In our season finale, we bring your attention to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), known to the Gwich’in Indian Nation as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” We hear the personal story of Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwich’in Steering Committee leader fighting to protect her Nation’s traditional lifeways.
The Gwich’in Indian Nation lives in 15 small villages scattered across northeast Alaska in the US to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. The Arctic is their home. The coastal plain of the ANWR has been a location of intense controversy between environmentalists, Native tribes, and the oil and gas industry. The coastal plain is the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd - the very heart of the Gwich’in people. The caribou provide food and nourishment for the Gwich’in who are deeply connected to them on a spiritual level.
If oil drilling goes forward in ANWR, the birthrate of the caribou could decrease by 40% - it would be a cultural genocide for Bernadette’s tribe.
In 1988, the Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in response to threats of oil development in ANWR’s coastal plain. Time and time again, Bernadette has testified in front of US Congress, the United Nations, and public hearings. She has met with banks and insurance companies funding oil infrastructure, framing the drilling and desecration of sacred lands as a Human Rights issue. As the issue of oil extraction gains urgency in the US and around the world, more pressure is put on the oil-rich region of the Arctic.
Key Themes explored:
INTRO [00:00:01] We can't buy more clean air. We can't buy more clean water.
INTRO [00:00:05] I don't care what you have to say, but we have to adapt or we die.
INTRO [00:00:08] The voice of the people is the voice of the advocates. It is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change.
INTRO [00:00:19] This is people over plastic. Welcome to the People over Plastic podcast. I'm Shilpi Chhotray, your host, plastic pollution activist and media maven. This season, we're honored to join forces with PRISM, a newsroom led by journalists of color Ray Levy Uyeda, Prism's Climate justice reporter helps me break down the facts. We believe you deserve to know the real stories behind climate chaos and society's most pressing injustices. It's time to set the record straight.
Shilpi [00:00:59] Hey, everyone. Welcome back to our season finale. We've been waiting to drop the mic on this one.
Shilpi [00:01:06] While polar bears have become the poster child of climate change, the original stewards of public lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR, have oftentimes been forgotten about or ignored. Furthermore, public lands in the US were created by the forced removal of indigenous peoples, including the Gwich'in people of Alaska and Canada, who are fighting for their culture and for food sovereignty against oil companies in the Arctic. The Gwich'in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to oil drilling on the coastal plains of ANWR. This week, we're honored to have steering committee member, Bernadette Demientieff, on our show.
Shilpi [00:01:51] You've been called by some sources as the indigenous woman who is saving the Arctic Refuge. There must be a lot of weight on your shoulders to be the head of a movement like this. And there's this whole ecosystem at play. You're working tirelessly to protect your community, the Gwich'in people, the caribou, the land. And at the heart of it, it's really about protecting your identity.
Bernadette [00:02:15] Thank you very much for having me. First, I'd just like to recognize that among the ancestral homeland of the lower Tanana today, people, it didn't start with me. This fight has been going on for a very long time. I just have a big mouth. So I feel like your voice is one of the most powerful tools that you have and you should always use it.
CLIP [00:02:53] Gwich'in language
Bernadette [00:02:54] The first kitchen gathering that was held in over 150 years was in 1988. And that's when our elders and chiefs of the entire Gwich'in Nation of Alaska and Canada gathered.
CLIP [00:03:07] Gwich'in language
Bernadette [00:03:11] At that gathering, they gave us three directions and it was to go out and tell the world we are here to do this work in a good way and not to compromise our position. That's not always easy when you're up against so much dishonesty and misleading statements from our own elected leadership.
CLIP [00:03:32] We spent $57 million to import oil. And war has to be part of that policy because if it isn't, this nation does not have an energy policy. The plane is really nothing. You say it's not the heart of the heart. It is not the heart. But the reality is this area should be drilled. I've been fighting this battle for 39 years.
Bernadette [00:03:55] You know, this is about our identity, about our food security and about our way of life. It is all interconnected. We cannot survive one without the other. That's just the way we have always saw it. Honestly, what happens in the Arctic is going to happen everywhere else. And that's scary because right now, you know, Alaska, our time for our time is greater than the rest of the world. We had dead fish in our rivers and lakes, dead birds literally falling from the sky. Record-breaking fires.
Bernadette [00:04:29] I have seven grandchildren and I use my voice for them because I don't want them to be struggling to survive one day because I failed to use my voice when I could have. It's just not about here and now. It's about our future generations.
Shilpi [00:04:45] You know, I think a lot of people don't realize what's happening in the Arctic Refuge. It's a region of intense controversy now for decades, and it's sort of this historical fight against the environment versus energy.
Bernadette [00:05:02] Congressional leadership that are not respecting indigenous rights. We're not really asking for anything. We're not asking for jobs. We're not asking for money. We're simply asking to be left alone on the land that Creator blessed us with. We've been going to Washington, D.C. We went to the United Nations for visiting the banks. We got six of the biggest banks in the U.S. not to fund any Arctic refuge development. We're going after the insurance companies and directly to the oil companies. There's only one more oil company that is right now in the Arctic Refuge. Everybody else pulled out.
Shilpi [00:05:42] Back in season one, we chatted with Frankie Arona from the Society of Native Nations about how critical the Arctic is for indigenous communities and also for the whole planet. Frankie is also who connected us to Bernadette. So let me put this in context for you. The Arctic Refuge is one of the largest wildlife grounds within the United States. Its total area, roughly 19 million acres, which is about the same size of the state of South Carolina. Just think about that for a second.
Shilpi [00:06:12] The ecosystems of the Arctic include highly sensitive populations of important species like the porcupine caribou, who are spiritually connected to the Gwich'in. It also makes up 80% of their food source. So last summer, three major oil companies, Regenerate Alaska, Chevron, and Hilcorp, gave up their opportunities to explore for oil in the Arctic Refuge. This was hugely monumental because the industry and Republican politicians have spent decades working to gain access to the sensitive region. Some analysts actually connect the departure from Alaska as a sign of increased interest in renewable energy.
Bernadette [00:06:55] I don't know if you guys understand the dynamics in Alaska. There's corporations. I was born into a corporation. The tribes are the ones who live and survive off the land. Water protection and the corporations benefit from the development of the land. And it's destroying a lot of things.
Shilpi [00:07:16] Well, in 2021 alone, the United States consumed an average of about 19.89 million barrels of petroleum per day. What does that mean for the Alaska Refuge? Why is it such an important hot spot for these oil conglomerates?
Bernadette [00:07:36] I think that we need to start looking at different alternatives. We don't need to be addicted to oil. I understand that we do need oil for certain things, but the Arctic Refuge is one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world. We got to leave some of this world as it was in the beginning, not just when we're done with it. And 100 years from now, our grandkids, are they going to know what wilderness is? Are they going to be able to see a polar bear or a moose or things like that? Those are serious. Climate change don't care what color you are. Don't care of you're rich or poor, or Black, White or Brown. We're all going to be negatively impacted. And it's time that we start sticking our differences aside and come together, especially if we have children that we love.
Shilpi [00:08:28] When Ray and I were investigating the stories for the series, we wanted to make it clear that climate justice and racial justice go hand in hand. This couldn't be more relevant to Bernadette's story. Have a listen to Ray.
Ray [00:08:43] Dr. Robert Bullard, who's often thought of as the father of environmental justice and he often talks about communities of color are impacted first and worst by climate change. With that, all of the data that we have to back up his statement to then go and invest in an entity that actively endangers people's lives. You know, it just I think it just goes to show that there is no climate justice without racial justice.
Shilpi [00:09:08] Let's get a little more history from Bernadette on her hometown of Fairbanks. The starting point to traveling to the Arctic Circle.
Bernadette [00:09:17] I live in Fairbanks. The ancestral homelands of the Christian nation span throughout Alaska and Canada. There is a map and it shows the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou herd, who we have always had a spiritual and cultural connection to. And in Gwich'in communities, they are nearly identical and our ancestors settled us on their route, so we could continue to live and thrive off the animals. But because climate change has been impacting us so much, a lot of our communities no longer get the caribou. We have to go all the way to the border to hunt for the caribou. And it's dangerous for that time of the year. We could get stuck up there. The Caribou used to go through all of our communities, but the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, the place that we consider so sacred that we do not step foot there is what was opened to oil and gas development. This is the calving and nursery grounds of the porcupine caribou herd. This is the last land mammals on the planet that travel this distance. There is nowhere else for them to go. A lot of them are having their cows on the migratory route and they will not be able to survive. This area has been the nursing and birthing grounds for over 1.2 million years to the Porcupine Caribou herd.
Shilpi [00:11:00] The Gwich'in live in 15 villages in northeast Alaska, in northwest Canada, and they've relied on the Porcupine Caribou herd for their clothing and food for generations. The herd is also their spiritual connection to the land.
Bernadette [00:11:15] They're unique to us because we have always had a relationship with them. Our creation story tells us that there was a time we were able to communicate with them and that we made a vow to take care of each other. And so they've taken care of us for thousands of years. And now, it's our turn. They travel 1500 miles to go and give birth, and then they go back to their wintering grounds on the Canadian side. And it's also a flat area for foreign predators come in, they're able to see. And also there's birds that migrate to this area from seven different regions and their droppings helps the food grow for the mother and calf. They have to have that nutrition at that time of year.
Shilpi [00:12:05] As you can hear in Bernadette's voice, there is a deep connection between the Porcupine Caribou and the Gwich'in people that supersedes any sort of Western concept of environmentalism. The mainstream concepts around conservation and wildlife protection are based on colonial lenses as a result of exploiting the land in the first place. So I wanted to hear more about Bernadette's ancestral history and what it means to live in a constant threat from industrial and political exploitation.
Bernadette [00:12:36] I just have to say that I am very proud to be Gwich'in. They have survived some of the coldest, harshest winters so that we can be here. And I feel that we owe that same dedication and respect to our future generations. The world don't end when we do. And so we have to take care of it. We migrated alongside the caribou for over 40,000 years, and we would never step foot into the coastal plain. We call it 'lizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit' the sacred place where life begins. And even when times of food shortage and you know, there is a lot of hunger, we still never step foot there. That is how sacred this place is to us. And then to open it to oil and gas field, it don't make you feel like your ways of life are important. We've been going to DC for over 40 years. My elders before me. It's been a long battle. You know, we're not giving up. We don't have the option of giving up because this is our home. We didn't go looking for a fight that came to us. People were coming into our homelands, making decisions about our future and not involving us.
Shilpi [00:14:00] Well, I think what you said earlier really resonated with me. You said this is a human rights issue. This is a food security issue. You talked about climate change. It's not just a conservation element, right? This is hands down a social justice issue.
Bernadette [00:14:15] I just want to remind everybody that we are real people. We're mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and we matter. Our way of life matter. You know, we're not really asking for anything. But that we are not going to give up. We're going to stand up against anyone who seeks to destroy our sacred lands. We may be a small tribe, but we've got heart and we've got some of the best elders guiding us.
Bernadette [00:14:44] We're seeing changes. It's just mind blowing. And I don't understand why it's not in the news. I don't understand why our senator or our representatives are not sharing this information, because this is something the world needs to know.
Shilpi [00:15:00] When was that moment you decided to use your voice?
Bernadette [00:15:05] Well, as Gwich'in we're raised to protect the Arctic Refuge. I don't ever remember anybody's setting me down and saying, Oh, this place is sacred to us. We've got to protect it. I just always knew in my heart. But in 2014, I went up to the tetsyeh. It's a mountain outside of Arctic Village. I'm sorry. I get emotional because this is the time that it really transformed my life. But I went up on the mountain and when I looked out like even right now, I can close my eyes and I can see all of the mountains, the trees. There's just lakes scattered all across and up, way up on the mountain. And there's a waterfall, a little one just twinkling down. And I just understood why my ancestors returned here every year. And I asked Creator for forgiveness, for being disconnected for so long, but that I'm here now to share in my responsibility as a Gwich'in, as a mother, and as a land protector.
Shilpi [00:16:09] That was almost ten years ago. And I can hear in your voice that it was that pivotal moment. And I know there have been some major wins. One of them wasn't that long ago, actually, in January 2021, just days before Biden took office, the Trump administration held an auction for their right to drill in the refuge, which is insane to think about.
CLIP [00:16:37] And you know, included that nobody even talks about is ANWR in Alaska, one of the great sites of energy in the world. And I didn't think it was a big deal. And then one day a friend of mine who's in the is called. Is it true that you have ANWR in the. I said, I don't know. Who cares? What does it mean? What's the big deal? They did put it in. They said, well, you know, Reagan tried. Every single president tried. And not one president was successful in getting it. I said, you got to be kidding. I love it now. And after that, we fought like hell to get ANWR. He talked me into it.
Bernadette [00:17:14] When we found out, it was really heartbreaking. I mean, I took it really hard. We understood that this is going to be a long fight. After the Trump administration opened our sacred lands to oil and gas development. And so the Gwich'in leaders understood that we needed to start teaching our younger generation how to protect the Arctic Refuge.
CLIP [00:17:40] How do you feel about drilling in the Arctic Refuge?
CLIP [00:17:43] Totally opposed to it.
CLIP [00:17:44] On his first day in office Wednesday, President Biden imposed a temporary moratorium halting any oil and gas leasing activities in the refuge and ordering the Interior Department to review his predecessor's oil program. Demientieff, with the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said she's relieved, but we'll continue to fight to get drilling permanently banned on the coastal plain.
Shilpi [00:18:06] In so many ways, the polar bears had become the poster child of climate change, and the destruction is at the individual level and at the community level.
Bernadette [00:18:15] You know, they tell us that it's not going to impact our caribou, but all the other herds have declined since development happened in those areas. I think the Western herd declined over 50% since 2010, and they can't tell us that our food security are not going to be impacted, not when we see otherwise. You're right, everybody looks at the Arctic Refuge and they think of polar bears and birds. In Alaska, we all migrated. We settled when the US government came in. Some people go to church, right? That's just like us going in, bulldozing down your church. This place is very sacred to us. Theirs was built. Ours was given to us by Creator. And it doesn't belong to us. We're caretakers of the land.
Shilpi [00:19:02] This reality that we live in is government and corporations have unlimited access to nature.
Bernadette [00:19:10] Nobody's going to fight for your way of life more than anyone but you, right? It's been challenging trying to convince people that will never understand and not even sometimes experience our way of life and how much it means to us. How do we convince them that we matter more than money when that's all they look for and look to? There is no amount of money that we will ever agree to develop the Arctic Refuge.
Shilpi [00:19:42] In October of last year, PRISM published a piece written by Rae about Indigenous activists using the rights of nature laws to stop fracking and other harmful extractive practices. Rights of Nature statutes can allow for the protection of ecosystems and people. The framework underscores how the health of the land and communities are one and the same.
Ray [00:20:05] The first one in the United States was passed outside of Pittsburgh to protect a waterway or watershed. The idea is that you can protect a river from pollution happening outside of the jurisdiction of where the rights of nature law was passed. And of course, I think it's important to recognize using a legal framework in this way is very American colonial and way of relating to the land. And I also think it's a really great message, too, that there is sort of a workaround for addressing the lack of care that a lot of extractive industries treat the environment with.
Shilpi [00:20:40] When it comes to the rights of nature, one of the first things that come to mind is it's changing how capitalistic in extractive societies see and interact with nature.
Bernadette [00:20:53] We see things differently. I just see that as life. We can't live without it. And I think that we can all make our own connection to the land. And that's what is 'lizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit' is doing, the sacred place where life begins. It's bringing us all together. And I think that we need to start waking up before so much more is destroyed. It's not damaged. It's destroyed. And we still have time to say protect what's left. We need more people to, you know, be calling Congress. We need more people to be speaking out. We don't have any more time.
Shilpi [00:21:31] The impacts Bernadette's community are facing are both immediate and long-term. When considering the war in Ukraine, there's a lot of pressure right now in the U.S. and worldwide to look for new energy sources. Here's what the Gwich'in people risk losing if these extractive projects aren't stopped.
Bernadette [00:21:52] I met a lady at the Alaska oil symposium. 17 years ago, she said, I was a nurse in this community and there was only one person who had asthma. And she said, now a third of her community has asthma and respiratory problems from the oil development. Their whole community is surrounded and they don't even hunt the caribou there anymore because they get sick when they eat it. There are sores on the caribou and they're just really unhealthy. And just recently, the oil company, they had some kind of oil spill or oil leak or gas leak. And the oil company pulled all of their people and got them out of the community, but left the townspeople to fend for themselves.
Shilpi [00:22:42] Why do you think there's no accountability?
Bernadette [00:22:45] People that can hold them accountable are pro-development. I have witnessed when I was in Washington, D.C., we were sharing about Arctic Refuge. They gave amendments if the oil development started impacting the land, it has to put a stop to it. If it starts negatively impacting the people and it stops. And then the third one was they have to have a clean record for the last ten years. And I saw Alaska's senator go up and told them to vote against all of that. That's the first time that I have ever witnessed something that really hurt my heart. I've got thicker skin since. And that's why we started going after insurance companies and the banks, because we were not getting anywhere in Congress.
Shilpi [00:23:40] Tell us about the connection to the banks. People don't actually realize how involved, like a Wells Fargo and a Chase, is into funding the infrastructure for these pipelines and fracking, right?
Bernadette [00:23:51] They tell us, oh, well, we don't make decisions. And they're like, Oh, what are we doing talking to you? Bring the people in who aren't so we could talk to them. I mean, if you're going to destroy someone's way of life, wipe out their food security, you might as well tell them to their face. Like, you can't just say, Oh, we don't have nothing to do with that. You have to understand that if you are silent, then you are allowing it.
Shilpi [00:24:15] What was the response like when you made that trip and stated your truth?
Bernadette [00:24:22] Two years after our first visit, I was pretty surprised when they all started coming out because after one came out, then another came out saying they wouldn't fund any Arctic refuge development. And then come to find out that our governor is threatening the banks, that if they don't reverse that, that he's pulling all of Alaska's funds out of there. I mean, that just shows you what we're up against. I mean, we're up against one of the biggest governments in the world. And it's it's hard. But I'll tell you this, they're not getting into the Arctic Refuge. They are not going to destroy our sacred lands.
Shilpi [00:25:03] What can listeners do to support the Gwich'in and our Shared Endowment for the Arctic Refuge?
Bernadette [00:25:11] Well, first, I just want to say, just because I'm here, it don't make my voice more important. There is a lot of people that are being impacted. I would strongly urge everyone to call congressional leaders and oil and gas companies. Call the banks and even the insurance companies. Write to them if you can. If you go to the Arctic Refuge dot org. It shows that people that made a commitment. But we're still trying to get more people on board. I just want to say thank you for using your platform to share about my people and our struggles that we're having right now.
Shilpi [00:25:56] We hope you enjoyed our season finale as Bernadette so passionately shared. No amount of money can buy out a culture and traditional lifestyle. Stopping oil drilling in the Arctic is one of several things that need to happen to protect the Gwich'in Way of life. Additionally, ANWR needs to be secured as a permanent protected reserve to combat other industrial threats and the longer term impacts from climate change. When we think about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? We think it's protected. It is not. As Bernadette has stated many times, her home is literally up for grabs. If it was actually set aside, as non-Indigenous politicians claim, it would be called a reserve instead of a refuge. And as we heard from Bernadette, this is just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about her work with the Gwich'in Steering Committee and how to get involved, check out our shownotes.
Outro [00:26:58] We hope you enjoyed our final episode of the season. The Prolog was produced by Dennis Maxwell. Thank you so much to everyone that tuned in to our Season three podcast with PRISM. A huge shout out to the incredible PRISM team and also our award-winning production team, including Smeeta Mahanti, Dennis Maxwell and Francisco Nunez Capriles. And that's a wrap for season three. If you haven't done so already, be sure to follow and subscribe. And if you've loved the show, consider giving us a rating and review. And a quick ask if you've enjoyed tuning into our podcast so far. Please consider visiting people over Plastic dot co to make your donation. Thanks again for listening and I'll catch you soon.