A new short film highlights the Gwich’in people’s fight to protect their livelihood in the Arctic National Refuge. See it in Denver March 7

The lands where we recreate are sacred homelands steeped in tradition for a wide variety of native people. These lands are more than just a playground and place of peace, they are a lifeline, a tradition, and an essential part of daily life for Native communities. Now more than ever, we need to stand up for the unique relationship between the Native people and our public lands. Right now, in Fort Yukon, Alaska, the Gwich’in Native community are at risk of losing their sacred land in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in favor of oil development.

In 2017, the Department of the Interior released a memo calling for exploratory drilling studies in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Located in the north eastern corner of Alaska near the border with Canada, the refuge is home to a delicate tundra ecosystem that can easily be disturbed by seismic studies, not only permanently affecting the wildlife and land, but the welfare of the communities that call this area home. The 300,000 square-mile refuge had previously been closed off to commercial drilling for decades due to concerns about the impact on wildlife, including animals such as the Porcupine Caribou, who use this protected area for their calving season.

Photo by Greg Balkin

The Gwich’in people have lived in harmony with the Arctic Refuge for generations. They refer to the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” Here, they hold the Porcupine Caribou in spiritual and cultural reverence, living in harmony with the animal by watching over the Caribou during the calving process and sustainably taking sustenance from the heard.

In a community where a gallon of milk costs nearly $15, the land here is a vital lifeline for the local people.

Traditional Gwich’in Chief Trimble Gilbert sums it up perfectly, “To my people, the wilderness is not a luxury or indulgence; it is a necessity.”

Despite this deep dependence, the Trump Administration continues to move forward with opening the Arctic Refuge up for exploration, disregarding indigenous rights and public sentiment. The Department of the Interior wishes to open the area in order to “achieve energy dominance” and “meet energy demands.”

Photo by Greg Balkin

The Wondercamp and Wilderness Society film, “Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee,” brings the Native struggle to maintain connection to the Arctic Refuge land to life. Filmmaker Greg Balkin and Dr. Len Necefer, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, dive into the intimate details to explore how the Gwich’in community and Dr. Necefer’s own Diné (Navajo) community struggle to face real threats to Bears Ears National Monument as well as the Arctic Refuge.

“So much of the focus of protecting the Arctic Refuge and Bears Ears has been on the lines on the map. In reality it’s so much more than that.” States Dr. Necefer.

The takeaway from the film is that we all need to stand together for Native communities, the land, and the environment regardless of your background. Climate change affects us all and it will continue to affect the generations after us if we don’t come together and stand up for the longevity of places like the Arctic Refuge.

“What we’re saying as indigenous people is that our relationship to these places isn’t just about us—it’s about all of us and everyone that’s coming after us,” says Necefer.

The film’s mission is to gain awareness for this issue, happening beyond the more populated areas of the United States.

Necefer and Balkin are currently on tour, showing the film and giving presentations about these issues for free across the Lower 48 States at gear shops and Patagonia stores. They will be showing the film in Denver this Thursday, March 7 from 6:30 – 9 p.m. at the Patagonia store on 1431 15th St. For more information about the crisis and how you can see the film or host your own viewing, visit the “Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee” website.