In the fall of 2017, I quit my job at the Department of Energy when I learned that Bears Ears National Monument and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would lose their protections and be opened to oil and gas development. I had no words.
I grew up with energy development all around me on the Navajo Nation, and I knew exactly what the impacts would be. I couldn’t watch this happen to another native community without trying to do something.
A week later, I was in Salt Lake protesting the signing of the Bears Ears Monument reduction by President Donald Trump. I was heartened to see so much support around us — from natives and non-natives. We also spoke with one voice to protect Bears Ears.
The Gwich’in, my sisters and brothers from northern Alaska, are fighting the same battle, and they deserve the same support. In a time where native communities still feel invisible to the rest of our country, people need to stand with them so they are less alone in a fight that affects all of us.
I was fortunate enough to visit Gwichyaa Zhee and meet Gwich’in families whose way of life is at stake. I never realized I could I feel at home so far north — above the Arctic Circle 4,000 miles away from the Arizona desert where I grew up.
All it took was a day walking around to notice the connection to home, the kindness of the people, the language and their identities tied to the land like mine is to my Diné homeland.
In reality, nature is incredibly connected in ways that we don’t fully understand. Oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge would not only affect the animals, it would also disrupt the customs and traditional hunting throughout Gwich’in homelands.
The Gwich’In people call the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge: “the sacred place where all life begins.” There, Porcupine Caribou give birth to and raise their calves. The caribou have coexisted with the Gwich’in and have given them food, shelter, tools and clothing for thousands of years.
The Arctic Refuge is now under urgent threat. Recently, and as the next step in preparation for holding an oil and gas lease sale on the ecologically sensitive coastal plain of the Refuge, the Bureau of Land Management has released a draft environmental impact statement.
The American people were promised a robust, scientifically sound review process with public comment and full tribal consultation.
Yet the administration is rushing through a process it knows is widely unpopular at the expense of science, hoping to finalize leases before the next presidential election could overturn their egregiously shortsighted and unjust decision.
It’s infuriating that policymakers who support opening America’s Arctic Refuge to drilling can’t see the incredible richness that is the refuge.
The Gwich’in are rich in their culture and land, and our government is threatening to take that away from them. My entire life, I’ve watched the concerns of my community get brushed aside in favor of fossil fuels.
We’ve been shown that our problems aren’t important, that we don’t know what’s best for ourselves or our homeland. It feels like in policy makers’ minds there aren’t many people in places like the Arctic Refuge and Bears Ears, so benefiting our easy lifestyle at the expense of our Indigenous livelihoods is worth it. At what point will people stand up for us, too?
People from across the world have come to support Bears Ears. The Gwich’in in the Arctic Refuge deserve the same show of unity.
They love their land and they’ve fought for years to protect their history and their culture. We want to be able to tell our children that we did everything we could to protect these places, but we need everyone’s help.
We must unite and speak up to protect a cultural history much larger than ourselves. Indigenous peoples’ relationship to these places isn’t just about us — it’s about all of us, and everyone who will live after us.
Len Necefer, Ph.D., is the founder of Natives Outdoors, an outdoor gear company that works with indigenous artists and athletes to create gear that supports outdoor recreation on tribal lands.