Walking with the caribou

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Apr 21/00) - It's not too often the Western Arctic is concerned with U.S. presidential elections, but this time is different.

Gwich'in from across the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska are being asked by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board to take part in a Millennium Trek designed to raise awareness about what they say is the need to further protect the herd's birthing grounds in northern Alaska.

"Alaskan senators have introduced bills in Congress for oil development, and right now people from all the Gwich'in communities are feeling strongly about the caribou and the birthing grounds and working toward long-term protection," said Old Crow resident Gladys Netro, who is trek spokesperson and member of the Porcupine board.

"Our nation is interested in pulling people together to show their interested in protection and we want to give that message to the politicians."

The issue concerns what is known as the 1002 Lands -- a small portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where the herd's birthing grounds are located. Established in 1980 by then-president Jimmy Carter, the refuge has become the subject of debate as oil development has proceeded at nearby Prudhoe Bay.

Proponents of limited development in the refuge say they would take measures to ensure the herd would not be affected, but so far their efforts to alter the refuge bill in Congress have been quashed by the Whitehouse. The Gwich'in, consequently, have looked upon the Clinton administration as an ally and Netro said the Millennium Trek is the time to make one more big publicity push in the run-up to next November's presidential election.

As part of the publicity campaign, Netro and trek co-ordinator Kelly Hayes recently visited the Beaufort Delta to announce the project and drum up support. Scheduled to run from Aug. 10-19, the trek entails a dozen representatives travelling from Aklavik to the Gwich'in communities of Fort McPherson, Bell River, Old Crow, Fort Yukon and Venetie and on to Arctic Village, Alaska.

Netro said community events will be held along the route, and dignitaries and elders will meet trekkers in Arctic Village. The Inuvik-based Gwich'in Renewable Resource Board is also interested in participating, and Netro said a group of elders will pay a ceremonial visit to the birthing grounds -- something the Gwich'in haven't done in hundreds of years.

An experienced lobbyist who spends a lot of time arguing her case before U.S. and Canadian politicians, Netro was also diplomatic in describing whether the issue is dividing the Gwich'in and the coastal Inupiat people, who may stand to gain from resource development.

"As an aboriginal people the Gwich'in feel strongly about protecting the birthing area," she said. "And I think any other aboriginal group that benefits from the herd would feel the same way. If the herd disappears it would take away a big part of who we are."