“Our culture is not up for sale”: The stakes of Trump’s push to drill in the Arctic refuge

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of public land in Alaska the size of South Carolina, is one of the last untouched landscapes in the world. The native Gwich’in people — who have lived in harmony with the area’s migratory Porcupine caribou herd for centuries — call the refuge’s vast coastal plain Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

But in the past few years, the fate of the refuge’s roughly 19.5 million acres has become rather bleak: Its permafrost is melting rapidly, along with the rest of the Arctic region. The refuge’s coastal plain also remains at risk to oil and gas development, which companies have long had their eye on but have been barred from doing — until now.

Drilling in the US Arctic is what President Trump has longed to do, in hopes of making the US the No. 1 energy producer in the world. And in early December, the administration made a stunning, last-ditch announcement that it will auction off drilling rights in the refuge on January 6 — two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. It’s the administration’s final attempt to turn a profit on Indigenous lands with little regard for the environmental or cultural ramifications.”

“For centuries, the Arctic refuge — particularly the coastal plain — has been central to Alaska Natives’ way of life. The ancestral name of the plain refers to the calving grounds for the caribou, whose migratory path still guides the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people today. If oil drilling rights in the sacred land are sold, Alaskan Natives fear it would disrupt the caribou’s migratory patterns along with other wildlife. It would also interrupt the way the Gwich’in people prepare for sacred harvest as their ancestors have thousands of years ago.

“This is not just a Gwich’in issue; there are a lot of Alaska Natives who depend on the caribou and the animals that migrate there,” Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Vox. “Our identity as Gwich’in is not up for negotiation and our culture is not up for sale. We will fight this every step of the way.”

Already, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline on the west end of the national refuge, which has had multiple hazardous oil spills in the region, provides a stark reminder of the fossil fuel industry’s menacing presence on Indigenous lands. Fossil fuel operations emit tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to the planet’s warming temperatures. And to do so on Indigenous lands in the Arctic — already dubbed ground zero for the climate crisis — only adds insult to injury for communities most vulnerable to climate change, like the Gwich’in people.”