North

Gwich'in leaders 'cautiously optimistic' about Biden protecting Arctic refuge

Gwich’in leaders from across the North are "cautiously optimistic" about what having a new U.S. president will mean for protecting their sacred land. But even with the new administration coming in, "the clock is still ticking" on seismic exploration plans.

New U.S. president-elect promised his administration would permanently protect the refuge

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Alaska, says over the past 4 years Gwich'in have seen 'total disrespect' from the Trump administration. (Chad Brown)

Gwich'in leaders from across the North are "cautiously optimistic" about what having a new U.S. president will mean for protecting their sacred land.

The Gwich'in Steering Committee has been fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska from oil and gas development for decades.

The area is known to the Gwich'in as Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, meaning "the sacred place where life begins." It has cultural, spiritual, and ecological significance — especially as calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. 

Republicans in the U.S. have been trying to open it up to development for years. This summer, the Trump administration took a major step toward fulfilling that dream when the Department of the Interior approved a leasing program for oil and gas development on those acres of coastal plain. 

And now with Joe Biden set to become president in January, all of that could change.

His campaign's plan for climate change promises the administration will permanently protect the refuge, and ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters. 

'Trump administration ... made me fearful to hope'

Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the new administration.

"With the Biden administration coming in there is now a sigh of relief … here in Canada to the Indigenous peoples of this region, as well as Canadians." 

Dana Tizya-Tramm is chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Yukon. He says he is relieved and 'cautiously optimistic' about the incoming administration in the U.S. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

But even with the new administration coming in, "the clock is still ticking."

The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation is seeking approval to conduct seismic exploration in an area along the refuge's coastal plain from late December to late May.

Yukon's government and the federal government have both opposed the project, while TD Bank on Monday became the latest major bank in Canada to release a policy ruling out funding of oil and gas development in the refuge.

Tizya-Tramm says Biden's election win may have come too late to put a stop on the exploration project, and that Trump's administration is working hard to push ahead. 

"If they are able to sell the lease sales before the Biden administration can reverse and reinstate protections for these federally designated lands, then we'll find ourselves in the next iteration of this issue," Tizya-Tramm said.

"If there's one thing that I do not appreciate from the Trump administration is they've made me fearful to hope."

This undated photo shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Steven Chase/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images)

'We're not going to stand for it any longer'

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Alaska, says a lot was at risk for the Gwich'in in this election.

"What was at stake was our identity, our food security, our way of life, our human rights. This administration, and the Alaska elected leadership, has completely disregarded the Alaska Natives." 

She said over the past four years Gwich'in have seen "total disrespect" from the Trump administration, along with "dishonesty and misleading statements" over the years.

The Gwich'in have a responsibility to protect the Porcupine caribou, she said, and have had a spiritual and cultural connection to them since time immemorial.

"We have people coming into our homelands making decisions about our future, and they're not involving us. We're tired of it. We're not going to stand for it any longer," she said.

In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, caribou from the Porcupine herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Associated Press)

Kenny Smith, Gwich'in Tribal Council Grand Chief in the Northwest Territories, says he felt a "certain amount of relief" when he found out that Biden was president-elect.

"If President Trump was re-elected I think we would have had some challenges ahead of us in terms of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

He said he is looking forward to having an "ally" in the White House in Biden and Kamala Harris during the upcoming years. He says he hopes that climate change remains top of mind for them as they enter the office.

"We expect a level of engagement, consultation, and accommodation it requires. And we've made it very and abundantly clear that under no circumstances will we support any development on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

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