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‘We Are the Caribou People’

Sarah James has been a voice for indigenous rights, human rights and environmental issues for more than 10 years. Since 1988, she has been a leader in the fight to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. James is a Board Member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee and the International Indian Treaty Council.

Arctic Village is located 110 miles northeast of the Arctic Circle. It's one of the most isolated places in the United States. We are the most northern Indian village in the US.

     We used to be nomadic people. We'd follow the food. We used to live a very basic life - a simple life based on needs not on greed.

     We depend on subsistence living. We hunt, fish and gather food. Maybe 75 percent of our diet is wild meat - caribou, moose, birds, fish and other small animals.

     In Arctic Village we speak the Gwich'in language. English is our second language. There is no running water and there is no road to Arctic Village. The only to get to there is by air. By dog team it would take a long time to get to the nearest village. The Gwich'in live in 15 different villages in Northwestern Territory, Mackenzie Delta, north of Yukon Territory (in Canada) and Northeast Alaska. It's considered the Arctic desert.

     We are Caribou People. We have a spiritual connection to caribou. They are everything to us - the food on our table and they were shelter for us before [the arrival of the Europeans]. The caribou is our story; it is in our songs.

     Without caribou, our people wouldn't have survived after Western culture came to us with disease that wiped out a lot of our people. There used to be 100,000 of us; now there are less than 7,000. Our people used to die only of old age but today, our people are dying of cancer, heart disease, drugs and alcohol. That is what development put upon us. If there is more development it will get worse.

The Nursery and the Greenhouse
Caribou have one special place to have their calves. Starting in April, every caribou goes back to the coastal plain. Within one or two or three weeks, the cows drop their calves and it's time for nursing.

     It's a nursing ground not only for the caribou. The polar bears and the musk ox raise their young along the coastal plain. Up in the foothills, wolves and wolverines are raising their young. It's also a fish spawning ground for the Arctic Ocean and a nesting ground for birds and ducks that fly there from all over the world so it's really a special place for many forms of life and the plants that grow there.

     Technology [does not belong in] a birthplace. It's a place for the mother and child. It's a special time for these animals to be safe and comfortable.

     In our area, global warming is real and climate change is real. We see that and we know it because we are so close to the Earth. We're not the ones that cause this global warming. We know it's from industrial areas in other parts of the world. We're telling the [people of the] world that if they don't slow down - if they don't change their way of thinking, if they don't change their way of doing things - it's going to get to them.

     The permanent frost is thawing out. Where there once was a strip of land between two bodies of water, one lake now runs into another and that lake runs into the river and on and on. That's how we're losing a lot of lakes. We're losing fish habitats, spawning grounds and many other animal habitats.

Oil Poverty versus Real Wealth
Alaska has 200 Native villages. Each village is like Arctic Village: the people subsist from hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping food and they respect the traditional way of life.

     Back in 1970, when the Alaska Land Claim Settlement Act (ALCSA) passed, Native Alaskans were placed into 12 different incorporated entities. Alaskan Natives were made stockholders of those corporations - they don't have direct land ownership. The ALCSA took them away from who they are, how they related to the land, and how they use it. They were put into a Western business-type entity.

     They had to make profits to stay incorporated. Some of these corporations are doing very well and there are some short-term benefits. They've made some profit, so they want more. And they've made agreements with oil companies. It's not traditional people who make decisions in those villages: it's the corporation's board of directors. They work with the oil companies and have learned their ways of speaking. They work hard to convince the traditional people to be for development.

     There are only two Gwich'in villages that are not incorporated under the ALCSA - Venetie and Arctic Village. In Arctic Village we didn't go with the ALCSA. When ALCSA passed, each village got $100,000 so they could incorporate. We refused to take that $100,000. We had a landslide vote to stay with the Indian Reorganization Act because we got the land under that act. The state of Alaska kept sending the papers reminding us [to incorporate] but we just ignored it. After a while, they quit sending them and told us [the corporation] had been dissolved.

     We've gone to Washington, DC, and talked to congressional people to educate them about why we're saying no to this. It's human rights vs. oil. We've been in the Arctic, we're going to stay and we're not going away. We are caribou people, and nobody has the right to take that away from us.

     Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) came to Arctic Village and said, "I see you guys are poor here. I see you guys need jobs. If you guys agree to go with oil development, we're going to make sure that you are the manager of the caribou."

     We fixed some traditional food - caribou - but Murkowski said he didn't have time to eat. He was very disrespectful of our hospitality.

     When he said that we needed jobs, we said, "We already have a job. We have always taken care of this part of the world and that's our job. We always took care of the caribou and in return they took care of us, so we are the manager of the caribou already and that's not a new responsibility.

     "We're not poor. We know where we came from. We still have clean water, clean air, we still live a healthy life and the land is still healthy. There's no price for what we have. So we're not poor, we're richer in our hearts for who we are. That's being rich in a different form."

     We've been successful because of people's power. We believe we can win. We're not going to compromise because this is the right thing to do. We want small-scale development [outside of the Refuge] for our future generations. That way everybody benefits.

From an interview conducted by CorpWatch [PO Box 29344, San Francisco, CA 94129 USA, (415) 561-6568, Fax: -6493,,


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