Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

November 4, 2000 - Issue 22

A Resource More Valuable Than Oil
By Bathsheba Demuth

Old Crow, Canada-What's remarkable is not just the antiquity and ingenuity of this tool, but its material: The scraper was chipped from the femur of a caribou.

Sometime in the centuries separating the creation of this tool and its 20th-century discovery, the descendants of its maker diversified across northeast Alaska and the Yukon, becoming the people we now know as Gwich'in. Today more than 7,000 Gwich'in make this wilderness their home, and although Gwich'in life has changed, the basic source remains the same. The caribou, as seen in a 15,000-year-old piece of bone, and as seen today, are the basis for survival in the uncertain north.

I have been living in the Gwich'in village of Old Crow over a year now since graduating from high school, a year in which talk of the caribou has been omnipresent - from the frenzy of the fall hunt to the springtime rumors of returning herds. The caribou that sustain the Gwich'in in Old Crow, and across the north, belong to the Porcupine River caribou herd, a mass of nearly 135,000 animals that migrate from their wintering grounds in the Eagle Plains area of the central Yukon to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Old Crow lies in the middle of this migration route, in a landscape that seems so vast as to be impervious to the outside world.

However, the hundreds of square miles that make up the traditional Gwich'in lands, and the migratory paths of the caribou, are more fragile than their ancient grandeur would suggest.

Beneath the coastal plain lies both a blessing and a curse - an untapped deposit of oil and natural gas. These are reserves that, in this petroleum-hungry age, are increasingly in demand. But drilling for this oil would disturb, even destroy, the calving grounds of the caribou.

With threat to the wilderness comes threat to the people who make it home. Development in ANWR stands to eradicate more than the last migratory herd in North America; it also threatens a way of life that transcends 15,000 years of human history.

Destroying the traditional means by which the Gwich'in people survive is cultural genocide - caused not by direct violence, but by the slow disappearance of their primary resource and a gradual assimilation into
mainstream society. And while it is unlikely that anyone will starve, it is equally unlikely that the 16 Gwich'in villages across the north could remain Gwich'in, in any cultural sense, without the caribou.

All of this has been said before. The debate over drilling in ANWR is tossed back and forth across the presidential campaign trail. Drilling is denounced by Vice President Al Gore, who stands to protect the refuge, and supported by Gov. George W. Bush, who believes America should be more self-sufficient in its energy needs. Gwich'in representatives tour the country, lobbying for permanent protection of ANWR. The oil companies make their case to every car owner in America.

After my time spent in Gwich'in country, I wish to present a different perspective. Americans should protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd, not because we are environmentally conscious or culturally sympathetic or simply altruistic. We should protect ANWR, in part, for ourselves.

The 20th century was an age of cultural homogenization; of diversity lost to the overwhelming forces of technological expansion. In the 21st century we are left to contemplate these losses and, if we are aware, to preserve what ecological and human diversity remains. This involves the sacrifice of short-term personal benefits for the long term advantages of a culturally diverse world.

In the changing and uncertain age we now inhabit, a diversity of cultures may be as important to human survival as the diversity of species. I am no believer in a coming apocalypse, but I do understand that our species is living beyond its means, that society, as most Americans know it, is not a sustainable proposition.

The wilderness up north here is not a resource to be explored and exploited, or merely a balm for a hectic lifestyle. It is, in fact, a sustainable and sound way of life. We should never let such a unique existence disappear, even if we will never live this way ourselves, or wish to. Great knowledge can be found here, among the Gwich'in, and great wisdom. Should we let this slip away, for a few months' worth of cheap oil?

In the end, it comes down to the fate of the caribou. Preserve the land that sustains the caribou, and the caribou will, in turn, give the Gwich'in a chance to continue their culture. And we will all hold on to a dimension of our own humanity.

But to do so we must relinquish the misconception that, despite the distances between us, we are powerless to influence change. This distance in turn relieves us of no responsibility. Just as the Gwich'in will never meet their ancestors, most Americans will never see the remote village of Old Crow, a place where life grows just as it did 15,000 years ago. It comes with the return of the caribou. For now, and, I hope, for all time.

Bathsheba Demuth is a volunteer assistant at the local community college in Old Crow and raises a sled-dog team.

Print and Color your own picture of a Caribou

Old Crow Land of the Vuntut Gwitch'in

Caribou Websites

The Tuktu and Nogak Project is a community driven effort to collect and share Inuit ecological knowledge of caribou and calving areas in the Bathurst Inlet area of the Kitikmeot region, Nunavut, Canada.
Tuktu and Nogak Project

The Gwich'in people are asking us to support them in their efforts to
gain National Monument status for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Please send a letter to president Clinton on their behalf (model letter
follows). Thanks!


President Clinton faces what is arguably the greatest conservation opportunity of our time in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The biological, cultural, historic and scientific attributes of the area are so rich and uniquely entwined, and the ecological integrity of the area so vulnerable to proposed oil development, that presidential action is fully warranted.

The combination of sweeping landscapes and rich biological diversity found in the Refuge, and especially its sensitive coastal plain, is unmatched anywhere in the circumpolar North. This extraordinary diversity stems in part from the high mountains of the Brooks Range which swing north against the Artic coast in northeast Alaska, compressing a full complement of Artic and subarctic landscapes and ecosystems into one compact unit. It is home to more than 180 species of birds, and numerous mammals including polar bears, musk ox, wolves, wolverine, moose, Arctic and red foxes, black bears, brown bears, and the white Dall sheep.

Most compelling, the narrow coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the birthplace and nursery grounds of the Porcupine (River) caribou herd. The pregnant cows travel hundreds of miles to this unique place to give birth, then help their calves build strength before moving to wintering grounds in the boreal forest to the south. The great international migrations of the Porcupine caribou herd evoke breathtaking comparisons to Africa's fabled Serengeti, or to the now-lost thunder of buffalo across America's Great Plains more than 100 years ago.

The Arctic Refuge was part of eastern Beringia, the ice-free plains of the last Ice Age. Its little known archeological and paleontological resources tell stories of old caribou corrals and coastal hunting camps, and may hold ancient clues to the days of the mammoth, giant beaver, and saber toothed tigers, and to the earliest peopling of the Americas.

Above all else, it is the concurrence of so many globally significant expressions of ecological processes, biological and cultural diversity, and wild lands, on such a scale, and in one place, that sets the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge apart from even the greatest of our National Parks. It is the keystone, the "biological heart" of a larger region that includes the Yukon Flats NWR and the adjacent national parks in Canada -- the largest assemblage of protected natural ecosystems in the world.

The Artic Refuge, established in 1960 by President Dwight Eisenhower, is still an inhabited wilderness. Two indigenous people, the Neetsa'ii Gwich'in of the mountains and boreal forest; and the Inupiat of the Artic coast still hunt, fish, gather plants, roots and berries, travel and live on these lands. Providing the resource base for the subsistence activities is an important purpose of the Refuge.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd, in particular, is central to the culture of the Gwich'in, and to the economic and social fabric of their villages. Every Porcupine Caribou gets its start in life on the narrow coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. Further West, the oil fields have displaced the Central Artic caribou herd from its traditional birthplace to alternate habitat further South. For the Porcupine caribou herd, there is nowhere else to go.

In the face of intense oil industry pressure, Congress delayed a decision on protecting the Artic Refuge coastal plain's 1002 area when they passed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. Even with strong public support for protecting the Artic Refuge, and 200 cosponsors for Wilderness protection this year, Congressional deadlock continues. The Arctic Refuge remains the unfinished business of ANILCA.

The natural and cultural values of the artic Refuge are irreplaceable, rare, and far outweigh the temporary benefits, if any, of oil drilling there. With leading oil companies themselves looking "beyond petroleum" to improved auto technology and fossil fuel alternatives, and a growing appreciation of how conservation and technology development can impact energy efficiency, now is certainly the time to safeguard the highest and best of these lands for all future generations.

For more information on this and the Gwich'in Peoples see the Gwich'in Steering Committee's homepage at:

SOURCE: Gwich'in Steering Committee, October 2000


Write letters today to President Clinton who alone has the authority to ensure future protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The President has made a historic gift to the nation in his legacy of national monuments and conservation initiatives. In the Arctic Wildlife National Monument, he can protect the most complete and important assemblage of Arctic and subarctic ecosystems in the world. This priceless fragment of America's North will be a gift not just to America, but to the world; a legacy not just for our time, but for all time.


President William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Clinton,

We are writing you on behalf of the Gwich'in Nation to thank you for your courageous leadership on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge issue. We now urge you to further demonstrate political leadership and courage on this important issue by using your authority to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a National Monument. An action to defend and promote the inherent human rights of the Gwich'in to continue their own way of life, as well as preserve the ecological balance of this Arctic environment.

The Gwich'in culture and way of life is intrinsically connected to the Porcupine Caribou Herd to meet all of their essential needs for survival. The Gwich'in are reliant upon the caribou for food, clothing, shelter, medicines, spirituality and tools. Beyond significance culturally, moreover the Gwich'in rely on the herd socially as well. Their ancient traditions are passed from one generation to the next at the time when the caribou is within the traditional homelands of the Gwich'in.

The coastal plain is truly the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Gwich'in call this are "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins." Besides being the important birthplace to the caribou it is the denning area for Polar Bears, nesting area for 135 species of migratory birds and year round home to musk oxen.

Designation of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a National Monument is a legacy to all our future generations. A gift transcending time for all humankind. The culture, spirituality and birthright of the Gwich'in will be preserved for their future generations. There are few opportunities such as this, where human rights are recognized and environmental balance is preserved despite economic interests. Please take the appropriate action in defense of life.


(Your name and/or organizational affiliation if necessary)



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