The Sacred Place Where Life Begins

By: Erin Anderson

The fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska is the fate of the Gwich'in Nation.

The Gwich'in are the northernmost Indian Nation living in 15 small villages scattered across Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada. For time immemorial the Gwich'in have considered the Arctic Refuge a sacred place; the birthplace and nursery of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, whose health and productivity are vital to the traditional lifestyle of the Gwich'in people. They call this area Vadzaih googii vi dehk'it gwanlii or 'The Sacred Place Where Life Begins'. Now oil drilling may destroy this place, and along with it the Gwich'in culture.

Map by David Pray - Click here for more information

On August 1, 2001, the US House of Representatives passed the "Energy Security Act", which included authorisation for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Commencement of this drilling poses a huge threat to one of the few remaining untouched ecosystems in North America, including the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

"For nearly three decades, the Central Arctic Caribou Herd has been the subject of intensive research on its calving and summer ranges, which lie on the North Slope west of the Arctic Refuge, near Prudhoe Bay. Those studies clearly demonstrate adverse effects of petroleum-related disturbance." (An excerpt from a Letter to the President signed by thirteen wildlife biologists and scientists - cited from InfoRain website).

Numbering 129,000 strong, these animals provide the Gwich'in with all their essential needs, including food, clothing, tools, ornaments and ritual objects. The Caribou are so important to the Gwich'in culture that according to Gwich'in myths, every caribou has a bit of the human heart, and every human has a bit of the caribou heart (Higgins, 2000). The loss of Caribou habitat would eventually result in the Gwich'in being unable to pass along their ancestral way of life to future generations.

The Gwich'in, and many others, want to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remain intact and undisturbed. They feel it is their basic human right to be able to continue to live their ancestral way of life. Quite simply, they feel that allowing this essential piece of wilderness to be exchanged for a short-term supply of oil is unacceptable. Their traditional knowledge and way of life is interconnected with the Porcupine Caribou - loss of one would mean loss of the other. Is this a price we want to pay?

For more information about the Gwich'in and their fight to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, check out these sites:

Gwich'in Steering Committee

Alaska Wilderness League

Environmental News Network

Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images.

Porcupine Herd Calving Areas:1983-1999 (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Caribou Movements in a Late Spring Year (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)