The following article about “Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee” was written by Meredith Reitemeier.
Fade in from black: Weeds gently blow one way, brown bodies of dying trees the other. Spruce trees, a man and the sky fill the frame. We’re in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the largest national wildlife refuge in the country, in northeastern Alaska. The man lets out a caribou call, widening and narrowing the space between his cupped palms for change in pitch.
“If they open up the refuge, I’m gone,” he says.
This is how “Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee,” a short film directed by Len Necefer and Greg Balkin presented by The Wilderness Society, opens. The film is a portrait of the Native American Gwich’in people—who inhabit this corner of the world, just north of the Arctic Circle, which they call Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins—and an existential, crisis they are facing. Pending legislation—Public Law 115-97 (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act)—that would open up the land to oil and gas drilling, fundamentally threatens the Gwich’in way of life.
Initiated in 1960 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the ANWR serves to “preserv[e] unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values” supplemented with four additional pillars of purpose: “To conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including the Porcupine caribou herd; To fulfill the international treaty obligations for the United States with respect to fish and wildlife and their habitats; To provide … the opportunity for continued subsistence use by local residents; and To ensure … water quality and quantity within the refuge.”
Removing protections against drilling would not only compromise the ecologically sensitive land and dismantle the principles the ANWR was founded upon, it would mean the end of the Porcupine caribou migration into the area, which the Gwich’in have depended on for thousands of years as their primary food source.
Later in the film, walking down a gravel road, Necefer and Balkin pass piles of wooden pallets, telephone poles, cabins with boxy additions built onto them as if in afterthought—different colors and materials blooming from the original structures. A man saws meat off of a carcass in his front yard next to power tools and an abandoned pool ladder. Kids cross intersections on fourwheelers. There is dilapidation and poverty in all directions, but there is also unmistakable joy.
“I work for the department of energy, and I’m seeing the same sort of potential development in the Gwich’in community that originally threatened my tribe,” Necefer, a member of the Navajo nation, told Rock and Ice in an interview in March. “I knew that their identities would be impacted and what the outcomes could be.”
At one point in the film, the topic of drilling comes up over a home-cooked meal in a wood-paneled kitchen. The Gwich’in community first caught wind of the troubles the fall of 2017, when the ANWR’s possible opening was announced alongside the decision to shrink Bears Ears. “There was no meeting, nothing to let us know that they were going to open it,” one man at the table says.
He continues, “It feels like in policy makers’ minds, there aren’t many people in places like the arctic refuge or Bears Ears. So benefiting our country at the expense of our livelihood is worth it. At what point will people stand up for us too? We wanna tell our children that we did everything we could to protect these places . . . but we need help.”
To this end, it sometimes takes an outsider’s perspective to help create a platform and spread the word about these places, and the ways they impact people. Explorer and National Geographic writer Jon Waterman points out in his anthology, Northern Exposures: An Adventuring Career in Stories and Images, “In large part, the state of Alaska owes its existence to oil. In 1959, a forty-year battle to earn statehood was won only after local officials proved to Washington that potential revenue from the territory’s untapped petroleum reserves would offset the federal cost of maintaining a massive chunk of wilderness forty-five hundred miles from Capitol Hill. Nine years later, sixty miles west of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (as it was then named), amid a little-known tidal convergence of tundra and rivers called Prudhoe Bay, the Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil (now Exxon) discovered the largest oil field in North America. In 1977 the $8 billion eight-hundred-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline began pumping Prudhoe Bay oil to tanker ships in Valdez.”
This vicious cycle of exploiting the land for oil has put the Gwich’in in an unenviable situation.
In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act which doubled the initial size of the refuge to 19 million acres. This expansion came with the stipulation of a mandated study which found the promise of oil on the coastal plain. Oil leasing was quickly recommended by the Department of the Interior, and according to the latest geological survey, the plain holds “a mean value of 7.7 billion barrels.” While that sounds like a lot, consider that that amount would not even satisfy U.S. demand for two years. According to a 2005 report from the Energy Information Administration, the savings at the pump would only boil down to one cent per gallon
Necefer told Rock and Ice, “Land stewardship and conservation are ingrained into indigeinous peoples’ values. Their identity is tied into these places and they have called this place home for thousands of years.”
At one point in the film, Necefer and Balkin visit with Gwich’in students at the local school, welcomed by a hand-painted banner and a trophy display showing off student achievements, basketball team pictures and gold trophies. “Our future generations deserve to see this world as it was in the beginning, not just when we’re done with it,” says a member of the Gwich’in.
Necefer later told Rock and Ice, “In Gwich’in they don’t have cardinal directions. There’s no point of reference on the horizon and the sun doesn’t move in the same way it does here, so you can’t tell east from west. Their main cardinal direction is the river; their directions are: up river, downriver, and across the river.”
A father explains pulling his son from school for a day to spend it with him on the river. “That’s his classroom,” he says. He says that it is just as important for his son to learn the skills taught by the river in order to survive as it is for him to sit at a desk in a classroom. The son sits on a plastic, duct-taped orange school chair in the boat, the wind and speed making him crunch his small face together. Bundled up in matching coats and ear mufflers, the father leans over to him, and through the roar of the motor, you can just make out his words: “Hey, I love you.”
For the Gwich’in, it’s not just the Porcupine caribou or their land that is at stake. It is tradition. It is family. It is survival. It is lives built and cultivated over countless generations. Contralaterally, the Gwich’in know their homeland like the back of their hands. They know where to hunt and fish, and which areas are so ecologically sensitive that they don’t dare set foot on them, let alone permit drilling and construction. They know that if this bill goes through and the refuge is opened, the rush to complete the drilling by 2020 will have irreversible and detrimental effects on the environment; but nobody thought to ask them.
As the film comes to an end, we are back where we began: in the wilderness with the Gwich’in father.
“You hear that?” His gun is slung over his shoulder after a hunt. “Nothing.” A smile sneaks out, and he turns to walk back home. “Now, you can’t tell me this is not worth fighting for.”
To help in the fight against oil development in the ANWR, text ARCTIC to 40649 and write a message about why ANWR conservation matters. You can also call or write your representatives to discuss HR1146—The Arctic Coastal Plains Act. This bill, if passed, would amend Public Law 115-97 (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) by repealing section 20001. This section contains the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Oil and Gas Program; if repealed, drilling in ANWR would not be permitted on the coastal plain.