SEATTLE – An overflow crowd filled a room at Seattle’s flagship REI store to watch the premiere of a short but significant film on one Alaska Native community’s fight against drilling at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee tells the story of the Gwich’in people of the tiny and isolated town of Fort Yukon, Alaska. Fort Yukon is a short distance away from Arctic NWR, a massive public land ecosystem that’s home of the Porcupine Herd caribou and countless natural resources the Gwich’in depend on for their subsistence way of life.
Here’s a trailer:
This is an important project for everyone who’s involved, including sponsors like Patagonia and the Wilderness Society, co-directors Len Necefer, himself a Navajo Nation member in his home state of Arizona, and Greg Balkin, and local resident Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of Gwich’in steering community.
“We very much still live off or our land, and we honor our tradition and our way of life,” Demientieff said on Wednesday. “It’s been a really tough fight and a battle, because I feel like I’m trying to convince people that we matter. We’re real people with jobs. We have families. We have children. Our ways of life matter.”
As the film depicts, life is anything but simple in Fort Yukon, where a gallon of milk costs $15. The people there rely on hunting abundant moose and caribou and fishing local waters.
“For us, as Navajo, if we look at places like Bears Ears, we lose access to things like ceremonial sites, we lose access to places where some of our ancestors are buried, but that also affects our history,” Necefer said. “For the Gwich’in, this is very much the same.”
Necefer referred to the Gwich’in language for the phrase, “the sacred place where life begins.”
“This place holds its sacred history. The impacts and the similarities are very overlapping in how they affect our people.”
We’ll have a full feature on the making of the film in our April issue, and the movie will be screened this month in various Lower 48 locations, listed here: