Gwich’in sue Interior over ANWR exploration plan

Sarah James: the coastal plain is the core of the caribou existence and Gwich’in existence

Native American Rights Fund attorneys are suing the Interior Department over its decision to allow oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known to Gwich’in tribes as the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, Sept. 9, in federal court In Anchorage, represents the latest in a decades’ long effort by the tribes to protect the coastal plain, a region of incredible cultural and religious significance to the tribes and their people, tribal officials said. 

The Anchorage law firm Bessenyey & Van Tuyn is serving as co-counsel for the tribal groups.

Gwich’in people comprise an indigenous nation of people living in villages across the northern United States and Canada.  Alaska Gwich’in reside in nine communities along or near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

Fifteen state governments, led by the state of Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson, stood with the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council by filing a separate lawsuit seeking to preserve the coastal plain of ANWR and protect their states’ interest in combating climate change and protecting migratory birds.

“The coastal plain is one of the most important natural, cultural and subsistence resources to the Neets’aii Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole,” said Margorie Gemmill, first chief of the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. “The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving area in the Coastal Plain,” she said. “Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual and subsistence impacts on our people. This process must be stopped. As tribal governments we will defend the rights of our people at all costs.”

“As Neets’aii Gwich’in, our biggest concern is our way of life and who we are,” said Sarah James, elder spokesperson for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. “We take care of the caribou, and in return, they take care of us, and that’s really important to my people.”

“Our people are united in the defense of our way of life,” said Galen Gilbert, first chief of the Arctic Village Council. “As tribal governments, we have a responsibility to our citizens to defend this sacred place.”