Shunning virus and Big Oil, Alaska tribe revives traditions [In-Depth]
In this June 14, 2019 photo, a four-wheeler is ridden through Arctic Village, Alaska. If the pandemic has deepened the sense of isolation for the 8,000 or so Gwich’in, sprinkled across northeastern Alaska into Canada, it has also emphasized the importance of the tribe’s traditions and its profound spiritual connection to the homelands that sustain the caribou and other wildlife on which they depend. (AP/Religion News Service/Brian Adams)
Arctic Village, Alaska — Arriving home on one of the last regular flights before pandemic restrictions went into effect in mid-February, Sarah James got to her house to find two caribous worth of meat in her freezer.
Since flights have become intermittent to this indigenous village 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, said James, a leader of the Gwich'in Athabascan people, the store periodically runs out of basics like meat and sugar. Subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering have been more critical than ever.
To ensure that Arctic Village's population of fewer than 200 have enough to eat, the village council has designated several members to hunt caribou, the Gwich'in's traditional staple. Someone had also taken time to make sure that James' freezer was well stocked.
If the pandemic has deepened the sense of isolation for the 8,000 or so Gwich'in, sprinkled across northeastern Alaska into Canada, it has also emphasized the importance of the tribe's traditions and its profound spiritual connection to the homelands that sustain the caribou and other wildlife on which they depend.
Young people, James said, suddenly understand the traditional value of sharing as they deliver fish and other foods right to elders' doors so they don't risk exposure to the virus.
While nobody in Arctic Village so far has been known to have COVID-19, medical care is precarious — at the small clinic there is no running water, and it's staffed by a health aide who is a trainee and a traveling physician's assistant who comes every couple of weeks. But the Gwich'in have long responded to multiple threats to their life and land by reinvesting in their people's place as protectors of their historic home.
For much of the past generation, the biggest threat has been an oil industry intent on gaining access to one of the country's last untapped petroleum reserves. In 1988, a year after the Reagan administration recommended development of the Alaskan coastal plain, the Gwich'in Nation held its first gathering in more than 100 years in Arctic Village and established the Gwich'in Steering Committee. The non-profit is commissioned with educating the world about the threat to the refuge.
James became one of the tribe's first spokespersons, traveling to Washington to lobby Congress and around the world to build a coalition of opposition to Reagan's plan. She still leads the legal fight against Big Oil and the federal government with partners like the Native American Rights Fund, while the steering committee pursues an education and influence campaign through traditional and social media, with support of environmental organizations.
Since the Gwich'in began their fight, too, the disposition of the coastal plain, which includes the 19 million-acre Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), almost the size of South Carolina, has become a national debate. In the mid-2000s, it helped force a government shutdown under President Bill Clinton. In 2015, the Obama administration proposed designating 1.25 million acres of the coastal plain off limits to development, along with more than 10 million acres elsewhere in Alaska, but the proposal went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress.
In this June 2019, photo is Gwich'in Nation elder Sarah James at her home in Arctic Village, Alaska. Now, with flights to their remote villages curtailed due to COVID-19, the Gwich’in Athabascan people have become more dependent on hunting, fishing and gathering and the traditions that run through their ancient way of life. Young people, James said, suddenly understand the traditional value of sharing as they deliver fish and other foods right to elders’ doors so they don’t risk exposure to the virus. (Religion News Service/AP/Brian Adams)
Since September of last year, when the Trump administration announced it would carry out its own plan to open the coastal plain to drilling, the Interior Department has been weighing a sale this year of oil leases on the 1.56 million acres in ANWR. The effort has so far survived the recent plunge in oil prices.
"I don't think the bidding would be driven by today's prices," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Bloomberg in mid-May. "I don't generally believe that decisions on whether or not to bid in a lease sale are really driven by the near-term dynamics."
But for the Gwich'in, the fight is as much a spiritual and cultural one. The tribe's defense has prompted a cultural renaissance in Alaska's rural villages. Young Gwich'in have turned to their elders to recapture indigenous languages. They are taking up traditional arts and crafts and studying food preservation techniques like smoking and drying. Tribal gatherings open and close with prayers, drumming, dancing and ceremonies that the young Gwich'ins' grandparents were discouraged and even punished for performing in colonial days.
James' leadership is representative of this rebirth, particularly of the Gwich'in matrilineal society that Alaska's white colonizers once tried to end.
In this June 2019 photo, Gwich'in Nation elder Sarah James shows the altar at the Episcopal Church in Arctic Village, Alaska. If the coronavirus pandemic has deepened the sense of isolation for the 8,000 or so Gwich’in, sprinkled across northeastern Alaska into Canada, it has also emphasized the importance of the tribe’s traditions and its profound spiritual connection to the homelands that sustain the caribou and other wildlife on which they depend. (AP/Religion News Service/Brian Adams)