antlers

Ten years ago NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC reported on how environmental threats spurred the Gwich’in, an Arctic people, to unprecedented political activism, which has continued.

In the south of the Brooks Range, nestled in a crook of the refuge’s border, lies Arctic Village, reachable only by air or taiga trail—arguably the most isolated Indian village in the United States. Much of the diet is meat, and three-quarters of it comes from the Porcupine caribou herd. If numbers decline or migration routes change due to development, life will change for Arctic Village’s Gwich’in Athapaskan Indians and their close Canadian kin across the border in Old Crow, whose existence revolves around hunting and meat.

“People are making decisions in Washington, D.C., that are gonna affect our land. The caribou, that’s what we eat, it’s like our body,” said 33-year-old hunter Kenneth Frank.

The perceived common threat to their herd united Gwich’in across the border in June of this year [1988] for the first cross-border tribal gathering since free passage and barter of food ended with security restrictions during World War II.

In a formal statement they declared that “the very future of our people is endangered by proposed oil and gas exploration and development in the calving and post-calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

In Alaska the Gwich’in stand virtually alone in opposing development. In Canada, on the other hand, native communities have received full support from the federal and territorial governments in their objections. Oil exploration has revealed a billion-barrel prospect in the Canadian Beaufort that may someday pay for a pipeline to the South, but no commercial reserves have been found on Canada’s North Slope.

A 1984 federal lands-claim settlement with the Inuvialuit—the Inuit, or Eskimos, of Canada’s western Arctic—made wildlife conservation and subsistence hunting the top priorities, overseen by an Inuvialuit-controlled game council.

The settlement created the 3-million-acre (1.2-million-hectare) Northern Yukon National Park on ANWR’s border to protect the Canadian portion of the Porcupine herd’s calving ground from any future development. Canadian officials have cried foul over U.S. government support for development, citing a recently signed binational agreement to protect the herd and its habitat.

In the park I felt an atavistic calm when I walked through calving herds on a softly sunlit night. Later, rafting the Firth River with a convivial group, I felt the mood grow quiet as we traversed a treeless land with no place to hide.

Adapted from “An Arctic Dilemma” by Douglas B. Lee in the December 1988 National Geographic.