“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.”

The Supreme Court’s landmark new Native American rights decision, explained

“The holding of McGirt is that this land, which has 1.8 million residents, most of whom are not Native American, is reserved land. Oklahoma must honor a treaty from nearly two centuries ago setting aside this land for Native peoples.”

“The primary impact of McGirt is that Oklahoma loses much of its power to enforce certain laws against members of Native American tribes within the borders of tribal lands. But the decision will have far less impact on non-Native Americans.”

“The fact that McGirt is a member of a tribe, and that his crime took place on a reservation, matter because of the federal Major Crimes Act (MCA). That law provides that “any Indian who commits” certain offenses “against the person or property of another Indian or any other person” is subject to “the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States” if that crime was committed “within the Indian country.”
Thus, Oklahoma lacks authority to try McGirt for raping someone on a Native American reservation. Only the federal courts may try such a crime.

On the surface, in other words, McGirt seems to involve a fairly minor issue. No one questions that McGirt may be convicted of rape. And no one questions that he can face a stiff penalty for such a conviction. The question is which court may try the case against him.”

“Congress may wipe away its treaties with Indigenous peoples at any time, and it may dissolve a Native American reservation on a whim.
But despite its many incursions on the Creek people’s tribal sovereignty, McGirt concludes that Congress has never taken the ultimate step of dissolving its original treaty with the Creek people. That means that Creek lands remain a reservation — including the place where McGirt committed his crime.

And that means that McGirt must be tried in federal court.”

For Native Americans, voting rights were hard-won. Mail-in voting could undo the gains.

“In 1924, the US Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting citizenship for Native Americans. But the law left it up to the states to decide whether to grant Native Americans the right to vote, and it would take nearly four more decades for all states to do so; Utah was the last in 1962. When Native Americans started voting and running for office, white election officials were not always friendly.”

“Voting disenfranchisement for Native Americans has moved from the outright denial in the 1950s and 1960s, before the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, to other, more subtle ways that voting access has been made difficult. Before Montana’s satellite offices were set up, Fort Belknap tribal members said, they’d show up to their designated polling place to vote, only to find local election officials informing them they had to go elsewhere.”

“Problems have persisted. Attorneys told Vox that as recently as 2016, one local election official in Alaska kept more than 100 Native voters from being registered, refusing to send more than 25 registration applications per village because, the official said, they didn’t think the Native villagers would fill out the forms.
“When we called and asked about that, [the official] said [Native voters] really aren’t interested in voting, and if we send 150 registrations, we’re only going to get a handful of them back,” said Natalie Landreth, an Alaska-based staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “We see that all over the place, these local, county-level decisions that will have huge impact on registrations, ballot access. A lot of those decisions aren’t set in statute.”

Native tribes have had some success to get the same basic rights afforded to other Americans, but these suits can drag on for years and drain tribes of their financial resources. Whereas tribes have to foot their bills, state and local governments have more resources through municipal insurance and aren’t on the hook for court fees.”

““Vote-by-mail is perfectly fine voter reform. It’s great as part of a package of voter-friendly reform to get more people access to the ballot,” said Claremont Graduate College researcher Joe Dietrich, who works on Schroedel’s team. “The problem starts to arise when you make [it] the only option to get people the ballot.””

“The problems related to mail-in voting are myriad for Native communities, advocates say. A lack of reliable mail access and a proliferation of nontraditional addresses on reservations, including those in North and South Dakota as well as the southwestern Navajo Nation, make home delivery impossible for many. For those with cars, simply visiting a post office to pick up and drop off a ballot can mean driving many miles on unpaved roads.

Mail-in ballots written in English are indecipherable to voters who don’t speak it, including older Navajo speakers, or Yupik speakers in Alaska’s Native villages who rely on translators at the polls. And if a voter is able to get a ballot and mail it in, there’s still the chance that a local election official could toss it because of something like missing information or a signature that doesn’t match the one on file. (Recent studies found that local election officials in Georgia and Florida were far more likely to reject ballots from minority and younger voters in the 2018 midterms.)”