The Caribou People

Madison Roberts

Alaska, a state referred to as America’s last frontier, was heavily affected by the relaxed attitude of America’s 45th Presidential Administration. Under former President Trump’s lead, plans like the Coastal Plains Oil and Gas Program were put into motion and finalized. This program allowed a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska’s northeast to be leased to bidding oil companies for future use. The program was finalized in August of 2020 as one of the administration’s final environmental ruinations.  However, the story does not end with just a loss of environmental resources. Instead, the Coastal Plains Oil and Gas Program could affect so much more, as it could mean an end to the Gwich’in, the Caribou people of Alaska.

            The Gwich’in are one of the northernmost Indian Nation in America and have tribes in northeast Alaska, the northern Yukon, and Northwest Territories in Canada. While Gwich’in directly translates to “people of the land” they often refer to themselves as the caribou people. The reason for this is that 9000 Gwich’in people live along a migratory route for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The Gwich’in have depended on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for thousands of years, and the herd provides them with food, clothing, and tools. More importantly the herd is a source of their cultural identity and is part of what makes them Gwich’in.

            The migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd spans all across the Yukon and Alaska am dos traveled by 169,000 caribou. However, that route is jeopardized by the Coastal Plains Oil and Gas Program. The reason for this is that these caribou begin their route each spring on the very ground that the program is leasing and selling to bidders for oil drilling. For the caribou and the Gwich’in the coastal plains aren’t ground covering untapped oil. The coastal plains are the caribou birthing place and nursing grounds, a place so integral to Gwich’in and Caribou life that the Gwich’in call it “lizhik Gwats’ an Gwandaii Goodlit” or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins. By opening up the coastal plains to oil drilling and leasing the Trump Administration has placed the lives of the Porcupine Caribou Herd at risk, and in turn the lives of the Gwich’in.

            The Trump Administration faced several challenges during the creation of the programs. The main argument involved the Gwich’in and the environmental strain that the program would place on the Porcupine Caribou Herd. However, many of the arguments given by commentators on the program were overlooked and ignored with the same excuse. That excuse being they were not selling the right to drill for the oil yet. The Administration claimed that by only leasing a right to survey the land, and not allowing that survey to proceed at certain times the caribou would not be affected. However, this leasing right to survey came with a right to do preliminary drilling tests so that oil companies could see if the land did indeed have the expected trove of black gold lurking beneath its surface. The scientists who support opponents of ANWR drilling have found evidence that even the seismic tests that will be used to survey the land could harm the pristine environment. The administration can claim that the leasing in this situation is the final result, but it is apparent that it is only a stepping stone to further disaster.

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