By Daysha Eaton
Organizers of a new coalition led by Alaska Native groups plan to step up their efforts on a variety of environmental issues. The group organized an initial protest at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage, speaking out against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other issues.
Defend the Sacred organized the march of more than 200 people during the AFN convention over the weekend. The march was timed as Senator Lisa Murkowski was about to address AFN. Demonstrators held signs outside the convention protesting development of the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the North. Others highlighted climate change concerns.
Bernadette Demientieff from Fort Yukon, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and one of the organizers of the protest, said she was fighting for the future.
“We’re standing up for our future generations for our food, for our land and our water,” Demientieff said.
She said the protest had a special focus on her people, the Gwich’in’s, traditional territory, because of recent efforts in Washington, D.C. that could open the door to petroleum and gas development in ANWR, the calving grounds for a caribou herd which is central to her peoples’ diet and culture. But it also encompassed other struggles.
“This is to defend our sacred lands,” she said. “So, whatever is special to you, whether it’s Pebble Mine, whether it’s the Arctic Refuge, whether it’s offshore (drilling), whether it’s the Tongass, we need to stand together because we can’t do it alone.”
The U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution that could open part of ANWR to oil and gas drilling. After a speech at AFN that did not mention the refuge, Senator Murkowski said in a press conference that it was just the first step. Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said as the process moves ahead there will be opportunities for Alaskans to weigh in on what they want.
“As we move forward with this budget proposal, that is the first step of many,” Murkowski told reporters. “And I have said very openly that yes, we will consider ANWR, but we will do that through a hearing in the Energy Committee. So, we have that opportunity to bring in witnesses that are favorable and witnesses that are opposed. That’s what the process allows for.”
Conservationists and Native people in Alaska are joining forces to fight big resource development projects being green-lighted by the Trump administration. Demientieff said she’s heartened to see a movement being born in the state to protect the land, water and her traditional way of life.
“More and more people from all over are coming and they’re finally taking that stand because our senator and our representatives are no longer listening to us because nobody is going to protect our homelands but us,” she said.
Demientieff is also helping organize another protest in Washington, D.C. against opening ANWR to oil and gas extraction.