Young Indigenous leaders take ANWR fight to Washington

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Young Indigenous leaders take ANWR fight to Washington

A delegation of young First Nations leaders from Old Crow, Yukon will be in Washington, D.C. next week to learn about activism and leadership, and to continue the fight against drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

It's a fight that goes back years, but there's a renewed urgency now with a Republican Congress and president. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — a long-time advocate for drilling in ANWR — is sponsoring legislation to open the refuge to oil and gas development.

That may bring an end to a decades-long political stalemate. 

The refuge, on Alaska's remote north slope, is home to polar bears, muskoxen and the calving grounds of the vast Porcupine caribou herd. The area is also rich in untapped oil. 

Indigenous people in Yukon and Alaska have long relied on the Porcupine caribou for food, and they worry that drilling in ANWR will threaten the health of the herd.

"The stories we have are like a quiver of arrows — there are so many," said Dana Tizya-Tramm, a young Vuntut Gwichin First Nation councillor who will be part of the Washington delegation.

"To give the caribou a voice transcends politics, it transcends our current conditions, and the human condition," he said.

"If we can't stand up as a country and a continent for the caribou, for a sensitive calving ground, then I really worry about a lot of the systems that we have, in general."

'We owe our lives to caribou'

Sophia Flather, another member of the Washington-bound group, says she expects to learn "a whole lot" from the trip. 

Their visit will be part of "Alaska Wilderness Week", an activism and leadership training initiative organized by several high-profile environmental groups, such as the Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society. 

Flather grew up in Whitehorse and started living in the Old Crow, where she has family roots, about three years ago. She said it felt like home, and seeing the Porcupine herd up close had a profound effect on her.

"That was so powerful to me — that was what our people had survived on for thousands of years," she said. "We owe our lives to caribou and it's still such a vital part of our culture. And that's what I'm coming to share.

"I'm a strong believer that if you share your truth and you share your stories, then it can reach people. And that's just where I'll be coming from."

Lorraine Netro has travelled to Washington many times over the years to speak on behalf of the Vuntut Gwitchin, and she says it's important to speak directly to U.S. lawmakers so they know what's at stake.

Drilling in ANWR became a non-issue during Barack Obama's presidency. Obama instead urged Congress to formally designate the coastal plain as wilderness.

The election of Donald Trump heralded a sea change in Washington, Netro said. 

"Today more than ever we need to garner the support," she said. "This is very, very concerning for us."

Netro is grateful there are young people interested and passionate about continuing the fight, and willing to learn the hard work of advocacy.

"They're the leaders of the future, and it's time today for them to learn the complexities of this advocacy group. And I'm so proud of them.

"It's not about my four beautiful grandchildren anymore, it's about seven generations from now. And it's in that light that we travel, we advocate, we add our voice."