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Alaska Natives Ask Nevadans to Help Protect Their Homeland

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the the Gwich'in Tribe, whose members are touring Nevada this week to drum up opposition to drilling. (Micah Baird/Sierra Club)
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the the Gwich'in Tribe, whose members are touring Nevada this week to drum up opposition to drilling. (Micah Baird/Sierra Club)
 By Suzanne Potter/Cynthia Howard - Producer, Contact
May 22, 2017

RENO, Nev. -- A group of Alaska Natives are in Nevada this week as part of a tour of the Southwest. They're stoking opposition to a bill that would authorize oil and gas drilling in their homeland, including parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Two women from the Gwich'in Tribe spoke in Las Vegas Sunday and will speak in Reno Tuesday at a showing of a short film about their battle to save their ancestral lands and the caribou herd that has sustained them. Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said the herd is a central part of their heritage - which is why her tribe has taken a firm stand against development for decades.

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

Supporters of the tribe want to block oil and gas drilling by giving wilderness protection to 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have introduced House Resolution 1889, the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act.

But Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has sponsored Senate Bill 49, to permit drilling on 2,000 acres of the refuge.

Fawn Douglas, a member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, said the Gwich’in Tribe's struggle is very similar to Nevadans' fight to protect Gold Butte.

"They're trying to protect their homelands from any development. And we did do that here when it came to Gold Butte,” Douglas said. “And to think about any part of that being desecrated or ruined by any mining or development is just absurd. And they're going through the same battle, the same fight."

The Gwich'in Tribe says the caribou herd's migration and calving areas would be disturbed if Congress approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They're hoping Nevadans will write their representatives to urge protections for the area.

Tuesday’s event in Reno will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Patagonia store on Center Street.

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