ANWR Reality Lies Far North of Gwich’in

ANWR Reality Lies Far North of Gwich’in


George Tagarook is a former vice-mayor of the City of Kaktovik, located on the coastal plain of what is now called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Here in Kaktovik, home of the only people native to the Arctic coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), we read and listen with horror to the words of opponents about potential oil development here. It is marvelous rhetoric, a stunning incursion of alien perspectives and language into a world never before visited by such seemingly noble sentiments.

The problem with the picture is that reality lies someplace else. One such reality is that real Native people do not intrude into the homelands of other Native people. In the old days it was a matter of life and death. Today that respect remains an honored tradition throughout Alaska. And so when we hear about Native people from someplace else with plans for our homelands, we know we are not hearing real native voices. We know someone else from some other place wrote the language.

When Sarah James, a Gwich’in spokesperson now using that alien language, signed the lease agreement years ago for oil and gas exploration within the Gwich’in homelands, we did not think to question the wisdom of her decision. It was their homelands to do with as they pleased. When they speak of their sacred lands, the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which just happen to be our homelands and far removed from theirs, we know we are hearing alien words spoken for somebody else. For no Gwich’in would ever make that incredible mistake. The Gwichin do not live in or near the coastal plain or anywhere in the 19.6 million-acre refuge, but many Americans believe otherwise.

The ANWR issue has nothing to do with environmental protection or with caribou. It is about land; it is about imperialism, about taking the lands and waters of someone else and making them your own. Native people don’t do that. We are tightly attached to our own land and have no interest in taking land from other people. That is the meaning of being Native, of being so much a part of our homelands that other places are of little interest to us.

For the record, the Porcupine Caribou Herd calved again this year in Canada among the oil rigs Ottawa has set up there in what they like to call a national park. For the record the herd is being devastated by hunters along the Dempster Highway under the watchful eye of the Canadian Wildlife Service. National environmental groups, their Gwichin allies and members of the media have created a false reality of this issue, and those of us with any real knowledge of the coastal plain are left stunned, confused and defensive. We stand to be hopelessly defeated by ruthless liars.

The invasion of our homelands began when some perhaps well-meaning but surely ill-informed ladies in Fairbanks persuaded Washington to declare our homelands a wildlife range. That was long before the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, before there was any action to resolve the true ownership of these lands. It was while we remained the sole owners of our lands. And we were not even consulted, not even made aware that people from someplace else had moved in, at least on some paper in some distant place.

Then things got worse. Step by insidious step, outsiders pushed us aside, set up rules that made it harder and harder for us to use our lands and waters. The worst thing they have done is to declare part of our homelands wilderness. Not only is that a massive insult to say that places where we are have no people, as if we do not even exist, but also the management rules for such places make it impossible for us to continue to use them. Now they want the entire coastal plain made wilderness. That is code for finally removing us from our homelands. That is code for genocide.

We passionately oppose attempts to expand wilderness designations to our remaining homelands. We suffer not from pollution or harm brought here by the oil and gas industry. It has so far been one of the least disruptive and most positive forces ever to invade Alaskas Arctic shores. We suffer from the pollution of lies spread far and wide to advance an agenda we do not understand, and from the disrespect shown our positive, progressive people.