Sarah James, a powerful Gwich'in woman, has been a voice for indigenous rights, human rights, and environmental issues for over 10 years. Since 1988, she has been a leader in the fight to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ms. James is a Board Member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee and the International Indian Treaty Council. While in town for the CorpWatch Climate Justice Tour, Sarah spoke with us about the impact oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge would have on her community.
CW: What is life like in the Arctic village?
SJ: Arctic Village is located 110 miles northeast of the Arctic Circle. It's one of the most isolated places in the United States and we're most Northern Indian village in the U.S.. We solely depend on subsistence living -- we hunt, fish and gather food and maybe 75% of our diet is wild meat. Most of it is porcupine caribou meat, moose, birds and ducks, fish from the river and the lakes, and some other small animals. And this is how we make our living day-to-day.
In Arctic Village we speak Gwich'in language and English is our second language. There is no running water and there's no road to Arctic Village. So 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. We're spread out pretty far and wide. It's considered the Arctic desert.
CW: If the government opens up the Arctic Refuge to drilling how will that impact the village?
SJ: We are caribou people -- we have a spiritual connection to caribou. They are everything to us -- the food on our table, they were shelter for us before. It's our story, it's in our songs. We do a caribou skin hunt dance. We used to be nomadic people, we'd follow the food, wherever we could gather the food, we used to live a very basic life, simple life based on needs not on greed.
Our people used to die only of old age but today our people are dying of cancer [and] heart disease. That's what development put upon us.
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 after the change that has come to our country, our people are dying of cancer, heart disease, drug and alcohol-related death. That's what development put upon us, if there is more development it will get worse.
CW: How would drilling in the Arctic impact the caribou that you depend on and have this deep connection with?
SJ: Caribou have one special place to have their calves -- it's a birthplace. Starting in April, each and every caribou goes back up 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, but the polar bears also raise their young along the coastline, and the musk ox was reintroduced to that area and they're raising their young along the coastal plain, and up in the foothills wolves and wolverines are raising their young. It's also a fish spawn for Arctic Ocean and a nesting ground for birds and ducks that fly up there from all over the world so it's really a special place for many form of life and the plants that grow there -- it's a healthy tundra -- it's a place for nursing.
CW: Do you think they will abandon the area if there's drilling?
SJ: What we say is any technology is not safe for a birthplace. It's the time for the mother and child while they're nursing. It's a special timing for these animals to be safe and comfortable.
CW: What is the connection between opening up the Arctic Refuge to drilling and climate change? A local struggle in a remote village, what does that have to do with climate change?
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 way of doing things, global warming is going to get to them.
SJ: In our area, global warming is real and climate change is real. We see that, we feel that, and we know it because we are so close to the earth because we survive by subsistence living. We know we're not the ones that produce and 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 way of doing things, it's going to get to them.
CW: Is the tundra actually beginning to melt?
SJ: Yes. Tundra is wetland. The permanent frost is thawing out, for example, in a strip of land between two bodies of water one lake runs into another, and the lake runs into the river and on and on. That's how we're losing a lot of lakes. We're losing a lot of fish habitats, their spawning grounds and many other animal habitats.
CW: The presence of oil companies in 1988 forced the Gwich'in Nation to organize. You're part of the Gwich'in Steering Committee -- can you talk about your fight against the oil companies?
SJ: The Gwich'in Steering Committee was formed back in 1988 by the whole Gwich'in Nation. They chose four members from Canada and four from U.S., and they formed Gwich'in Steering Committee to protect the caribou and Gwich'in way of life. We formed a nonprofit organization to campaign and educate the world about why we say no to development. We operate on a very small budget and we struggle to get the message out.
CW: I recently heard a public radio discussion that said the majority of people in Alaska, including some Native Alaskans, support opening up the Arctic Refuge to oil exploration because of the economic benefits and the Gwich'in are among the minority that oppose it. Is that true?
SJ: No. Alaska's got 200 (Native) villages and each and every village is like Arctic Village. They subsist from hunting, fishing, gathering, trapping food, and they respect the traditional way of life and traditional food.
Back in 1970 when the Alaska Land Claim Settlement Act passed, they put Native Alaskans into 12 different incorporated entities. They made Alaskan Natives stockholders of those corporations -- they don't have direct land ownership. That 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 in the State of Alaska. Some of these corporations are doing very well and there's some short term benefits. They've made some profit, so they want more. And they've made agreements with oil companies. It's not really these traditional people who make decisions in those villages it's the corporation's board of directors. They work very hard with the oil companies and have learned their ways of speaking and the ways of the corporations. They work hard to convince the traditional people to be for development.
CW: The Gwich'in are not incorporated?
SJ: There are only two Gwich'in villages that are not incorporated,
Venetie and Arctic Village. The rest are under the Alaska Native Land Claim
Settlement Act. In Arctic Village we didn't go with the Land Claim
Settlement Act because we had another choice, Indian Reorganization Act.
When Land Claim Settlement Act passed, the village was put into a
corporation. Each village got $100,000 so they could incorporate. We
refused to take that $100,000. Instead we took it to our people and we had
a landslide vote to stay with IRA because we got that land under the Indian
Reorganization Act in 1938. So the state of Alaska kept sending the papers
reminding us what to do [to incorporate] but we just ignored it. After a
while they quit sending them and told us [the corporation] had been dissolved.
CW: The decision about the Arctic Refuge rests with Congress. Have you lobbied Congress?
SJ: Yes many times we've gone to Washington DC and talk to various 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. And we are the people, we are caribou people, and nobody has that right to take that away from us.
We are caribou people, and nobody has that right to take that away from us.
Frank Murkowski, the Senator for Alaska, 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.' At that time we let the elders talk, and leaders and young people and we fixed some traditional food -- caribou -- but he 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 and 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.'
CW: Do you think you'll be successful in keeping the oil companies out of the Arctic Refuge?
SJ: We've been successful [so far] 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 instead. That way everybody benefits.
- 100 Climate Justice Initiative