FAIRBANKS, ALASKA–Fairbanksans attending Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Monday hearing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge publicly slammed the agency for stifling public participation in democratic process.
BLM did not provide residents a public forum in which to voice comments until Alaska Native leaders demanded accountability from the officials present. The event was planned as an ‘open house’ info session on the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIS) the agency prepared as part of rushed preparations for oil lease sales on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, a sacred area critical to subsistence lifeways of the Iñupiaq and Gwich’in.
BLM gave Fairbanks only two business days’ notice before Monday; nevertheless, more than 200 Alaskans attended the event as part of the ongoing surge of statewide opposition against drilling in the refuge.
As BLM concluded the scheduled public presentation without allowing the audience a question and answer session, Han Gwich’in public safety advocate Jody Potts stood up and denounced BLM’s suppression of Alaska Native engagement in the Arctic Refuge process: “We are beyond frustrated that our elders are not allowed to speak today. […] Our government that is supposed to represent all of us equally and freely are preventing us from properly commenting.”
Sarah James, Gwich’in elder from Arctic Village, then stood and demanded BLM respect tribes’ wishes for government-to-government consultation: “We have a right to be there and each and every [tribal] government has a right to be there […] we have a right to speak. […] our ancestors walked the land and ate from the land.”
“Oil companies and all those folks they’ll go away, but we’re not gonna go anywhere, we’re Indigenous to this land right here and we’ll fight all the way to remain here. There’s no backing off on this for us, I can assure you of that. We will do everything and anything we can, we’ve held this off for almost 40 years, a small tribe of people against the most powerful people in the world and we’ll do it again. Mahsi Cho,” Steve Ginnis from Ft. Yukon. After a number of Alaska Native elders and leaders spoke up, BLM heeded demands to allow people to make official public comments. “You’ve lost control of the meeting,” one audience member chided Joe Balash, BLM’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “I just realized that,” Balash replied in acknowledgment.
Adrienne Aakaluk Titus, Iñupiaq Fairbanks resident originally from Unalakleet, said the draft EIS had not addressed the human consequences of oil extraction: “We asked the EIS be translated to Iñupiaq and Gwich’in. You are making us responsible for your job. You mention the Gwich’in people, yet you’re leaving out the impacts on the rest of the world. What happens in the Arctic impacts the rest of the world. Our people are hurting, suicide rates are growing, cancer follows the desecration of our lands. All this government is doing is continuing the genocide of our people. Where is this in your Environmental Impact Statement?”.
“We have been forced out of villages because of what you have done to our lands,” said Siqiniq Maupin, an Inupiaq organizer from Utqiaġvik. “We have buried four people this week, young people hurt by depression and drugs. There used to be tuttu [Iñupiaq: caribou]. We are told we can’t survive without you, but we can’t survive with you. Our children will not be sacrificed to you without a fight.”
Donetta Tritt, Gwich’in woman from Arctic Village, warned of public health consequences from drilling’s disruptive effect on caribou migration. “My sister is a health aide. One year, caribou didn’t come through Arctic Village.[…] What we saw medically was very alarming to us. Our elders had no traditional food, so they had to rely on hotdogs, spam, macaroni and cheese — expensive food that is completely useless to us. That winter, my sister treated the majority of those elders for gestational issues. They were vomiting. They had the runs. Because they didn’t have their traditional food they were sick. […] Our way of life is threatened and the first who will suffer are our elders.”
“Alaska is #NotYourWarehouse and we are not open for business,” said one Alaska Native leader. “The only inheritance that we should concern ourselves with is the inheritance of our children. What we are leaving for them? … All of our elders spoke about protecting our ecosystems. That’s what we should concern ourselves with.”
Defend The Sacred AK (DtS-AK) is a collective voice in opposition to President Trump and his Administration who are taking action to open vast swaths of Indigenous land to oil and gas development across Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, Hilcorp Liberty in the Beaufort Sea, and offshore exploration in the Chukchi Sea, and Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay.
DtS-AK has stated: “Alaskans demand to be heard; we demand not only a seat at the table but that our voices be front and center in all decision-making. Our communities have been commenting against these projects for generations and Mother Earth demands that we protect, not destroy Arctic ecosystems the world depends on, as decisions made about the Arctic impact the rest of the world.” With each new comment period, Alaskans speak out and demand: longer comment periods, in-person testimony opportunities in more communities, and mandatory translation into Indigenous languages including Iñupiaq and Gwich’in. “But these concessions are not enough,” DtS-AK stated. “We must halt oil and gas development to #ProtectTheArctic.”