As a Native Alaskan and member of the Gwich’in Nation, my people have depended on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for centuries.
The oil industry has unsuccessfully attempted to drill in our sacred lands time and time again – but now Congress is dangerously close to sneaking Arctic Refuge drilling into their tax bill, putting corporations ahead of our heritage and our environment.
Last week, I spoke at a rally with more than 250 Alaska Natives and our allies outside the Alaska Federation of Natives annual meeting. We demanded that Alaska leadership protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bristol Bay and the Southeast Alaska watershed. The rally brought together organizations and individuals from across Alaska in a show of what unity, partnership and social justice meaningfully looks like.
I have flown over 4,000 miles to be in Washington, D.C., twice in the past month, to lobby members of Congress from across the country because our Alaska delegation no longer listens to our concerns. Our representatives in Congress appear to prioritize the opinions of those Alaskans who are in cities over Alaska Natives, the first peoples of this land. That includes protecting our food security both onshore and off. But our members of Congress are not listening to these concerns and helping us protect our way of life. Instead, the House voted to advance Arctic Refuge drilling by a narrow margin of 216-212.
Depending on the oil industry to drive Alaska’s economy is a short-term solution. Instead, we need to cut our reliance on fossil fuels, promote new jobs in clean energy and, in the process, choose to protect the caribou and the people who depend on the herds.
There is so much more to Alaska than tearing her up for fossil fuels. We are proud that Alaska is one of the most beautiful states in our nation. And the Gwich’in people are proud to live off the land, like we have for time immemorial. What’s more, all Alaskans are responsible for the health of our state, our people, and of our fish and wildlife.
With Alaska and the Arctic feeling the impacts of climate change exponentially more than anywhere else in the world, and with the instability of our food security, we must think about what is at stake. Let’s not choose money for the short-term, while robbing our children’s future in the long-term. Drilling might bring in some revenue, but at what cost? What will be our legacy – bad water, sick animals and contaminated land?
Yet it seems like Congress has us on this path to destruction, taking yet another step toward destroying our lands with the U.S. Senate voting 52-48 to advance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Colorado’s own Sen. Michael Bennet is fighting these attempts to sneak Arctic drilling into the Republican tax plan, saying that “Drilling in one of the most spectacular landscapes in America, a place sacred to native tribes and critical for local wildlife – for what amounts to little more than a political stunt – is entirely unacceptable.” Bennet understands the values these lands hold for Native communities like mine.
Sen. Cory Gardner will be a deciding vote on whether the oil companies succeed. He is a member of the congressional committee charged with drafting legislation to drill in the Arctic Refuge, which Congress can pass with only 50 votes. We need Gardner to stand up for our communities, our environment and our public lands by opposing this sell out to corporate polluters.
The Gwich’in Nation will feel these decisions the most. We will lose our food security and our way of life if the bill moves forward. To me, this is not an environmental decision, but a cultural one. This is about the human rights of the Gwich’in people.
Let us stand together and tell Congress to protect the Arctic Refuge and the people and wildlife that depend on it, and leave a legacy that all Americans are proud of.
Bernadette Demientieff is a Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, Alaska, and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.