Gwich’in are preparing for another campaign against development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a section of Alaska that contains the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo

The debate has been going on for years, with the U.S. government re-opening the possibility for development in the area in a bill to pass a budget resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives Oct. 5. The area is thought to hold perhaps the continent’s largest onshore oil reserve.

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, wants her people to push back against any attempt to open up the area to development, saying the herd and region is vitally important to the identity of Gwich’in people. She thinks it is a critical time, as the Trump administration looks to pursue more development opportunities.

She responds to a few questions in the Q&A below. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and condensed for space.


Q: We’re having a hard time in our nation right now, and same in the States. The landscape of North America has changed to where the young have such a struggle to make a living and find work. Why should we ban a huge chance that we have for so much work, money and jobs for a herd of caribou?

A: First of all, the lack of jobs has been there. Nothing’s changed. We’re not worse off than we were 10 years ago.

For Gwich’in, the message remains the same, because it is the caribou that sustains the people and the culture. You can go to any one of the Gwich’in communities and you will soon realize how much of the food security is (based around) animals that are harvested off the land, as they have been for thousands of years, caribou being the main one.

When you look at culture and what caribou mean to the Gwich’in, there’s no price tag on that. Yes, there are young people struggling for jobs, but you look around even in Inuvik – there are people who have moved to this country who are filling in jobs, so nobody can say there are no jobs. What we need to do is get our people not so dependent on a system but to be more proactive in making a career plan.

We don’t say that the Gwich’in are 100 per cent opposed to any development ever. It’s just that when it’s a sensitive area, such as the caribou calving grounds, which would be a critical impact to the health of the herd… it’s those areas that are of a concern to us.

Until we see all our people in all these jobs (in town and the communities) and then there are still people looking for work, I don’t agree that there’s no jobs.

In 2017, the world is going more toward alternative energy and sustainable development. The demand for oil and gas in there, but it isn’t as high as in the past. We have to keep in mind what the global world is leaning to.

The world revolves around money, that’s for sure, but that’s one thing the Gwich’in have always been proud of and maintained: the position that there is no price on our livelihood and our culture. You have some people who say, ‘What do you mean the Gwich’in won’t exist without the caribou? You’re not going to die off physically.’ Of course, but we’re not talking a physical existence, but an identity existence. It comes to us as more than protecting caribou; it’s protecting who we are in terms of culture. The caribou is the foundation of our culture.


Q: You mentioned other forms of alternative energy. What if they wanted to build a huge hydroelectric dam in the wildlife refuge, would it still be a no?

A: I don’t think there’s potential for that in the refuge because of the landscape of it.


Q: If they wanted to build some wind or solar farm?

A: The messaging is we don’t want development in this fragile area. It’s too critical of an area, it’s too sensitive. It’s not just the caribou that calve there, but all sorts of wildlife.


Q: Would you be sympathetic to the circumstances that U.S President Donald Trump has inherited – a government that is $20 trillion in debt – and he has to try and find ways to reduce it or the nation could be in peril? It’s hard to say no to a section of land the size of South Carolina.

A: I’d say it’s nothing new. Each government inherits big debt. What the U.S. government, like any government, needs to do is to review what’s causing these debts and that’s where they make change. They continue to make the same foolish mistakes and at the end of the day they propose these resolutions that they think are going to solve their problems, but they aren’t going to solve their problems.

Yeah, it will generate some money, but it isn’t going to pay off that $20 trillion of debt, and in the long run you risk the (wildlife refuge). You might generate billions of dollars but it’s not going to pay off the debt of the government and all it’s going to do is potentially cause devastation to a healthy caribou herd and the wellbeing of the Indigenous people who rely on that herd. You think that’s worth it? I don’t think so.

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