Bernadette Demientieff is the Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group pressuring BP to pledge not to drill the community's sacred lands.
Later this month, I’m going to travel halfway around the world from my home in Alaska to Aberdeen, Scotland to speak at BP’s annual shareholder meeting. I plan to share with the oil company’s executives how important the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to my people and urge them not to pursue destructive oil drilling or exploration in our sacred lands.
It’s not easy for me to do this work. From meetings with Indigenous allies in Arizona and Nevada to corporate boardrooms in New York and more trips to Washington, DC than I can count, for the last five years it’s felt like I’ve been on the road more than I’ve been at home. It can be exhausting, and it’s hard to be away from my family so much. But I know I can’t give up, because the work of protecting this place is identical to protecting our identity and our ways of life.
For the Gwich’in people, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is sacred ground. We call it “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For thousands of years, my people have lived along the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd and depended on the herd for our food security and way of life. Today, the caribou herd still provides 80 percent of our diet.
When I speak to BP’s shareholders and executives, I hope I can help them understand how drilling in the coastal plain, where the caribou calve their young, would harm the herd and disrupt the migratory route they’ve been following for centuries. This would pose a direct threat to the Gwich’in people.
I know it can be hard for people who live in a place like New York City or London to understand what our lives are like and why this place matters to us so much. They can’t imagine what it would be like to live in our traditional ways and hunt and survive off the land because it’s so far removed from their own experience, and maybe it sounds unrealistic to them that we share a spiritual connection with the Porcupine caribou herd.
But the hearts of the Gwich’in Nation and the caribou have been linked since time immemorial. Our creation story tells that the Gwich’in will always keep a part of the caribou heart, and the caribou will always keep a part of the Gwich’in heart: “What befalls the caribou; befalls the Gwich’in.”
I will also tell them about how Alaska is ground zero for climate change, a problem that drilling for more oil in the Arctic would only make worse. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have villages that are washing away and sinking into the ocean. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is the last thing we need.
The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world. We should be protecting our wild places, because our children deserve to see the world as it was in the very beginning, not just when we are done with it.
It’s obvious that the Trump administration has already made up their minds about trying to sell off the coastal plain to the highest bidder, but it’s not too late for companies, and the banks that fund them, to recognise that some places are just too sacred to drill. The Arctic Refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath. It’s the heart of my people and our food security, our way of life, and our very survival depends on its protection. Our identity is not up for negotiation.
At our last Gwich’in gathering, our elders reminded us that we come from strong people, who survived some of the coldest, harshest winters. They protected this land for us, and we have the same responsibility to future generations. That’s why, even when I feel tired and I’d rather be home with my family, I will keep fighting and going wherever it takes to send the important message that destroying this sacred place is unacceptable. I hope BP listens.
Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Public Domain. Updated 05/05/2019: The bio and first sentence were altered.