For more than three decades, the Gwich’in Native community has helped to fight off repeated attempts by Republican administrations and fossil fuel companies to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
Last month, however, the Trump administration finalized plans to open up the refuge’s entire 1.5-million-acre coastal plain—thought to contain the largest untapped onshore oil reserve in North America—to fossil fuel development. The Gwich’in refer to the coastal plain as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or the “sacred place where life begins.” It is the birthing grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, upon which the tribe’s culture, history, and livelihood are based.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Gwich’in elder Sarah James, who has been an international leader in this fight since the 1980s, talks about the significance the refuge plays in Gwich’in life; the Trump administration’s full-scale pursuit of drilling in the region; and what comes next in the battle to protect these sacred lands.
“We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a movement. We’re not corporation,” says James. “We’re a Neets’aii Gwich’in tribal government, and that’s how we’re now taking on this issue, government-to-government, and we’re standing our ground.”
The Trump administration recently announced it is opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s entire coastal plain, some 1.6 million acres, to oil development—the most aggressive of all development options. Why do you believe this strategy will be particularly devastating for the region and local Indigenous communities?
As a Neets’aii Gwich’in tribe, our biggest concern is our way of life and who we are. From the time beginning, we’ve depend on caribou for our way of life—the food resources that we get from them, the skin for clothing and crafts and art. We have a special connection in that we are a part of the caribou and the caribou are a part of us. It is our language, our songs, our dance. And it’s our medicine. Many times we’ve survived because of the medicine that we get from caribou. We take care of the caribou, and in return, they take care of us, and that’s really important to my people here.
We used to live with the Porcupine caribou, migrate with the caribou, so our footsteps are everywhere with the caribou, even today because they still migrate that whole Arctic Refuge. They’re healthy. They’re wild. They’re not mixed in with reindeer, and they’re natural to the area. And this—the coastal plain—is the last place, this is only piece of the Arctic line that’s going to protect it. The rest is in development or will be. The coastal plain is the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not only for caribou, but for many other animals who are born there and raise their young there because it’s a safe place away from predators. It’s a place we call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. That means the “sacred place where life begins.” And it should be kept that way because there’s no other place they can go to. It is the core of the caribou existence and Gwich’in existence.
All of that is threatened. And it has been threatened for many, many years.
You’ve been involved in the fight against drilling in the Arctic Refuge for decades, through six White House administrations. When, why, and how did you first get involved?
I didn’t get started as an activist. I’m not an activist. I’m fighting for human rights to Arctic living. Ever since I can remember, I grew up off the land, out in the land, with my parents. They didn’t have a traditional Western job, and that’s how I grew up. That was our way of life, to protect the Porcupine caribou and protect the environment.
The Gwich’in people have been involved in this fight for so long now. What are some of the biggest lessons the community has learned?
There are many, many good people out there that need to be educated, and we’ve done that. When we made the decision to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the coastal plain, the Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit—that happened here in Arctic Village in June 1988. It was like a rebirth of the whole [Gwich’in] nation. International borders and being colonized into villages had separated us, but we came back together to protect our refuge because it was threatened. So we’re fighting as a Neets’aii Gwich’in tribe, but we’ve done it with a nonprofit organization, the Gwich’in Steering Committee. We did well. The elders asked us to go out into the world and educate the world… because that’s the only way we can win. Nobody even knew there was a Gwich’in. They didn’t even know there was Porcupine caribou, and they didn’t know there was Arctic Village. So we had to educate them about why we say no to oil.
And it worked. We overcame many, many battles, many, many challenges they threw at us and along with our friends, environmentalists. But when Trump came in, it got very difficult, very, very bad, and our tribe, our hands were tied. With Trump, there’s no due process, no hearings. They jump channels. So it got very out of hand, because they put it [development in the refuge] in the  tax bill without due process and made it a development bill, and it made it very difficult to fight.
But the Neets’aii Gwich’in tribal government, we’ve been governing ourselves from the beginning of time. We got land from [the federal government] back in 1936, which is 1.8 million acres that we govern ourselves on. We’ve got our own leaders. We’ve got our own way of life. We’ve got our own land. We’ve got experts that help us on this issue particularly, and we’ve got respected tribal members. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a movement. We’re not a corporation. We’re a Neets’aii Gwich’in tribal government, and that’s how we’re now taking on this issue with the [US] government, as government-to-government, and we’re standing our ground.
I understand that not all local communities are against oil development in the refuge. Some local residents have said they welcome the jobs that it might create or that they approve of it if they could get a share of the drilling royalties. Can you talk about this divide?
That side of the argument is because they already depend on the existing pipeline, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Alaska is made up of 12 different Native corporations, created when the [Alaska Native] Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, passed in 1971. They’re a stockholder, not a landowner like the tribe. They are native in their region, but they’re a corporation, not a tribal government… So they get their corporation started with the state of Alaska with big-time industry development so they won’t go bankrupt. That’s one thing they did with the big, big BP corporation or Alyeska. They’re all in with Alyeska.
So when they did that, a lot of people in the world didn’t understand, they made it like we’re fighting native to native. The Gwich’in left—like Arctic Village, Venetie, and all the Gwich’in villages—they live in small villages, govern themselves, and they respect their way of hunting and fishing and gathering and their traditional life. To protect their way of life, they don’t want to see any gas and oil development within their area. But the corporation board of directors make these decisions for them and provide them with housing and other needs. So they’re in control, and they’re the ones making most of the decisions, not the traditional people that lived in those villages.
Gwich’in villages like Arctic Village and Venetie are not part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. We’re a sovereign nation, sovereign tribal government. There are lots and lots of environmentalist groups out there trying to do the right thing because it is public interest land. They do have a voice in that. But us, as a tribe, it’s our sovereign rights. I am one of the founders of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and we did our job up to when Obama left as a president. Then Trump came in and it got worse. So now, we will stand our ground, government-to-government.
The 2017 Republican tax overhaul required the Interior Department to hold two lease sales in the refuge by 2024. But much has changed since that legislation was passed. The global market is flooded with excess oil. Crude prices are weak. Energy company’s budgets are strained. And calls for climate action only continue to amplify. Do you think companies will even show up to the lease auction, or will it be a flop?
I hope people don’t make very stupid decisions, because this is very simple. Many banks are not going to support the development of this. Oil prices are as low as they can be, and it’s very expensive to even get in there [to drill in the refuge]. But there is never a popular way to go in because this is the last of the clean water and the last of the birthing ground [for the Porcupine caribou]. And the birthing ground is sacred.
Another thing is that the state of Alaska always helps oil companies to do business here in Alaska. They give them a tax break. They give them all kinds of breaks, and they say that’s “so Alaska would have jobs,” but that doesn’t exist anymore. Alaska doesn’t have the money right now to pay oil companies to come in so you, an outsider, can have a job. That’s how I see it. So there is really no reason to go into the refuge.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee has joined other groups and environmental organizations in filing a lawsuit in federal court in Alaska to stop the lease sale. Are you hopeful that this could work?
The Gwich’in Steering Committee is a nonprofit organization. It’s not a tribe. So along with all the environmentalists, all the other people who are fighting this, there are many good lawsuits out there to stop the oil development, which is great. But I haven’t seen a tribe file suit yet. But we are working hard with the government. Environmentalists or conservationists, they’re there for conservation. They’re there for regulation to protect the caribou, to protect the scenic, protect the rafting, hiking, which is all great because it is public land. But as a human right, as a tribe, we’re part of it. It’s not a recreation to us. It’s our life.
Across the country, Indigenous communities have taken the lead on fighting fossil fuel development and infrastructure projects. Why do you think that they’re stepping up in this moment and why are such particularly impactful leaders in these battles?
Right now, people have to wake up. California is burning up. Two hurricanes traveling together, one after another. There are people who have been displaced all over the world because of climate change, because of oil. I think it’s about time we make the right decision, and this our last stand. We’re going to stand, us Gwich’in, as we always did for the caribou, and they always did for us, and we’re going to keep it that way. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stay here. This is where God put us to take care of this part of the world, and we think the world needs to know this. And not only for us, but for the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.