I was so grateful to hear President Obama include the significance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Alaska Native people in his announcement of a wilderness recommendation to Congress but disappointed that the mainstream media has made very little mention of the Gwich'in perspective. This area is within our ancestral homelands. So to Gwich'in communities, this is not merely an environmental or conservation issue.
Protecting the coastal plain of the refuge is about upholding our rights to continue our Native ways of life as our communities depend upon the Porcupine caribou herd to survive. These rights are a part of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states, "... by no means shall a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence." This announcement comes at a time when we are struggling to mitigate the effects of climate change on our rural communities and to restore our failing food systems. Gwich'in communities are already suffering under a failed system which has all but destroyed the king salmon we once depended upon and many families have found themselves socioeconomic refugees in our larger cities. But the mainstream media barely skims the surface of these broader issues at hand.
The Alaska delegation would have us think that all Alaskans are "outraged" by the wilderness recommendation and has responded in the media using the language of a "declaration of war." This language connotes the ecology of violence both against our Mother Earth and is related to the high rates of violence that we experience as Alaska Native women. There is a direct correlation, and part of the problem is that we are not creating a culture of caring for one another but instead a divisive and hostile culture. We need to recognize that we are interconnected to one another and are a part of our environment -- not separate, but equal constituents of our planet.
A birthing ground is no place for a battlefield. Each summer up to 40,000 calves from the Porcupine caribou herd are born and nurse on the coastal plain of the refuge. As a mother, I am acutely aware of the conditions we must maintain from womb to birth to ensure the health of mother and child and also that birthing space is sacred. What is sacred anymore in this world? Where is our civility, our humanity as we address these issues? Do we not have a moral obligation to future generations to do all we can to work toward leaving behind a more vibrant, thriving planet that will sustain human life?
Let us not forget that two years of public hearings took place across our state to collect public testimony on the Arctic Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. At a hearing in Anchorage, 2-to-1 were in favor of wilderness, and in Fairbanks, 60 percent were in favor of wilderness for the coastal plain of the refuge. How do these voices get discounted? This recommendation comes from the Alaskan people and is not just the decision of those in Washington, D.C. No words from Washington can address all the deep and painful challenges my people face today, or the damage that has been done to our land and our culture. But protecting the Sacred Place Where Life Begins -- once and for all -- would be a hopeful first step.
Princess Daazhraii Johnson is the former executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee and current graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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