FROM THE ARCHIVE

Gwich'in Nation: We Come from the Caribou

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APRIL 4, 2001

Faith Gemmill is fighting for two nations.

One, the Gwich'in Nation, is composed of 15 villages in Alaska and Canada, representing 10,000 people who call one of the coldest regions in America their home.

The other is better known as the Porcupine caribou herd, whose 130,000 members are in the middle of a nationwide debate about the future of one of the most pristine spaces in the country.

To Gemmill, the two are one and the same.

As coordinator for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, Gemmill is the primary spokesperson for the Gwich'in Nation. But as a member of a tribe whose culture revolves almost entirely around the caribou, she is soon becoming the spokesperson for a group of animals whose population may be threatened by oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

"We're culturally reliant on the herd. We're spiritually reliant on the herd. We're socially reliant on the herd," says Gemmill. "We have our own traditional songs and dances that tell of our historical relationship to the caribou. Our creation stories are even about how the Gwich'in and the caribou were once one."

To hear Gemmill talk about the caribou is to hear a story about the Gwich'in themselves. Whether its sustenance, clothing, or social structure, every aspect of Gwich'in society is connected in one way or another to the herd.

And as debate over drilling in ANWR increases, the Gwich'in are now finding themselves politically tied to the caribou. Having seen development fended off by Congress and the Clinton administration for the past few years, Gemmill acknowledges her people are now in for a much bigger fight.

But Gemmill believes President George W. Bush and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton are in for a battle as well. Both have argued that development can occur with minimal impacts on the environment.

Gemmill disagrees with the argument, along with the idea that development in the refuge will satisfy the nation's growing, and pressing, energy needs. Although the figure is disputed by drilling advocates such as Arctic Power, an Alaska lobbying firm, Gemmill says the refuge promises but a few drops of oil.

"My people are faced with losing thousands of years of culture for six months worth of oil," says Gemmill. "Why should the Gwich'in be faced with sacrificing our way of life for short term economic gain? That's not fair or right. This country needs to learn from mistakes of the past where industrialization has harmed indigenous cultures."

Gemmill has plenty of supporters. A number of Alaska Native villages, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), environmentalists, and Senators from Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) oppose development.

Many others want drilling, too. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Inupiat Eskimo-owned Alaska Native corporation, oil companies, and lawmakers like Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) are pushing for development.

For those who haven't made up their mind, Gemmill paints her job as a simple one.

"I'm just educating people about the Gwich'in way of life and how reliant we are on the herd, how our culture will be devastated by oil development," she says.

Along those lines, Gemmill is one of the keynote speakers at the National Wildlife Federation's annual meeting in Washington, DC, this week. The meeting begins today and Gemmill will put her lobbying and education skills to work, hoping to convince Americans why the Gwich'in viewpoint is one that should be heard.

"We come from the caribou. That's what we believe," says Gemmill. "What befalls the caribou befalls the Gwich'in. What befalls the Gwichi'n befalls the caribou."

Relevant Links:
National Wildlife Federation - http://www.nwf.org
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife - http://arctic.fws.gov/issues1.html
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service - http://arctic.fws.gov
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site - http://www.anwr.org

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