For most of her life, Neets’aii Gwich’in leader Sarah James has worked to protect her homelands, including the coastal plain of the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The United States government wants to lease some of the area for oil exploration and drilling. To the region’s longtime inhabitants, those plans threaten land they call sacred.
Gwichʼin Alaska Native Sarah James tosses her silver hair over her shoulders as she welcomes me into her small cabin with eyes that sparkle through black-rimmed glasses. The elder tells me she has coffee on. Even in June, it can be cool here, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle — and hot coffee is welcome year-round.
From her cabin window we can see craggy outcroppings emerging from deep green spruce forest. The view rivals that in the most spectacular national parks. Her home, atop a knoll in her hometown of Arctic Village, is situated just across a river from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This is Sarah’s ancestral homeland.
Alaska Indigenous People vs. the U.S. Government
With the help of the Native American Rights Fund, two Alaska tribes, including Sarah’s, filed a lawsuit September 9 in Federal District Court against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Trump Administration to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas development.
The federal government has protected that land — an area about the size of South Carolina — for more than 50 years. Now the Trump Administration wants to open 1.6 Million acres of it to a lease sale, a step that would allow oil companies to drill there for the first time. The Gwich’in Athabascan indigenous people consider it sacred land. The lawsuit the Native American Rights Fund brought is one of several. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, The Audubon Society and 15 states are also suing the U.S. government.
Covid-19 has complicated the Gwich’in Nation’s efforts to protect the refuge. People in Arctic Village have been infected and the virus has limited their ability to travel. Sarah says the pandemic has made it harder to coordinate their legal battle. It has also highlighted the importance of maintaining traditions that ensure her people’s self-reliance and survival.
Family is everything here. With pride, Sarah shows me old black and white family photos with her nine siblings. Only 150 people live in the whole town.
The sky here is light 24/7 in summer. Most people in Arctic Village spend the season outdoors. Many of Sarah’s neighbors camp close to where they can hunt caribou.
Caribou connect Gwich’in to the cosmos
Although many Gwich’in became Christians when Episcopal missionaries arrived in the 1800s, they continue to believe that spirits inhabit objects and places. Sarah shows me another photo that demonstrates how this belief system informs the steeple of the old church in Arctic Village.
“The arrows going up with the cross on it and there’s the arrow going in four directions. And in between there’s one big lump, another big lump and then, little lump. And, that means bless the whole solar system,” she says.
Centuries before astronomers and space explorers grasped this, Sarah adds, the Gwich’in considered the cosmos. “I’m just amazed at my people – how much they know, how much they care about the whole universe.”
Sarah is in her late 70s. It takes hard work to live here. She says it’s good exercise. “We have [an] outhouse, we don’t have running water here. And I pack my treated water from a river. I still walk, I still rake my yard.”
She’s lived in Arctic Village most of her life. One of her first memories is running alongside a dogsled on a hunting trip with her family and eating fresh caribou meat roasted over an open fire.Even as the world around them has changed, the wild animals people hunt here still count for three-quarters of what they eat.
Stories passed down through the generations tell of a time – before fur trappers arrived from Canada, when even more life thrived here. Animal mating calls and bird songs filled the air.“It was the land of the plenty, my mom calls it,” Sarah says. In the springtime, especially. It was so noisy that people have to yell at each other to understand each other.”
The story goes that so many migratory birds arrived each spring, they cast a shadow over the land. And, there were so many fish in the streams and rivers that the water only trickled around them. Then, there was the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
To Gwich’in people, these animals aren’t just food. Sarah says they are the culture. “We care so much for the caribou — we take care of them and in return they take care of us. We’re in their heart and they’re in our hearts.” The wildlife refuge that surrounds Sarah’s village on three sides – especially its coastal plain, where the Porcupine Caribou herd gives birth – is key to the survival of caribou and her culture.
Outsiders came first for pelts, then for gold. Now, it’s for oil.
Alaska’s political leaders have different ideas about what the refuge is good for. That set up decades of tension between them and the Gwich’in. Since the late 50s — before Alaska statehood — the federal government expanded that area for protection. But the prospect of oil and gas development in the refuge has glimmered like a mirage. The government has studied that possibility.
Today, Alaska is the only state that doesn’t levy income or sales taxes. Oil production in other parts of the state made that possible. Sarah and her people – the Neets’aii Gwich’in – would rather protect the wildlife refuge than allow oil drilling there. They say developing the land for oil extraction will threaten the caribou on which they depend, and they contend that the fossil fuel economy isn’t sustainable.
“Recycle, reuse, reduce and refuse and use less oil until we don’t have to use oil any more,” she says. “And that’s what Neets’aii Gwichʼin is all about. We want to teach the world why – in a good way – why we say no to oil – and that’s our mission.”
What Sarah James learned – and what she teaches
Sarah didn’t speak English until her teens, when she went to Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Oregon. Then the agency sent her to learn secretarial skills at a business college in San Francisco. She’d never set foot in a city that big. The rampant consumerism and litter shocked her.
But the 1960s counterculture fascinated her. So did the convergence of young indigenous people bent on self-determination. When one of them invited Sarah on a boat ride to Alcatraz Island, she had no idea that a spur-of-the-moment sail with her new friends would make history. The American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz – federal land that once held a high-security prison – lasted 19 months, from November 1969 to June 1971.
Sarah didn’t stay that long. When her father died in 1970, she returned home to Arctic Village. She brought with her a lot of what she’d absorbed in the big city — ideas from the Indian rights movement, knowledge of the laws that applied to Native Americans and strategies for resistance.
She worked in the village school and in tribal government. Sarah also became a mother. She focused her activism on saving the coastal plain of the wildlife refuge from oil drilling and pipelines.
With reverence, she explains the Gwich’in name for the coastal plain — The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
Every June, for thousands of years, the porcupine caribou herd has given birth on that narrow strip of land to the north, inside the refuge. “Only place that porcupine caribou could have their calf safely, quiet, private and clean,” Sarah says, “and every birth needs that.” Everybody knows, Sarah adds, that noise from oil drilling and industrial development drives these animals away. They’re not able to deliver their offspring anywhere else. “They can’t do it on the foothills — there’s predators there. They can’t do it on the mountain — it’s too cold. So, the only place is that one small coastal area up in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” In this place, all the right conditions exist for caribou to thrive.
After they give birth, they nurse and raise their calves until fall when they move south through the mountains right down to the ground beneath our feet when we go out walking. Alongside the Chandalar River, Sarah points out light-colored lichen that covers the tundra like snow.
“Caribou likes to eat that,” she says. It doesn’t contain a lot of nutrients, but it helps the migrating herd digest its food gradually over the long trek. “They release nutrition slowly. They’re always on the move burning up energy. So, this one helps them retain energy — in their body.” The lichen – an all-you-can-eat buffet for the herd – is one reason her ancestors chose this as the permanent location for their village. “We are in this valley. And, when caribou is on the move they tend to come through this valley.” For the lichen that allows the herd – and, ultimately, the tribe – to survive. That’s why the Gwich’in and their allies are ready to fight any federal plan that would allow oil extraction in the region.
“We have a right to be caribou people”
Indigenous land claims are complicated, but unlike some tribes, the Gwich’in were able to gain ownership of more than a million acres – plus, Sarah says, “We got our own tribal government.”
Federal Indian Law guarantees the right to self-determination — including continued access to subsistence and cultural resources — like caribou. The Native American Rights Fund believes Sarah’s tribal government has the legal standing to sue – and keep the federal government from carrying out its plan to drill for oil. “We have a right to be caribou people,” Sarah says. We believe God put us here to take care of this part of the world — Earth and we did well with our caribou.”
Before the mid-20th century, Gwich’in migrated among seasonal foraging and hunting camps. They only settled in permanent villages as the state of Alaska was forming, because the government wanted them to register their children in schools. Sarah is Neets’aii Gwich’in. That nation is located northeast of Yukon Territory and in the Mackenzie Delta area of Northwest and Northeast of Alaska
Sarah has to explain details like this to outsiders a lot. Every decade or so over the last half-century, the federal government has revived the prospect of drilling in the wildlife refuge.
In the late 1980s, leaders of the Gwich’in Nation across the U.S. and Canadian border gathered for the first time in over 100 years to address the issue. They designated her as one of six people to speak on their behalf.
During a 2011 hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., Alaska Congressman Don Young compared the proposed drilling site in relation to the wildlife refuge to a hair on your head – pluck it out and you wouldn’t miss it.
“The reality is, this area should be drilled. I’ve been fighting this battle for 39 years,” he testified.” It was set aside for drilling.” Alaska’s two U.S. Senators agree with him.
At another point in the same hearing, Sarah stood her ground as she had many times before.
“Caribou is our way of life, just like the buffalo is to the Plains Indians,” she told the committee.”It’s our song, it’s our dance, it’s our story.”
A generous, welcoming tradition
In her cabin, Sarah brings out an animal hide drum, places it on her lap, chants and beats out a rhythm. This is what she means when she invokes the caribou as her peoples’ song, dance and story. She knows the Caribou Skin Hut Dance Song by heart. It’s a traditional welcome song of the Neets’aii Gwich’in people.
Sarah says it came about when the Neets’aii were starving, and a shaman shared with them his dream about the caribou. To survive, he said, the human inhabitants would need to be like the caribou: adaptable…on the move…together.
In addition to the huts the Gwich’in built with caribou hides back in what Sarah calls the “bow and arrow days,” they used every other part of the animal to make tools, clothes and household items. They accommodated waves of newcomers — the French Canadian trappers from Hudson Bay, the Americans and others.
“We are generous people,” Sarah says. “Many times, it didn’t help us to welcome – but overall, it’s a good practice for our people. And today we have to survive together because we welcome them when they first came to our country and we have to live together, side-by-side.”
Until very recently, the Gwich’in were able to hold off outsiders’ attempts to drill in the area. Then, in 2017, Congress passed the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It included a provision that required the Interior Department approve at least two lease sales for drilling in the Refuge within 10 years. That agency’s Bureau of Land Management has filed a final environmental impact statement. The Interior Department plans to hold a lease sale by the end of 2020.
Sarah James says this makes no sense.
“My people always said they believe in Christianity even before that they practice the same practice. It’s just that they don’t have the story behind it. The Ten Commandments — we kept that. And taking care of the environment because the creator made it good.”
Where the caribou roam
To show me this environment, Sarah revs up her four-wheel all-terrain vehicle and I hop on behind. Everybody gets around town this way. She drops me off to visit one of her neighbors, 61-year old Charlie Swaney.
He’s a hunter who’s married to Sarah’s niece. “We built this house here from scratch” a place with a big picture window. “Me and my wife, in 1991.”
“I tell you the most spectacular sight I’ve seen is as far as you could see the last mountain down there,” he gestures through the pane. “From there all the way across to the entire other side of the mountain here was a line of caribou from back to back, lined up. I don’t know how many thousands that was but it lasted about eight hours straight. One straight line of caribou, tail to tail.”
On the other side of the mountains where the tundra sweeps up into the foothills from the coast, the caribou move across the calving and nursing grounds with their young. They feed on plants packed with nutrients. Thousands of female caribou gather there with their new calves, as they do each spring.
The cows grunt to call to their babies. The herd sounds and moves like a river … their hooves and foot joints make a clicking sound. It’s the longest migration of any LAND mammal on earth. Tens of thousands of caribou trek as many as 3,000 miles every year.
Charlie says people here want to rely on caribou instead of imported, store-bought food that costs two or three times what it does in Alaska’s cities. Most people in Arctic Village earn around $20-thousand dollars a year — or less. “You might say that there’s not much money here — only seasonal jobs and all that,” he says. “Some people might think we’re poor-wise, but you look at this lifestyle — this is a rich lifestyle here. That means everything to people here.”
Farther south, along the banks of the Yukon River, other Gwich’in people also depend on the same herd. That’s why 19-year-old Araya Stoffa has joined the movement to protect the refuge.
Over the summer, she returned from college in Iowa to work with the nonprofit Gwich’in Steering Committee Sarah founded with other leaders in the 80s.
“Being able to subsistence hunt and go get your own food is a blessing,” Araya says.“A lot of people don’t realize it until they’re taken out of the village and have to go to the grocery store. But there is something on the inside that makes you feel so much better to harvest your own food and there is a spiritual connection.”
For young Gwich’in like her, that connection is critical. “When I left for school out of state, I felt lost.” Similar feelings of displacement contribute to high rates of substance abuse and suicide among young Alaska Natives. “If we didn’t have the Porcupine Caribou Herd anymore, I feel like that’s how everybody else would feel too — they would feel lost because our ancestors built such a strong relationship with them. And I feel like that passed down to us.”
Thinking seven generations ahead
Part of Sarah’s work is about ensuring that young people have a future here. You may have heard the indigenous idea that it’s necessary to think seven generations ahead. Sarah says with what we know about climate change and the renewable energy and technological advances on the horizon, there will be more need to preserve the ecosystem here, than to extract more oil from it.
Sometimes, she imagines that earlier generations’ lives were better. “I can’t go back to bow and arrow like I want to. When we were healthy, strong and a lot of us, and a healthy earth. I want to go back to that but, now we’re all together and we have to do it together in order to survive.”
Sarah believes God has a plan to protect the sacredness she knows. Her tribal government does, too. For almost as long as Alaska has been a state, attorneys for the tribe have prepared for a legal showdown with the U.S. government over drilling. She concludes, “They gotta face our government now.”
Two sovereign nations will butt horns, in court.
“Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” – the Gwich’in name for The Sacred Place Where Life Begins – “is a public land,” she says. ”It’s your land — It’s your kids’ future, it’s my kids’ future.
Tell your neighbor, tell your family in the living room!”
The way Sarah James, for most of her life, has been telling everybody within earshot.
Daysha Eaton worked as a radio producer for Alaska Public Media member stations from 2011-2018. She recently relocated to Portland, Oregon.
The Alaska Humanities Forum and the Spiritual Exemplars project at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture funded the reporting for this story. The Sacred Steps series is a collaboration between KALW Public Radio and the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.