'Our lives are at stake': Gwich'in fight to protect caribou at biennial gathering

There was a strong sense of unity at this year's 15th Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., this week. This is the first time it's been held since the United States elected President Donald Trump.

U.S. recently approved bill to allow oil and gas drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Gwich'in drummers from Alaska perform at the 15th Biennial Gwich’in Gathering earlier this week. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

There was a strong sense of unity at this year's 15th Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., this week.

The five-day event occurs every two years, and brings together Gwich'in from from Alaska, Northwest Territories Yukon. They've been meeting since 1988.

This is the first time it's been held since the United States elected President Donald Trump.

The possibility of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been brought up during Trump's administration.

The wildlife refuge is home to animals such as polar bears, but is also the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, an animal sacred to the Gwich'in and one of the last thriving herds in the North.

Moreover than a war against Trump, this is an effort towards peace.- Dana Tizya-Tramm

The U.S. recently passed a tax bill that would allow oil and gas drilling in the refuge.

All in attendance at the gathering expressed that their main concern is protecting the Porcupine caribou herd.

"Moreover than a war against Trump, this is an effort towards peace," said Dana Tizya-Tramm, councillor for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

"We have an opportunity on this issue to educate the world on what unity looks like … with your environment, on surrounding nations and with the animals."

Lorraine Netro, from Old Crow, says protecting the caribou is critical. (Submitted by Weronika Murray)

It wasn't just Gwich'in who attended the meeting.

Other organizations that are fighting to protect the caribou were there, some travelling from as far away as Alaska.

Lorraine Netro is from Old Crow, Yukon. She said seeing all of the Gwich'in come together during this trying time makes her emotional.

"The roar of clapping and standing in unity and the voice to speak as one Gwich'in people brought me to tears, " she said.

"We are at such a critical, important time in this fight for protection of our sacred lands, and the last two days just strengthened our resolve … Our lives are at stake."

Throughout the meeting, people pointed out they would continue to be vocal and might hold a demonstration during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to Dawson City on Canada Day.

Netro said the next biennial meeting will be held in Old Crow, and that the Gwich'in will continue to educate others and fight for the wildlife refuge.

"We are going to continue to make sure that our voice is very clear and that there is no oil and gas development is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," she said.