Fighting For Their Land, People

(PHOTO BY WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

 

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY CHRIS COCOLES 

She spoke at the podium with eloquence and conviction, but it was clear that her ordeal – and her people’s ordeal – had taken an emotional toll.

Bernadette Demientieff stood before a capacity crowd at a Seattle REI store auditorium – she was in town for a premiere of a short documentary depicting her Alaskan Native tribe’s fight to stop drilling on nearby public land critical to their subsistence lifestyle – and couldn’t help but choke up, slightly at first and then even more as she continued to share her story.  

Bernadette Dementieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. ““This is a human rights’ violation and a human rights’ issue. This is our home security and this is our identity,” she says. (CHRIS COCOLES)

“We very much still live off of our land, and we honor our tradition and our way of life. It’s been a really tough fight and a battle, because I feel like I’m trying to convince people that we matter,” said Demientieff, one of the tribe’s most influential members. “We’re real people with jobs. We have families. We have children. I have five grandchildren and they matter. Our ways of life matter. We matter.” 

The film she was representing lasts just over 13 minutes, which in theory won’t be able to do the Gwich’in’s struggles justice. But 13 minutes is probably 13 more than you’ve previously heard about these proud people of the North in the fight of their lives against a federal government that, in Demientieff’s opinion, “is not concerned at all with our concerns.”

If Demientieff has her way, those 13 minutes of the documentary will change minds. 

Second chief Mike Peter is part of the Gwich’in community in Fort Yukon fighting the drilling plans in nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

THE GWICH’IN ARE SPREAD throughout the northeastern Alaska Interior and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories in 15 villages and towns. The tribe’s roughly 6,000 members – other estimates run as high as 7,000 and down to 4,500 – represent the continent’s second most northern Native American population next to the Iniut.

Demientieff is executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which operates out of Fort Yukon, Alaska, a town of about 550 residents, most of whom are of Gwich’in descent. This town 10 miles north of the Arctic Circle is also the chief filming location for the film, titled Welcome To Gwichyaa Zhee. (Fort Yukon’s Gwich’in name translates as “House On The Flats.”)  

It’s a city without any roads that stretch very far out of town. Locals primarily get around by boat in the twisting mainstem and tributaries of the Yukon River. Fort Yukon has a market, but the reality is cold, hard and unforgiving through its price tags. Here, a gallon of milk costs about $15. 

“There’s no fresh vegetables. Everything is canned for the most part, though there is some frozen stuff. (But) everything that’s frozen looks freezer burned,” says Dr. Len Necefer, one of the film’s codirectors. 

“And the costs are crazy. I remember we went in (the store) and were kind of sick of eating our (provision meals provided by Patagonia, one of the movie’s major sponsors) and we were wanting to find some ramen. A pack of ramen was like $4 or $5. And we thought, ‘It better be worth it.’”

For Fort Yukon residents, a more feasible way to put food on the table is to pass on the grocery store and use the natural resources surrounding the town. And there is a bounty of fish and big game the Gwich’in harvest regularly. 

The Gwich’in dialect refers to the Alaska’s coastal plain, dominated by the 19.64 million acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, translated as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in, life begins and ends with their northern neighbors, the Porcupine Caribou Herd. 

“The Gwich’in and the Porcupine Caribou Herd have had a spiritual and cultural connection for over 40,000 years. We migrated with them,” Demientieff said. “Our ancestors settled here so we can continue to live off of the caribou.”

Caribou annually migrate through the Arctic NWR in spring, and when President Donald Trump announced less than a year into his term that a portion of the refuge – about 1.5 million acres in an area known as 1002 – would be opened to gas and oil drilling leases. Conservationists opposed the plan. The Gwich’in feel they can’t function if the plan goes through and threatens the natural resources they are so dependent on.     

“For 30 years, the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge,” Demientieff said. “This is a human rights’ violation and a human rights’ issue. This is our home security and this is our identity.”

Codiirector Len Necefer (in bow of boat), a Navajo, felt connected to the Gwich’in’s plight given what happened close to home with the proposed shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

WHEN HE AND CODIRECTOR Greg Balkin agreed to take on the project of bringing the Gwich’in story to life via film, Necefer already had a personal connection that made it even more bittersweet. 

Necefer is Navajo. He grew up in the Arizona desert and comes from a family of miners who suffered through significant physical and mental trauma while they made a hard living. 

“My grandfather was a uranium miner and he lost his right lung because of silicosis when he was 40. But he was one of the lucky ones because most of his friends were dying. And this was because mining companies weren’t giving their miners adequate breathing protection at the time,” he says. 

 “In my community, there’s major coal power plants that (are producing) for most of the West, cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That coal power comes from our community. A number of my family (members) were coal miners and again, they got sick and fell ill. My grandfather ended up succumbing to pneumonia in his later years because of the impacts of mining.”

Necefer wanted a better life for himself and went to college, and earned engineering degrees from the University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University. After earning a Ph.D. from the latter, he began working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, and as it turns out, was no stranger to Alaska and, more specifically, one Native community known as Fort Yukon. 

“I worked at the Department of Energy and we would go multiple times when we worked with this community. So I had contacts,” says Necefer, who also had something else just as he began settling in to a job with the federal government. He’d had enough of the federal government.

A moment during Trump’s term as that hardly endeared the 45th president  to conservationists was also a particularly hard body blow for Necefer and the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. In summer 2017, Trump’s then Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, announced plans to reduce the sizes of multiple pieces of federally protected land. The most damaging decision would splinter Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. 

In all, Zinke’s plan would slash most of Bears Ears’ 1.3 million acres, reducing the land to all of 160,000 acres, an 85-percent downsizing. Trump signed off on Zinke’s recommendations for Bears Ears and other national monuments, much to the chagrin of the Navajo community.  

Bears Ears is very sacred ground to the Diné for various reasons. 

“It almost feels like sometimes with issues that Native people face, these sorts of policies are death by a thousand paper cuts. And Bears Ears was a blow,” Necefer says. 

The monument includes – you guessed it – oil, gas and uranium deposits. But it’s also the site of burial grounds of previous generations of Navajo elders and various ceremonial sites.  

“In my own family, I know people who are incredibly depressed because of what’s happening. People that felt a sense of hope, having that stripped away. Because in Bears Ears, the thing that we were fighting was for archaeological resources. And that’s why the monument was pushed so hard, because there’s 20,000 years of history. For us as Navajos, it’s not all of our history, but we feel a duty to protect it. And I think when you look at our public land system, that’s what it’s intended to do, protect our heritage. And I think it’s kind of infuriating when folks don’t have the respect to see the heritage that we’ve meant to this country as well.”

By the time it was Arctic NWR under siege, Necefer had had enough. In the film, Necefer, who narrates, says, “I remember telling my boss, ‘If they open up the refuge, I’m gone.’” 

Necefer is now an assistant professor for the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies program and the Udall Center for Public Policy. He’s joining the fight against the perceived government assault on public land for the purpose of drilling and other developmental projects. 

“This history of energy colonialization has affected Native communities for decades, if not centuries,” says Necefer, who also has started an outdoor apparel company called NativesOutdoors (natives-outdoors.org). “This is something that’s ongoing and we have the opportunity to stop it.”

Fort Yukon’s market and gas pumps charge locals $15 for a gallon of milk and $6.40 for a gallon of fuel, so families depend on harvesting moose and the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which migrates across Arctic NWR land that would be drilled if the current administration’s plans go through. (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

Subsistence hunting and fishing are critical to the Gwich’in. (WELCOME TO GWICHYA ZHEE)

IN WINTER 2018, A GROUP of 17 people – and a handful of dogs – got together in Utah to relay race through both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments. Grand Staircase was another on the Trump Administration’s list of public lands recommended for size reduction. Included in the running party were Necefer and Balkin, a Seattle-based filmmaker, outdoor adventurer and conservationist. 

“We ran 6-mile relays and 250 miles over a weekend. And it was everyone from pro runners to folks who had to buy their first running shows in a decade. And we made this 13-minute film called Messengers,” Necefer says. 

That’s how Necefer and Balkin met and then collaborated on what eventually became Welcome To Gwichyaa Zhee. The Wilderness Society approached Balkin and Necefer to create a short documentary about the Gwich’in and the fight to preserve their way of life. 

“For me, (Fort Yukon) is a faraway place that many people aren’t going to get to go to whenever they feel like it. So my hope is that people feel connected and they can relate to the Gwich’in and that they have schools with kids who live there,” Balkin says. “They don’t live in igloos and they live a life very similar to ours – and with more respect to their land. So I hope that the film inspires people to do research to learn about them. Maybe to reach out to people like Bernadette who are fighting. And to stand up and support them.”

Balkin and Necefer spent time in Fort Yukon last fall during moose hunting season with local families while they compiled film footage following around village locals in town. Like the enormous cost of food items, Balkin was amazed that fuel cost the families $6.40 per gallon to fill two 50-gallon tanks. 

But the experience of watching them reel in a few Yukon River northern pike and attempting to call in a bull moose – they didn’t get one on this hunt – represented more than just compiling scenes for a movie. 

“We didn’t know anyone and luckily there was a bed and breakfast in the village, and that was our home base. The communities are so small that we went on the local radio station. We were there long enough to start to see some of the same people and they were very open to sharing their story,” Balkin says. “And they thought it was fascinating that we were up there. The people were very welcoming and they were inviting us over to have moose meat, showing us the town and talking about what their lives are like. It was an honor to be there.”

The film follows local resident Mike Peter’s family fishing and hunting excursions. The reality of what could happen to the plentiful caribou that migrate through and around the proposed drilling sites has them concerned because of their thousands of years of reliance on the ungulates as a critical food source. 

Peter and his family all discussed the potential devastating effect drilling could have on the Gwich’in people. 

“If they open that place up there, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that’s where the caribou migrate … Can you imagine what it would do to those animals?”

“People think because they’re down there, that’s it not going to affect us. It’s going to affect us.”

“And a lot of people think too Alaska is just a wasteland. But it’s not.”

“We live here.”

At one point, Peter is waiting for a moose that previously appeared to show up again. He falls silent for a split second, the only sound generated by singing birds.

“You hear that? Nothing,” he whispers before laughing – almost sarcastically. “Now you can’t tell me this is not worth fighting and protecting.”  

For Necefer and his friend, Aaron Mike, another Navajo who accompanied he and Balkin on the trip, while they were thousands of miles from their threatened sacred ground, but they could relate to what was going on in Fort Yukon. 

“I think I have lifelong friendships in these communities now that I want to maintain,” Necefer says. “They shared their story with me and I almost feel like it’s my duty to do something about that to support them in what they’re going through. I think there’s a personal duty there.”

And he hopes the video he and Balkin shot and which became Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee will illustrate what the priorities should be in these lands of the far north. 

“So often the refuge has been framed as beautiful landscapes, caribou and Gwich’in,” Necefer says. “Now we’re trying to frame it as Gwich’in, caribou and beautiful landscapes.”

(WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

“We are up against an uphill battle. We are up against the elected leaders and up against corporations,” Dementieff says of her people. “It’s really been tough. But we refuse to give up.” (WELCOME TO GWICHYAA ZHEE)

FOR DEMIENTIEFF, THE FIGHTING never slows down, as she pleaded with that Seattle audience to be as outraged as she and her people are. (“Thank you for trying to learn about us,” she said.) 

“They want to bring in 53 90,000-pound vehicles into our sacred land and they want to blow 63,000 tons of force into the ground,” she said. “There’s a 52 percent chance that they’re going to run over denning polar bears and other smaller animals. But they still want to do it. So this is just a really sloppy and disrespectful way that they’re moving forward with this. And nobody’s listening to us.”

It hasn’t helped that the Gwich’in feel like they’ve gotten far more support outside of Alaska from politicians like Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) than senior Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowksi, whose father Frank, former Alaska U.S. senator and governor, fought to open up the refuge for drilling during his days in office back in the 1980s in the Senate.

In a June 2018 editorial she wrote for The Seattle Times, Murkowski cited the Alaskan Pipeline that carries petroleum between Prudhoe Bay to the north and Valdez to the south through the Last Frontier. 

“Back then, we were told that the pipeline would wipe out caribou herds and become the greatest environmental disaster of our time,” the senator wrote. “Yet, with time, technology and strong environmental protections, those sensational claims have proved wrong. Today, we have greater reason than ever to be confident in our ability to safely access these resources.”

That won’t do much to quell the Gwich’in people’s fears. Former President Barack Obama protected 12.8 million acres of Arctic NWR land from drilling before his successor’s 2017 reversal proposal was passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives.  

“We went to D.C. to testify that we want healthy land and healthy animals that we survive off of. The president of my corporation testified,” Demientieff said. “So that’s how chaotic it is up there right now. We are up against an uphill battle. We are up against the elected leaders and up against corporations. It’s really been tough. But we refuse to give up.”

“We want to tell the world that we’re heard and to do it in a good way. And that is not always easy, especially with this administration. They’re just bulldozing their way into our homelands and they’re not giving a damn about the impact that it’s causing us.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Check out gwichyaazhee.us for more information, and for more details on the Gwich’in people and their fight, go to OurArcticRefuge.com.

HOW TO WATCH

Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee is now available to watch online and the filmmakers encourage anyone interested to host “watch parties” of the documentary with friends and family. Get started at gwichyaazhee.us. ASJ

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