Gwich’in tribal leaders this week shot back at Rep. Don Young after he verbally attacked some of their members during a House subcommittee meeting late last month in a skirmish over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee, a voice for 15 Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada, issued a statement and letter calling out the “false" and “inappropriate” statements they say Young made during the March 26 meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
The letter was sent to Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee, on Monday. Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee who spoke at the hearing, said Tuesday the letter will be entered into the Congressional record.
The rebuke of a sitting congressman is a first for the tribes, Demientieff said.
At the March 26 hearing, Young was furious that Democratic lawmakers were presenting the Gwich’in as the voice of the refuge over the Inupiaq that occupy the only village in the refuge, Kaktovik. The Gwich’in people live outside the refuge but have hunted caribou in the refuge for eons.
[Young remarks begin around 1:00]
Young urged lawmakers to listen to the Inupiaq, some of whom support ANWR development and spoke at the hearing. He lashed out at the Gwich’in at the meeting — they oppose drilling in the refuge — calling them “foreigners” and urging lawmakers to ignore them.
Young pointed out that some of the Gwich’in at the meeting live in Fairbanks -- the steering committee is based there, some 400 miles from the ANWR coastal plain where drilling would be allowed.
During the outburst, Young said the Gwich’in are “my tribe," and pointed out that his late wife, Lu Young, and daughters, are Gwich’in. Young met Lu in Fort Yukon, the Interior village where he was mayor in the mid-1960s, a handful of years before he began his long political career in Washington, D.C.
Young’s statements were erroneous, the Gwich’in committee said, in a statement signed by chiefs from five communities. The committee is working to gather signatures from more chiefs, Demientieff said.
“Mr. Young isn’t Gwich’in, and is in fact originally from California, not Alaska,” said the statement, released Tuesday. “Having a Native spouse does not confer tribal membership, nor does it provide an inherent understanding of Native issues or a right to speak on behalf of tribes. Mr. Young is not an appointed member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, nor is he a member of any Alaska Native tribe.”
“Representative Young does not speak on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation,” their statement said.
Also, the Gwich’in traditional homeland follows the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou herd that they hunt, including in ANWR, the press statement says.
“This place is the heart of our people,” said Demientieff.
Young’s office did not immediately respond late Tuesday to a request for comment.
But three days after the hearing, Zack Brown, a spokesman for Young, said in a media statement that Democrats had stacked the hearing with only Gwich’in witnesses, while only Republicans invited those of Inupiaq descent.
“Congressman Young believes that in discussions concerning resource development, all indigenous voices, including Inuits, must be heard," Brown said.
“Congressman Young’s late wife, Lu Young, was a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon, and his daughters and grandchildren are Alaska Native. Because of this personal connection, supporting Native communities has consistently been — and continues to be — one of his highest priorities in Congress,” Brown said.
At the hearing, the committee took testimony on a Democratic-led bill to repeal Congress’ decision in late 2017 opening the coastal plain of the 19-million-acre refuge to drilling. The Trump administration has said it hopes to hold the federal government’s first lease sale in the refuge later this year, a precursor to drilling.