As with the Rebirth of the Nation in 1988, Gwich'in today are again threatened, and proclaim, 'No Oil. No Compromise.'
Article by Brenda Norrell
The Last Oil
ALBUQUERQUE -- Sarah James, Gwich'in, today is carrying forward the message of the Chiefs, "No Oil. No Compromise," and remembering the humble way of life of the Gwich'in.
Arriving in Albuquerque for The Last Oil symposium, Sarah comes from the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
It is the Gwich'in homeland, the land of caribou, home to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Speaking at today's symposium, Sarah shared how her family hunted the caribou, and took only what they needed, using all parts of the caribou.
"I grew up on needs, not on greed," said Sarah, winner of the Goldman Environmental Award, who was inducted into the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame.
Describing her father today, and the Gwich'in way of life, she said, "He made sure the environment is healthy and we move on."
"We are humble people."
Sarah described how the Gwich'in gathered as they had not for 150 years, when oil threatened their land in the 1980s.
"When there is a threat to the caribou, there is a threat to the nation." She said Gwich'in had not gathered this way since the Bow and Arrow Days, Before the Contact Days.
It was 1988, and Gwich'in were called to come in. Fifteen villages, fifteen Chiefs came in.
"Our people make decisions based on seven generations."
"They got threatened, just like we are now."
When the Gwich'in gathered, Jonathan Solomon tore up the written agenda.
The elders said, "We are going to have our meeting before the Bow and Arrow Days."
Gwich'in elders took over the meeting and decided on the issues to discuss.
"It was like a rebirth of the nation. It was good."
The chiefs said, "We must tell the world about this."
When the elders took over the meeting, the elders presented the Talking Stick, a Cane, Staff.
No one was to take notes.
She recalled the elders words: "They are going to talk with the Stick."
"That's how we are strong for everything."
The Chiefs chose Gwich'in from both the US, the Alaska side, and the Canadian side, of Gwich'in Territory, to go out with their message.
"At that time, the elders gave us direction."
"We have to tell the world why we say, 'No' to oil and No Compromise."
Sarah said their homeland is known to the Gwich'in as, "The Sacred Place where Life Begins."
"We believe we got put there by God, Creator, to take care of that part of the world."
Gwich'in took care of the caribou, and the caribou took care of them.
"Caribou is part of our heart."
Sarah was one of those selected to go out with the message of No Oil, and No Compromise. Gwich'in traveled widely and spoke out against oil and gas development.
For the Gwich'in, she said the issue is human rights. Many people are working with the Gwich'in, including churches, environmental groups, and others.
Still, she said, "We speak for ourselves."
Sarah spoke of the need for birth places, both for herself as a mother, and for the wildlife. There is a need for a quiet, clean place, where one can be by one's self to give birth.
Sarah at 75 is still out there.
"I made it my way of life," she said.
"I'm not an activist. It's my way of life I'm protecting."
"Do it, and make it your way of life."
Sarah said she always feels welcome in the Southwest. Gwich'in are related to Navajo and Apache in many ways.
"We are all related," she said, saying they use the same tools, play the same games.
"All my relations," she said, sharing her mother's humble words.
Global warming, climate change is real in the Arctic. The tree line is no longer at Arctic Village, but far beyond.
"Gwich'in are welcoming people, sharing people, and we are not going to give that up."
Sarah described the joy of the dance of the Caribou Skin Hut Song, and sang the song.
"All of our songs in Gwich'in are sacred."
Sarah closed with words for the salmon, and their return to the Gwich'in.