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Sacred Steps: Fighting For What’s Sacred In The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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For most of her life, Neets’aii Gwich’in leader Sarah James has worked to protect her homelands, including the coastal plain of the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But, now the U.S. government wants to lease some of the area for oil exploration and drilling. In this story from The Spiritual Edge we hear how the Gwich’in tribal government is challenging those plans, which threaten land that they call sacred. 

"We have a right to be caribou people. We believe God put us here to take care of this part of the world" - Sarah James

More than a pristine wilderness is at stake in this conflict. The Porcupine Caribou Herd — the center of Gwich’in culture — gives birth on the coastal plain inside the refuge. Caribou are also the main food source for Gwich’in people who live in villages spanning the U.S. Canadian border. 

"Caribou is our way of life, just like the buffalo is to the Plains Indians. It's our song, it's our dance, it's our story." - Sarah James

With the help of the Native American Rights Fund, two Alaska tribes filed a lawsuit September 9 in Federal District Court against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Trump Administration to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas development. 

The federal government has protected the land — an area about the size of South Carolina — for more than 50 years. Now the Trump Administration wants to open 1.6 million acres of it to a lease sale. That step would allow oil companies to drill there for the first time. The Gwich'in Athabascan indigenous people consider it sacred land. The lawsuit the Native American Rights Fund brought is one of several. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, The Audubon Society and 15 states are also suing the U.S. government.

"'Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit' is a public land. It's your land, It's your kids' future, it's my kids' future." - Sarah James

Sarah James tosses her silver hair over her shoulders as she welcomes me into her small cabin with eyes that sparkle through black-rimmed glasses. The elder tells me she has coffee on. Even in June, it can be cool here, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle — and hot coffee is welcome year-round.

From her cabin window we can see craggy outcroppings emerging from deep green spruce forest. The view rivals that in the most spectacular national parks. Her home, atop a knoll in her hometown of Arctic Village, is situated just across a river from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

This is Sarah’s ancestral homeland.

Visit spiritualedge.org to read the rest of this story, or click the play button above to listen to the audio documentary.

This story is part of a series called "Sacred Steps" produced in collaboration with KALW’s "The Spiritual Edge" and USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Reporting was also supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum. Judy Silber is the executive editor of "The Spiritual Edge" and Cheryl Devall is the "Sacred Steps" editor. Tarek Fouda engineered this story. 

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