The arctic tundra of northern Alaska is called “the sacred place where life begins” by the native Gwich’in people. (McLeod) This unique ecosystem is home to various animal species including wolves, muskox, bears, and caribou. The Gwich’in tribe has been living in coexistence with this land and its creatures for centuries. In 1960 American policymakers recognized the ecological distinctiveness of this land and it was named the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). When the refuge was developed, the indigenous peoples already living there were allowed to continue living on their ancestral lands.
Land is central to cultural identity in the Gwich’in tribe. The Gwich’in see all aspects of life, including land and religion, to be inseparable. From this mindset stems the belief that without access to their unharmed traditional lands, the Gwich’in cannot continue to exist as a tribal entity. The herds of caribou that populate the arctic are central to the indigenous lifestyle. The Gwich’in, which means “the caribou people,” consider caribou to be their currency and their main source of sustenance. (The Gwich’in) The caribou provide meat, furs and leather for clothing and construction, and bone for tools. These herd animals provide not only subsistence for the Gwich’in, but they also create a cultural and spiritual grounding for the people. (Patterson, 18)
The Gwich’in consider the caribou to be sacred. It is believed that “every caribou has a bit of a human heart in him; and every human has a bit of a caribou heart.” (The Gwich’in) This exemplifies the deep spiritual connection between the Gwich’in and the caribou. Songs, stories and dances all incorporate the sacred caribou. It is evident that a threat to the caribou would be a threat to the cultural and spiritual integrity of the Gwich’in population.
The discovery of oil in northern Alaska has posed a threat to the indigenous populations of the arctic and the ecosystems in which they live. In 1968, oil was found in the vicinity of the ANWR and the Gwich’in were offered a share of the profits in exchange for the use of their land for oil exploration. (McLeod) The Gwich’in refused on the grounds of protecting their sacred land and preserving their traditional culture that depends on those lands. The ANWR serves a central role in the survival of the caribou heard because it is their birthing ground. If oil drilling were to occur in the ANWR the birthrate of caribou is estimated to decrease by 40%. (McLeod) The survival of the caribou and the survival of the Gwich’in are closely intertwined. One tribal activist argues that the environmental degradation caused by oil drilling would be like a “cultural genocide” for the Gwich’in people. (Patterson, 18) As the issue of oil extraction gains urgency in the United States, more pressure is put on the oil-rich lands of the Gwich’in people.
The Gwich’in have provided a strong opposition to these efforts to drill for oil in their sacred lands. They have formed various organizations such as the Gwich’in International Council and the Gwich’in Steering Committee to protect their traditional culture. The tribe has sent representatives to Washington DC and joined forces with political and environmental groups to advocate for the refuge. (Dunkel, 21) Jonathon Soloman, member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, argues that “the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the Caribou are the same. We cannot stand by and let them sell our children’s heritage to the oil companies.”
The traditional culture of the Gwich’in people had already begun to disintegrate at the hands of western influence before the question of oil drilling in the refuge was brought up. One of the main Gwich’in villages is described as having electricity, computers, a fondness for country music, and an overwhelming tendency towards the Episcopalian religion. The local chief likes to combine Gwich’in tribal values and creation stories with the teachings of the bible. (Knickerbocker, 1) It is evident that the old ways have been combined, and often overshadowed by newer traditions in some of the Gwich’in villages. In light of the already weakened cultural integrity of the Gwich’in, the survival of the caribou is the last remaining hope for the continuation of ancient tradition.
Gwich’in religious tradition is based on an intimate relationship with nature. Hunting for caribou is not merely a necessary chore, but is instead a ritual of sorts. (LaDuke, 17) Gwich’in hunters often dream about the location of an animal, and upon awakening go to that location and find the animal waiting there. (Gwich’in People) After killing a caribou, a ceremony is performed to give thanks to the animal spirit that was sacrificed. (Findlay) The Gwich’in do not believe in a singular god, but instead honor the sacred spirit within everything in the natural world. There is a belief that all that dies will be recreated in the afterlife. (Zieber) It is evident that if everyday activities such as hunting caribou were altered by environmental changes, the spiritual aspect that is so closely related to these actions would be changed as well.
Those who promote oil drilling in the arctic value monetary gain over the cultural and spiritual integrity of the native peoples. It is indisputable that drilling would generate beneficial income for many groups of people. Perhaps the most surprising supporters of oil drilling are the Inupiat Eskimos, the tribal neighbors of the Gwich’in. Both the Inupiat and the Gwich’in struggle with poverty but the Inupiat seek help from oil income, where as the Gwich’in seek assistance from their spiritual connection to the land. This discrepancy shows how westernized some tribal people have become and reinforces the importance of supporting the Gwich’in who still value their spiritual connection to the land. There are non-natives who support the preservation of the ANWR for environmental reasons as well as those who seek economic development from oil extraction. There are few non-natives who understand the concept of sacred land. In the western way of thinking land can have value for its resources, recreational opportunities, or beauty, but land is rarely considered to have a sacred spirit. It is this clash of ideologies that causes difficulties for the Gwich’in in justifying their dependence on land for cultural and spiritual health.
There have been both positive and negative outcomes to the threat of oil drilling in the ANWR. The threat has motivated the Gwich’in people to join together for a common cause. Their organizations have forced policy makers to listen to the indigenous perspectives that are so often ignored. This unity has strengthened the tribe and brought about a reinforced sense of indigenous identity and pride. More non-natives have become invested in the protection of sacred lands because of Gwich’in activism. Oil drilling in “the sacred place where life begins” would clearly be devastating for the Gwich’in people. The traditional lifestyle that they have struggled to maintain could be lost forever. Land is central to spirituality, and spirituality is central to culture. Without culture there is no Gwich’in. If their sacred homeland is lost, so are they.
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