second place went to David Smith Jr., 22. Smith is a leader — the second chief — in Arctic Village. And like most everyone here, Smith believes oil development in the refuge that borders their tribal lands will endanger the caribou his people hunt.
“And that’s going to change our very lifestyle,” Smith said. “The reason we’re here is for the caribou.”
Until recently, the residents of 15 Gwich’in villages scattered across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada were on the winning side of the drawn-out political battle in Washington, D.C. over over oil development in the refuge. They helped fight repeated attempts in Congress to legalize drilling in the refuge’s 1.6 million-acre coastal plain.
Then, in late 2017, Congress opened the coastal plain to oil development. So Gwich’in tribes are now taking unprecedented steps to try to protect a resource they call vital to their culture and survival.
Caribou are a primary source of subsistence food in Arctic Village — more than that, they’re part of the tribes’ cultural identity. And today, some 200,000 caribou in the Porcupine herd travel past Arctic Village and other Gwich’in communities every year.
Smith said the caribou they harvest allow Arctic Village residents to continue their traditional way of life, on their traditional land.
“I would say this is like no other place on earth, so we shouldn’t be treated like any other place on earth,” Smith said. “I can drive in any direction and hunt freely. I can drive in any direction and go trapping.”
Smith, like many other Gwich’in leaders, hasn’t given up on the idea of blocking drilling in the refuge. He recalled a story he heard at a recent meeting, about a prediction made by an elder in years past:
“They said, ‘Later on in the future, there’s going to be a war between the south and the north — the south being the U.S. government, and us being the north. It’s going to be a war of paper, not of weapons.’ And they said, ‘As long as we stick through, the north will always win.'”
Pro-drilling Alaskans often point out that Arctic Village and the area set aside for oil exploration are separated by about 100 miles, and a mountain range. The Gwich’in say their link to the place is the caribou, because the Porcupine herd gives birth in same part of the refuge where drilling is now legal.
Scientists say predicting exactly how oil development will affect the caribou herd’s population or migration patterns is tricky. It’s not yet known what future oil development in the refuge may look like, in terms of size, location or design. And in other parts of Alaska’s Arctic, calving caribou were able to shift their movements away from oil infrastructure and still access similar habitats.
But the calving area in the refuge is narrower, hemmed in by a mountain range and the Arctic Ocean, so some biologists worry the impacts will be greater.
In Arctic Village, those fears are more acute. As she bounced a relative’s baby on her lap, village council member Faith Gemmill said when Congress legalized drilling in the refuge in 2017, it shifted the ground beneath the Gwich’in — and galvanized them, too.
“It’s put our tribe in the position of defense. And we have to work hard – harder than we’ve worked before to try to defeat that,” Gemmill said.
This led to an historic shift. For decades, engagement on the issue of oil development in the refuge was led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a nonprofit with members from each of the Gwich’in villages in Alaska and Canada.
But now that the federal government is advancing the formal process to open the refuge to oil leasing, the Gwich’in people’s tribal governments have asserted their legal right to be directly involved in that process. Those are separate entities from the steering committee — Arctic Village has its own tribal government, for example, as does the village of Venetie.
Each of those tribal governments are now having regular meetings about the oil leasing plans with the Bureau of Land Management and top Trump administration officials.
But Matt Newman, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who represents the tribes, said there are limits to their ability to influence Trump administration policy.
“No one has any blinders on, or any illusions,” Newman said. “There’s no secret that they wish to see oil drilling and this environmental review process completed. On the flip side, the tribes are equally open about the fact that they oppose it.”
Additionally, while some Alaska Native corporations stand to benefit financially from drilling in the refuge, the way the Gwich’in see it, they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose. Gwich’in tribes in Alaska refused to participate in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, in favor of maintaining ownership of 1.8 million acres of their traditional land. It’s a choice they’re still proud of.
Newman put it this way:
“Even if the state or the federal government somehow said, ‘one percent of oil royalties from the refuge will go to an account for Venetie and Arctic Village,’ that money is going to sit untouched until kingdom come,” Newman said. “Because for the people in these villages, this isn’t about money.”
In addition to the government-to-government process, the Gwich’in continue pushing back every other way they can. Gwich’in activists maintain strong alliances with environmental groups, they give interviews to reporters from all over the world and they regularly make their case before Congress in Washington, D.C., as Arctic Village’s first chief, Galen Gilbert, did in March:
“Development in the coastal plain is a direct attack on our Gwich’in culture. Just the idea of development is causing stress and fear in my village,” Gilbert told a House committee.
This stance has drawn ire from many in Alaska.
“I’ll tell you Mr. Chairman, I want to believe the people. Not the Gwich’in, because they’re not the people. They’re 400 miles away,” Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young said at the same hearing.
Young repeated things often said about the Gwich’in. He accused them of protesting against oil development as a way to make a living, and of stealing the national narrative from other Alaska Native people. Young blasted the introduction of a bill to restore protections to the coastal plain, which made no mention of the Inupiat people who live in the Refuge — many of whom do support drilling.
Such arguments have been going back and forth for decades. But as drilling moves closer to reality, the edges have gotten sharper.
“Think about that when you say, ‘We want to save the culture,'” Young said, addressing the other members of the committee. “Save the culture of the people! Not those that are foreigners or living away from the area. These are not the Natives directly affected.”
This year’s spring carnival in Arctic Village could be the last before oil companies bid on leases in the Refuge. Still, there were many moments of joy. One evening, families gathered at the community hall for a dance.
Gilbert, the first chief, was there with his family, wearing a baseball cap and occasionally making his way to the dance floor — a very different scene than the month before, when he testified before members of congress. In an interview later that night, Gilbert said being part of the Arctic Refuge controversy is part of being a Gwich’in leader.
But Gilbert added, “Even if I wasn’t chief, if I had the opportunity to fight against it I would do it — totally.”
Gilbert said while he was in Washington, D.C. to testify, it was hard for him to listen to arguments from oil development supporters.
“I hate it when people say, ‘The caribou will be all right, even if they did open it.’ I heard that multiple times,” Gilbert said. “You know, ‘they’ll be ok.’ No!”
Gilbert has three young daughters. He said they’re growing up the way he did, witnessing caribou wandering near their home.
“I wouldn’t want to lose that,” he said. “Never.”