I write this column, I know that oil drilling the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge is not in the federal energy bill, which Congress
is considering. For that, I am thankful. I also am grateful to the
Vuntut Gwich'in people who met with me about their stand against
the oil companies and gave me a better understanding of the people,
caribou and their land.
week, the Alaska Coalition's Jay Heeter, freelance photographer
Jess Berrie and Moses Lord, Gwich'in from the Old Crow village in
the Yukon Territory, visited with me.
I leaned forward to listen to the soft-spoken Lord, I found it hard
to picture him as a person who lives 80 miles north of the Arctic
Circle. If he were sitting on a bench in the White Shield, N.D.,
community center, I probably wouldn't have noticed he was an outsider.
arctic land isn't rolling plains and nearly treeless like parts
of the Dakotas as I imagined at first. It is wilderness with the
"wild" in caps. The land is the snow-covered Brooks Range
and wetlands - rough, rugged land, and judging by videos and photos,
a most beautiful country.
you follow one of the many rivers, you'll see they've done a good
job of cutting deep into the broken, jagged rock. They are, perhaps,
what the Grand Canyon looked like centuries ago. The rivers that
created these paths through the land are clear and blue. Lord told
me that they can walk to the Porcupine or Crow rivers, dip their
cups in and drink. His village is at the confluence of these two
water is pure, he said.
lives revolve around the gray or light brown or white Porcupine
Caribou herds. In the Gwich'in creation story, the elders say the
Gwich'in came from the caribou. When there was a separation of humans
and animals, there was an agreement between the caribou and the
Gwich'in: The Gwich'in would retain a part of the caribou heart,
and the caribou would retain a part of the Gwich'in heart.
caribou can't speak for themselves, so the Gwich'in travel far from
their villages to advocate for them.
caribou come to the village in the spring and fall. They stand about
5 feet tall at the shoulders and weight between 130 and 170 pounds.
About 120,000 of them will graze just a short distance from the
village, Lord said. I couldn't image that many untamed animals so
close to the people. The village was built on the caribou's migration
trail on purpose.
important is the caribou to the Gwich'in way of life? It is 70 percent
of their food source, but they also eat moose, ducks and other things
they hunt, Lord said. They use every part of the caribou. They boil
the caribou hooves down, and it makes a jelly of sorts. They cook
the bone marrow for food and use the bones for many things. One
of the delicacies is the head, which is made into soup for special
skin is used for moccasins, boots, mitts and hats, he said. His
mother, who is 69, used the skin for clothing when she was young.
She also spoke Gwich'in. People are not using the language as much
anymore, he said.
asked him about vegetables for their diet. "We have a store
in the village," he said with a little edge to his voice. They
have satellite televisions, though Lord said he doesn't watch much
television. They also have a sawmill that makes furniture.
are facing an out-migration of young people, as in North Dakota.
There are few jobs for the young people, so they go to the oil fields
to work. So, some also support the oil companies, he said.
the Gwich'in always have lived off the land. That will be more difficult
if the oil companies take the birthing places of the caribou, he
Episcopal church came to their community many years ago and taught
them their religion. Now, most of the people belong to the church,
but there are a few who practice the Gwich'in way, he said.
get to the Crow Village, you have to fly in. There are no roads.
Lord said he likes it that way. Roads bring in outsiders and the
likelihood that they'll lose more of their culture.
I listened to him, I couldn't help but think about the Native people
in the lower 48. There are many similarities. We have lost much
of our culture, language and ways to the whites. Perhaps, it is
inevitable; people move forward forgetting the old ways. But there
are lessons to be learned from the people who live off the land.
They have respect for all things and live in balance with the land.
Embrace the new, yes, but don't toss away the past.