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Gwich'in people must be heard in Arctic Refuge debate

  • Author: Julian Roberts
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published February 24, 2015

When the Alaska Federation of Natives recently held its winter board retreat in Kotzebue, they invited Alaska's entire congressional delegation, as well as an array of lawmakers, leaders from municipal governments and Native corporations, and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. I was one of very few tribal delegates in attendance.

As I considered whether to attend the retreat, I wondered, "With so many public officials invited, why was this event not open to more Alaska tribes and the public? Why is it a closed-door meeting?" As a member of the Gwich'in Nation, I knew our attendance would be meaningful but I harbored concerns that a diversity of voices would not be heard in regards to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We wanted Secretary Jewell to know that, despite the rhetoric, many here in Alaska welcomed President Barack Obama's announcement that the federal government's final Comprehensive Conservation Plan would recommend that Congress designate the coastal plain and other areas of the refuge as wilderness – the highest level of protection for public lands.

During the Kotzebue meeting, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 Interior Athabascan tribes, clearly addressed support for protection of the refuge. This was immediately echoed by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. The Alaska congressional delegation was on the same panel as Jewell, and heard our views. Yet, Sen. Lisa Murkowski later stated on public radio that all Alaska Natives in the room had been aligned against the wilderness recommendation for the refuge. Her statement blatantly disregarded the truth. How could our voices so easily be set aside in this discussion?

The Gwich'in Nation is composed of 15 villages along the migratory route and winter habitat of the Porcupine caribou herd in Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada. The Gwich'in have had a relationship with the caribou since time began. We rely on caribou to meet our physical, cultural, spiritual, social and economic needs. Reliance on traditional and customary use (now termed "subsistence") of the Porcupine herd is a matter of survival. Caribou provide us with food security. Despite the inroads of modern civilization, our cultural way of life remains intact. In our language we call the calving grounds: "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit," which means "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

The Gwich'in were directed by our elders in 1988 to seek permanent protection of the coastal plain of ANWR because it is the primary birthplace and nursery of the Porcupine herd. Our traditional law is that the calving grounds are never to be disturbed. We will continue to defend this place until our goals are achieved. We are truly thankful this administration has heard us and is upholding the subsistence rights of the Gwich'in Nation with its call for wilderness. Make no mistake: This is a subsistence rights issue.

Prior to the meeting in Kotzebue, AFN officials said the goal of the dialogue was to enlighten Jewell on the issues important to our communities. Though that may have been the goal, I was dismayed that an important voice was not fully represented in that room.

The sovereign tribes of Alaska, who enjoy a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, should have been the primary delegates called upon for dialogue on such issues. The issues on the table remain within the realm of tribal authority, which upholds the rights of our communities -- especially when it comes to subsistence rights -- and protects the health and well-being of our people.

Those who have a financial interest in the issues, such as corporations and municipal governments, cannot represent our voice and should never have authority when it comes to the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the U.S. government. And it is wrong for Sen. Murkowski to discount us simply because tribal representatives were under-represented at the AFN retreat.

The subsistence rights of Alaska tribes cannot continue to be sacrificed at the altar of irresponsible energy policy.

And our voices, which are critical to the discussion, cannot be silenced.

Julian Roberts is chief of the Native Village of Venetie tribal government.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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