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Alaska Natives on opposite sides of energy development in Arctic refuge

By Acee Agoyo

A bill to block energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is getting its first hearing next week, exposing a long-running divide among Native peoples in Alaska.

H.R.1146, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, seeks to reverse one of the major achievements of the Trump era. It would prevent the federal government from allowing oil and gas drilling in ANWR, including areas considered sacred to the Gwich'in people.

“The coastal plain is sacred to the Gwich’in people and critical to our food security and way of life. It is no place for heavy machinery and destructive seismic testing,” said Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The Gwich'in people oppose development out of fear it will destroy the caribou herd at the center of their way of life. The land within ANWR where the animals give birth is known as Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

ASRC: Richard Glenn Comments at BLM Hearing

But as Democrats seek to score a victory against the Trump administration, which eagerly supports drilling, they are going against the interests of another Native community. The Inupiat people who live in ANWR believe they have a right to develop their own land.

"We do not need to choose between the long-held traditions that are our birthright and economic security that comes with oil and gas development of our resources," Fenton Rexford, a longtime Inupiat leader who was born and raised in ANWR, told the Alaska House Resources Committee earlier this month as lawmakers considered a bill to endorse the Trump administration's drilling agenda.

Through two entities -- Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, where Rexford once served as president -- the Inupiat people own the surface and subsurface rights to about 92,000 acres in the so-called 1002 Area of ANWR. Oil and gas reserves are believed to be substantial there.

"What does this mean?" Richard Glenn, an executive vice president at Arctic Slope, said at a public hearing on oil and gas drilling in ANWR's coastal plain. "It means we've got the greatest at stake when it comes to the treatment of these lands. These are our lands, our waters, our neighborhoods, our birth places, our burial places."

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affair Tara Sweeney greets leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes at the organization's meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on March 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The stake extends into the Trump administration itself. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, the highest-ranking Native political appointee at the Department of the Interior, owns shares in Arctic Slope.

Sweeney, who is Inupiat, has not divested her shares in the corporation, according to an ethics letter on file at Interior, so she stands to benefit financially from development in ANWR. She's also a former executive at the corporation, earning millions of dollars in salary and other benefits, according to a disclosure on file with the Office of Government Ethics.

In her new role as the Assistant Secretary, Sweeney has vowed to recuse herself from matters affecting Arctic Slope, a strong pledge considering her vocal support for drilling in ANWR. As Congress was on the cusp of approving development through H.R.1, also known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, one key lawmaker heaped praise on the corporate executive.

"When I start to name names, I think of Tara Sweeney," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a speech on the Senate floor shortly before the bill cleared its last hurdle in the 115th Congress.

The 2017 fourth quarter issue of Uqalugaaŋich.

And when Congress finally approved the measure, Murkowski, Sweeney -- and Rexford too -- celebrated with President Donald Trump at the White House. A photo appeared on the cover of the 2017 fourth quarter issue of Uqalugaaŋich, ASRC's newsletter, to memorialize the occasion.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last great expanses of untouched wilderness areas in America, but the Trump administration is attempting to launch an all-out drilling spree, with no regards for the climate impacts or the effect on the Gwich’in people, who have lived off the land for generations," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California), the sponsor of H.R.1146.

With Sweeney out of the picture on matters impacting her corporation, she isn't likely to appear at next week's hearing on the bill. Since she joined the Trump administration last summer, she has yet to testify before Congress, but that will finally change when she's expected to testify before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on April 10, almost a year after her confirmation hearing for the post.

H.R.1146 boasts more than 110 co-sponsors, including Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress. During her historic campaign, she adamantly opposed drilling in the Arctic refuge, calling instead on the federal government to encourage renewable energy development -- instead of resource extraction -- in Native communities.

Haaland has continued that push in the 116th Congress. As the first Native person to serve as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, she is using her leadership position to counteract the Trump administration's pro-energy agenda.

"Right now, the EPA and the Interior Department are run by former lobbyists for coal and oil companies," Haaland said at a hearing on climate change last month in reference to Administrator Andrew Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Agency and David Bernhardt, the "acting" Secretary of the Interior.

The hearing on H.R.1146 will take place before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which is part of Haaland's committee, on March 26. A witness list hasn't been posted online yet.

House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Notice
The Need to Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain (March 26, 2019)

Note: Thumbnail image from Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee, a film co-directed by Dr. Len Necefer that premiered online this week. Necefer, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is the founder and owner of NativesOutdoors.

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