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Alaskan Tribeswomen Tour Arizona to Protect Their Arctic Heritage

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A proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has spurred competing legislation in Congress, and Arizonans are being asked to weigh in. (Micah Baird/Sierra Club)
A proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has spurred competing legislation in Congress, and Arizonans are being asked to weigh in. (Micah Baird/Sierra Club)
May 19, 2017

PHOENIX – Alaska Natives are touring the Southwest this week, drumming up support for a bill in Congress to ban oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Two women from the Gwich'in tribe spoke in Tucson yesterday and will speak in Phoenix today. They're showing a short film about the battle to save their ancestral homeland on the wildlife refuge, and the Porcupine Caribou herd that sustains it.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, says her people have been fighting off development for 28 years, because the herd is central to their way of life.

"Just like the Native Americans with the buffalo, they have that spiritual and cultural connection," she says. "That's that same connection that we have to the Porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich'in Nation used to migrate with the caribou herd for over 20,000 years. What befalls the caribou, befalls the Gwich'in."

House Resolution 1889, the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act, would designate 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, protecting it from extractive industries.

But, opponents are pushing Senate Bill 49, the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act, which would allow drilling on 2,000 acres of the refuge.

The Phoenix event is at noon at the Burton Barr Public Library.

Arizona State Rep. Sally Ann Gonzales, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, says sacred tribal lands everywhere should be protected.

"We're part of Mother Earth," she says. "The people from the Arctic, they depend on the Caribou and they live off of the earth. And so, we stand with them in trying to stop anything that would further harm their environment."

The Gwich'in Nation says the proposed drilling site would disrupt the caribou herd's migration and calving.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - AZ