The Alaska Wilderness League organized a trip to the nation’s capital this week to lobby the Obama administration against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in offshore areas. Sarah James, an elder of the Gwich’in nation, was one of the leaders of the delegation. She traveled all the way from Arctic Village, Alaska, the northermost indigenous village in the U.S., to Washington, D.C. this week as member of the group. James has a considerable amount of clout in the indigenous community, as she is a member of the International Indian Treaty Council and a member of the Arctic Village Traditional Council. She also won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 for her work to protect caribou in ANWR.
She and other members of the Gwich’in tribe are primarily concerned about how the oil industry will affect porcupine caribou. The tribe has a strong connection to the caribou, as their diet traditionally relies on caribou as a protein source. The Gwich’in people also consider ANWR to be sacred calving ground for the caribou.
Oil pipelines could affect the delicate ecosystem in ANWR, thus disrupting the caribous’ habitat. Pipelines have been known to break migrating caribous’ legs. The northern region of Alaska, specifically ANWR, serves as the prime mating grounds for the caribou, so any decrease in the number of calves produced could have a severely deleterious effect on the entire caribou population. On the contrary, it is worth noting that the caribou have lived with oil development for the past thirty years around Prudhoe Bay, and the size of the herd there has actually increased.
In Washington, the Alaska Wilderness League delegation met with high-level members of the Obama administration, including Assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland and Larry Echohawk, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In the past, James has remarked,
“We are caribou people. It’s our clothing, our story, our song, our dance and our food. That’s who we are. If you drill for oil here, you are drilling right into the heart of our existence.”
“Alaska natives seek restrictions on drilling,” Anchorage Daily News