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WATCH: A Way of Life Under Attack - 'Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee'

All over this country, indigenous people are literally just fighting for their identity.

By: Kyle Frost + Save to a List

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to view a short film by filmmaker Greg Balkin and Dr. Len Necefer that focuses on the Gwich’in community of Fort Yukon, Alaska and their battle to preserve their homes, way of life, and the land around them. A packed house at the Denver Patagonia store watched as the film unpacks the plight of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the affect that drilling and development will have on the lives of the Gwich’in.

In a place where a gallon of milk can cost $14, any disruption to the local food chain or migration patterns of the Porcupine Caribou Herd will be disastrous for the Gwich’in. When food costs reach that high, the reliance on what the land can offer becomes paramount -- a box of shells is cheaper and can provide more than that gallon of milk or $24 box of cereal. It's a battle for food security...for survival.

Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert says “For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have lived in the Arctic, taking care of the land and animals. We treat caribou and other creatures with reverence, because without them, we would not survive. To my people, wilderness is not a luxury or indulgence; it is a necessity.

Photo Credit - Keri Oberly

Perhaps the most emotional moments of the evening came after the film concluded. Len and Greg both took questions about the film, but it was Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of Gwich’in Steering Committee that shook me to the core. Hearing from someone so intimately connected with the land, and distressed about what was happening to her community and the the coastal plain (called "the sacred place where life begins") brought a raw and disturbingly tangible realness and urgency to this issue. 

It's sometimes hard to "connect" with issues that are harder to relate to. Fort Yukon is thousands of miles away, and the lives the Gwich’in live are far different than my own. But it's important to put these battles in context. They're not just about lines on a map, but rather people, cultures, their relationship with the land, and what is left for future generations to experience. I don't *need* to visit Fort Yukon, or visit the Refuge to understand. But I can use my voice to support that of the Gwich’in, and encourage my legislators to do the same.

Photo Credit - Keri Oberly

The film juxtaposes Len's experiences with his own Navajo community and their recent fight for Bears Ears with the struggles facing indigenous communities in the Arctic. The reality is that Native communities have long been silenced, overlooked, and taken advantage of by development and policy. However the public reaction and support for Bears Ears National Monument and the work of people like Len and Greg gives hope that we can change that.

We can continue to lift up Native voices for Bears Ears, for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for the Gwich’in, and the next issue, and the next. 

Greg and Len are encouraging individuals to support the Gwich’in by showing up to local screenings and contacting their legislators. One of the most impactful things you can do right now is contact your local legislators: text ARCTIC to 40649, and you'll get sent a link to a public comment that sends a note to your representative. You can learn more at https://www.gwichyaazhee.us.  

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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