Photo by Kiliii Yüyan

Saving the Sacred Place


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 60th anniversary is coming up, but the people of the Gwich’in Nation have been protecting it for far longer. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re exploring this historic relationship.

“The sacred place where life begins.”


That’s how the Gwich’in Nation describes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. These Indigenous peoples span across 15 Arctic villages from Alaska to Canada, a world away from the halls of Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump and his fossil fuel cronies could never understand the power of those six words. Otherwise, would they be so determined to bring giant trucks into the refuge’s fragile 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to build roads and pipelines? Would they want to convert this sacred place into a boom-and-bust nightmare? 


The Gwich’in have been on the frontlines of efforts to protect the refuge, pressuring leaders in Congress, in the United Nations, and even in banks and insurance firms to stand against extractive development in this region. The fight has been heating up as the Trump administration rushes to push through its agenda before President-elect Joe Biden takes over.


Welcome to The Frontline, here to remind you of the invaluable role Indigenous peoples play in protecting biodiversity and public lands. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. December 6, 2020, marks 60 years since the federal government established the ANWR. However, members of the Gwich’in Nation were marveling in awe of its glory long before any U.S. president deemed it worthy of federal protections. Now, the same government is putting this sacred place up for grabs.



Before Europeans ventured into the frozen depths of the Arctic, the Gwich’in were there. As were the caribou. The two lived in harmony. They still do. These animals are the cultural lifeline for the Gwich’in, who consider the caribou relatives. The animals are kin whose fur keeps them warm and whose meat keeps them fed. The porcupine caribou herd is of particular significance; they calve on the coastal plain. This annual event marks the land untouchable for the Gwich’in. To this day, no Gwich’in person is supposed to enter the coastal plain.


“We do not encourage anyone to go to the calving grounds. As a mother, we give birth, and we have that much respect for our caribou,” says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which has been protecting the refuge for decades. “This place is where they give birth.”


I first met Demientieff back in 2018 when she was in New York to meet with different bank representatives. She and her peers had a simple ask: Don’t fund oil and gas projects in the Arctic. They’ve been largely successful with banks like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs signing on in the last year.

“Climate change doesn’t care what color you are—if you’re Black, white, rich, or poor. We are all going to be negatively impacted.”


All of that work is now under threat. For one, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency proposed last week that banks not be legally allowed to do this, reported the Wall Street Journal. Emily Atkin of HEATED got into this drama earlier this week, writing:


[Acting Comptroller Brian] Brooks’ new rule technically applies to a broad range of industries. But it’s “designed to prevent banks from cutting off funding to the fossil fuel industry,” according to Gregg Gelzinis, a senior economic policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.


On top of that, the Trump administration began the formal process to sell leases for oil in the refuge in November. It’s marked 32 tracts across the coastal plain for the fossil fuel sector to bid on, a mad dash for liquid riches before the incoming Biden-Harris administration makes moves to close off the refuge for good. This invitation to industry only exacerbates the looming danger of climate change.


A rapidly warming climate affects the Arctic harder than the rest of the planet. The caribou herds the Gwich’in and other Alaska Natives rely on are at risk even if Biden manages to clean up Trump’s mess. And wildfires pose a particular risk to caribou, which avoid burned forested areas and could alter migratory patterns as a result, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. By the end of the century, the porcupine caribou herd may lose 21 percent of its winter habitat to fire. 


Leaders like Demientieff aren’t only doing this work for themselves. This effort is about leaving something behind for all Americans: It’s about protecting endangered polar bears and the vast snowscape that sends sun rays back into space through the albedo effect, shielding the world from further warming. This work is about demanding an end to the gas-guzzling, oil-hungry machine that rejects science and fuels the destruction of our planet. We all need a stable Arctic. Alaska Natives may feel the melting of ice first, but that cascade effect will eventually drip onto all of us. 


“The only good thing I think is going to come out of this administration is unity—unity among the people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” Demientieff says. “Climate change doesn’t care what color you are—if you’re Black, white, rich, or poor. We are all going to be negatively impacted. And we need to set our differences aside and come together for the future of our children, or they are going to be struggling to survive because we failed to use our voice when we could have.”


So the fight continues—and there’s hope. Biden has promised to protect the refuge upon entering office in January. The United Nations is looking to investigate the alleged human rights abuses from the Trump administration. Demientieff has been fervently writing updates to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with the hope that it can intervene, too. Now, the Gwich’in Steering Committee is pressuring insurance companies to follow the bank industry’s lead. The goal? If no one will fund or insure these projects, fossil fuel companies will abandon their dreams of destroying this sanctuary. 


“A lot of people are not aware that this is a human rights issue,” Demientieff says. “They think of polar bears or ‘the environment,’ but this is a whole people’s way of life that’s going to be destroyed, and this administration has done nothing but disrespect Indigenous peoples of this land since [Trump’s] been in office.”


This “disrespect” Demientieff mentions predates the Trump administration. It’s as old as the White House itself—older even. The incoming president will have plenty of opportunities to right these wrongs, but a strong first step would be to place public lands like the ANWR under the direction of an Indigenous person who knows this pain firsthand. Rep. Deborah Haaland might still be a freshman in Congress, but she’s ripe for the position of Department of Interior Secretary. If we’re to end the assault on tribal ancestral lands, let’s put an Indigenous person in charge of them.

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