Alaska Trip (Part 8) — The Gwich’in People and a Threatened Way of Life   12 comments

I’ve put off writing this blog post for a couple of weeks.  I don’t really know how write it — as a photographer I’m much more comfortable with images than with words.  It’s a subject that I feel strongly about, but those feelings don’t translate easily into cogent paragraphs.

So let’s just start off with a little simple history and fact setting.  I’ll ramp it up from there.

The Gwich’in people who we visited on our August trip above the Arctic Circle are indigenous to Northern Alaska and the western Yukon Territory in Canada.  There are somewhere between 8000 and 9000 Gwich’in spread throughout 15 different villages, with approximately 140 to 150 in the village we visited (Arctic Village).  Most books and websites will simply refer to their existence for “more than 10,000 years” and attribute their being there to the land bridge that is thought to have once connected Asia and North America.  The elders that we spoke with simply say “we have always been here”.  What is not in dispute is that these people have lived and thrived in one of the world’s harshest environments dating back into pre-history.

The Gwich’in are one of the world’s last remaining subsistence cultures.  They live off the land.  In particular, they live off the caribou herds that migrate throughout the Arctic region, and as a result are often referred to as “the Caribou people”.  A typical Gwich’in eats in the vicinity of 250 caribou-based meals each year.  In our short stay we had caribou steaks and caribou stew, prepared by our hosts.  Virtually every inch of the caribou is eaten or utilized in some way.  These are not wasteful people.

To continue to survive as a subsistence culture the Gwich’in obviously need a healthy, thriving caribou herd.  That, unfortunately, puts them smack in the middle of the debate about drilling in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge called Area 1002.  There are hundreds of articles (and, ugh, biased emails) written about 1002.  There is no way I can cover the entire debate here, nor do I want to try.  But the gist of the Gwich’in dilemma is this:  1002 is smack in the middle of the calving grounds of the caribou herd that the Gwich’in depend upon for their very way of life.  So when oil interests tell you that “It is only 2000 acres out of 19 million refuge acres”, remember that it is not just any 2000 acres.  It is the source of regeneration for the herd upon which thousands of people depend.  That’s an important consideration.  It’s also irresponsible to hold a discussion about drilling in the Arctic without putting that issue front and center.

We know — let me repeat, we know — that caribou will leave an area where humans are present.  They’ve been hunted by humans for thousands of years.  They’ve learned and adapted.  To think that caribou are oblivious to human presence is beyond illogical.  Simply put, when people are present, caribou leave.  It’s how they survive.  Big Oil argues otherwise, but think about it — does that really pass the common sense test?  And the bottom line is, if the caribou leave the traditional birthing grounds in Area 1002 it is likely that the herd will be irreparably harmed by both lower birth rates and / or higher predation.  In either case, the size of the herd will decrease and the Gwich’in subsistence lifestyle will be harmed, and even possibly eradicated.  That’s not a caribou issue — it’s a human rights issue.

So at what price are we willing to sacrifice an entire culture?  Is this that bullshit “manifest destiny” concept redux — the one we were taught in grade school as a rationalization for penning lower-48 Native Americans onto reservation lands?  Well, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently released a study that did not support Big Oil’s ongoing narrative.  The CBOs conclusion was eye-opening:  Drilling in ANWR will provide America’s oil needs for a total of six months . . . beginning ten years from now . . . with a resulting price decrease of one to four cents per gallon.

So here’s the $64 million dollar question:  Are you willing to sacrifice the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people for a 6-month price decrease of 4 cents per gallon, beginning somewhere around 2020?  If you are, feel free to “unfriend” me and stop following my blog.  If you aren’t, I urge you to contact your Representative and Senator.  Tell them that 4 cents per gallon isn’t worth the price that will surely be paid by the Gwich’in people.

David Radcliff, our learning tour leader, told us of something a friend of his once said:  “You won’t care about a river that you don’t know.”  To paraphrase that saying, you won’t care about people who you don’t know.  So here are some people who I really would like you to know and care about:

(Above)  This is little Charlie.  He lives in Arctic Village, Alaska.  His grandfather hunts caribou for the village.  (And yes, I’m playing the cute kid card.  Hey, it’s my blog.)

(Above)  This is little Charlie’s grandfather, Charlie Swaney.  Charlie is my friend, and an ardent advocate for the Gwich’in way of life.

(Above)  This is Charlie Swaney, doing what he always seems to be doing: watching for caribou.

(Above)  This is Marion Swaney, Charlie’s wife.  Marion once shot a grizzly bear that threatened the group up at hunting camp.  Don’t mess with Marion.

(Above)  This is Sarah James.  Don’t let the smile fool you.  Sarah was one of the Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz prison in San Francisco during the 70’s.  She has also led protests in Washington, D.C.  Sarah is politically savvy and smarter than any ten of us put together.

(Above)  This is Gideon James, Sarah’s brother.  Gideon, like Sarah, is an advocate for his people.  But Gideon also served the United States as a soldier in the Armed Forces.  His division was on alert and ready to be deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

(Above)  This is Fannie Gemmil.  Like Sarah and Gideon, she is a Gwich’in elder.  Fannie was also a TWA airline attendant (“stewardess”, back in the day).  She missed the way of life in Arctic Village and moved back there from California.  Fannie is very involved in her grandchildren’s lives.

(Above)  This is Derek.  He lives in Charlie and Marion’s home.  In Arctic Village, the broader community looks after one another.  Derek tagged along with several of us visitors much of the week.  I will always remember the nap that he and I took on the tundra grass one afternoon up at hunting camp.  And yes, I just played another “cute kid” card.  IT’S MY BLOG!!!

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Posted September 25, 2012 by ~ Bruce in People, Travel Photography

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12 responses to “Alaska Trip (Part 8) — The Gwich’in People and a Threatened Way of Life

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  1. Great story Bruce, No drilling here for sure. We are, in essence, killing off these people by continuing to push for drilling here. I’m with you on this one, brother.

  2. Excellent article. Having recently visited the McKenzie Delta area, I saw first hand how precarious the situation in North Alaska/Yukon/NWT is. I spoke to various people in the Gwich’in community about plans the oil industry has for them, it’s very interesting to go back and compare what they say with what the oil companies themselves say. There are huge discrepancies ranging from press releases that say that the Gwich’in people are all for drilling to doctored maps of pipeline routes where troublesome land masses have simply been deleted. Terrifying.

    • Loz, Thanks for posting. It’s always good to hear from someone who has actually been there. The “disinformation” by the oil companies that you described does not surprise me. Big Oil isn’t interested in an honest discussion on this subject. I met exactly zero Gwich’in during my trip who supported drilling in 1002.

  3. Great job, Bruce….and play as many “cute kid” cards as you want!

  4. Hi Bruce!

    Beautiful story about beautiful people. I was very touched and hope they can live in peace.
    Marilynn Brubaker

  5. Bruce, great photos and very good commentary/advocacy! You’ve really honored the people and places we visited by conveying the images and issues of their world.

  6. Bruce, Wondering if you know what the process is to get authorization to drill in the ANWR and where it is in the approval process?

    • Good question, Sue. There are two pieces of pending legislation in congress that provide for the protection of ANWR. Here they are:

      HR 139: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr139
      S. 33: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s33

      There have been numerous attempts to open ANWR and other protected areas to drilling. Each has been defeated, but the margin of protection has been uncomfortably thin at times. Given the money flowing into congress from oil interests, this will be an ongoing battle unless and until all of ANWR receives full wilderness protection. The efforts to allow drilling will likely resume after the new congress is seated next year. It is a perfect time to make your voice heard!

      My suggestion — if you are inclined — is to write to your Representative and Senator in support of HR 139 and S. 33, respectively. David Radcliff supplied the following pro forma letter that can be adopted / modified:

      Honorable Senator / Representative ________,

      I hope you are doing well today. I am writing to encourage you to support (S 33 or HR 139), a bill that would give permanent protection to the Arctic
      National Wildlife Refuge (if you’re already a co-sponsor, thanks!). Along with being a harbor for many species of birds, mammals and marine animals, it is one small sliver of the North Slope ecosystem that has not been impacted by oil drilling. It is also the birthing ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which travels there each spring to give birth to its calves. As the herd migrates south for the winter, the Gwich’in people use the animals as a source of food—as they have for thousands of years. Indeed, the herd is so central to their subsistence lifestyle and ancient culture that they consider protecting the birthing grounds to be a human rights issue—their very culture and lifestyle is at stake in the preservation of the caribou.

      So I suppose the question may be whether six months’ or so worth of oil (2-4 billion barrels might be recovered there, according to the EIA) is reason enough to despoil this pristine natural area and key part of the history and current-day life of the Gwich’in people. My answer to that question is an emphatic “no”, and I’m doing things in my own life to conserve energy to make drilling there unnecessary. Along with conservation, our nation should be moving quickly to wean our economy off fossil fuels and find other ways to power our lives—for the sake of the planet, our foreign policy, and the future of the Refuge and the Gwich’in people.

      Thank you for your consideration of my views.

      I hope this helps answer your questions Sue. Let me know if you have any more!

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