Alaska Native Community Fights For Its Way Of Life In New Documentary

Photo by Chris Cocoles

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 RefugeWelcome 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.

Bernadette Demientlieff, one of the community leaders in the Gwich’in community in Fort Yukon, speaks to the audience during a screening of Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee. (CHRIS COCOLES)

“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.


Co-directors Len Necefer (left) and Greg Balkin. (CHRIS COCOLES)

Necefer was inspired by his own people’s fight in the Southwest in the making of his and Balkin’s documentary. In 2017 President Donald Trump and his appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke – since removed from that position – announced Bear Ears National Monument in Utah would be reduced by about 85 percent (1.3 million acres). Bears Ear is a very sacred piece of land to  Necefer’s Navajo people and many other Native American tribes, so needless to say the decision turned out to be a lightning rod of controversy, bitterness and betrayal.

“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:

Sun, March 3 Mountain Sports Flagstaff, AZ

Tues, March 5 Patagonia Palo Alto, CA

Weds, March 6 Patagonia Salt Lake City, UT

Thurs, March 7 Patagonia Denver, CO

Fri, March 8 Patagonia Austin, TX (SXSW Festival)

Mon, March 11 Patagonia St Paul, MN

Tues, March 12 Patagonia Chicago, IL

Wed, March 13 Patagonia Pittsburgh, PA

Thurs, March 14 Patagonia Washington, DC

Fri, March 15 Patagonia Freeport, ME

**more tour dates to be announced, for the latest information please check:

. And text Arctic to 40649 to get a link to make public comments to oppose drilling at Arctic NWR.

Text Arctic to 40649 to be provided with a link to make public comments about drilling at ANWR.