The Neets’ąįį Gwich’in and their work to protect the Arctic Refuge

Caribou photo courtesy of Florian Schulz.

In 2017, the Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Buried within this legislation was a provision that opened over 1.6 million acres of federal public land to oil and gas drilling. This began the process of a lease sale of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas interests.

The Coastal Plain within the Arctic Refuge is an essential part of the migration route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. This land is referred to by the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins, a name that originates from the caribou’s use of these lands as their calving grounds. Because this area is one of the most sacred places to the Gwich’in people, the Gwich’in people of Venetie and Arctic Village do not step foot on these grounds out of respect for the caribou. By drilling on this land, there will be irrevocable damage done to the herd’s migratory path and, in turn, the Gwich’in cultural and spiritual connection to them.

Though the provisions in the 2017 Tax Act remained stagnant for the next few years, the Trump Administration, in one last gasp to sell this land to oil and gas interests, opened the lease sale to bidding on January 6, 2021. The results of the sale were underwhelming. Only eleven of the 22 tracts of land sold, and none to any major oil companies. However, those who did purchase tracts made it clear that they were intent on developing on this land.

In late 2021, the Build Back Better Bill included provisions to repeal the leases on the Arctic Refuge. Although this legislation was a clear path to victory and protection for these lands, as we all know, the bill did not come to pass.

However, the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in continue to work to protect the Arctic Refuge.

This year, two of the three remaining leaseholders, 88 Energy and Knik Arm Services, withdrew their lease after pressure from the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign, a group that the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in tribal governments work alongside with other tribal entities and conservation partners to protect these lands. There is one remaining leaseholder left, and they have not signaled any interest in withdrawing their lease. Furthermore, the 2017 Tax Act provision included an option for an additional lease sale that could happen as soon as this year.

It is clear that the Arctic Refuge is still not fully protected. The Neets’ąįį Gwich’in tribal governments representing the Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ (Arctic Village) and Vįįhtąįį (Venetie) peoples stand against any and all oil or gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge today, tomorrow, and forever. In conjunction with the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign, we are working to achieve permanent protection for the Arctic Refuge and, in turn, the Gwich’in way of life.

Photo of woman smiling
Tonya Garnett

-By Tonya Garnett (Neets’aii Gwich’in), originally from Vashraii K’oo, Arctic Village, AK. Tonya is the daughter of the late Lillian and Jerry Garnett, and the granddaughter of the late Ezias and Martha James of Arctic Village, and the late Edgar and Lucy Garnett, of Cleveland, Ohio. She earned bachelor’s degrees in Alaska Native Studies and in Sociology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and serves as the special projects manager for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government and the Arctic Village Council. Garnett has worked with Tanana Chiefs Conference Self Governance and Tribal Development, cultural and wellness camps, Arctic Village Council, Doyon Foundation, and Big Brothers Big Sisters Rural Expansion Program. She has a 13-year-old son, Ashton Peter, and has worked with the Tribes for over 20 years.

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