Sarah James, Jonathon Solomon, and Norma Kassi receive the 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Sarah James, Jonathon Solomon, and Norma Kassi receive the 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize.

Though the creation of the Arctic Range in 1960 is remembered as the work of mainstream American environmental groups, the Gwich’in have always been stewards and protectors of the Arctic. For millennia, they have maintained relations of responsibility with caribou and the land. Over the past several decades, they have fought against destructive colonial mega-projects in Canada and Alaska. During the 1970s, Thomas Berger captured the concerns and anger of the Gwich’in and other Indigenous communities in a report on the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, leading the Canadian government to abandon the project.

Increased interest in drilling in the 1980s galvanized the Gwich’in to take further action to defend their homelands. In the summer of 1988, they met in Arctic Village, Alaska, for Gwich’in Niintsyaa, “a gathering of the people.” The protection of the Arctic Refuge was a key theme at the gathering, which inspired an immediate wave of advocacy by Gwich’in leaders like Jonathon Solomon, who testified before Congress in opposition to Arctic drilling. For many, the Niintsyaa is also remembered as the rebirth of the Gwich’in Nation, culminating in the creation of the Gwich’in Steering Committee (GSC). At its founding, the GSC adopted resolutions that included a commitment to defend the Arctic Refuge.

Along with other Gwich’in institutions and governments, the GSC also played a key role in supporting the Last Great Wilderness slide show by recruiting Gwich’in representatives to tour with it. In fact, though produced and coordinated by non-Indigenous activists like Kohm, much of the success of the LGW stemmed from the leadership and involvement of Gwich’in spokespeople like Norma Kassi. Their stories allowed audiences to connect with the issue on a deeper and more personal level. Moreover, many Gwich’in leaders considered the LGW to be a key part of their Refuge defense strategy.

Though Gwich’in leaders have been recognized for their role in protecting the Arctic Refuge, other Alaska Native nations and communities have also been vocal opponents of fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic. While the mainstream media often frame the Refuge debate as a fight between Gwich'in and Iñupiat, this coverage simplifies a complex story and overlooks the long history of Iñupiat opposition to Arctic Refuge drilling. As Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Robert Thompson, and others have repeatedly explained, many Iñupiat stand with the Gwich'in in their stuggle to protect the Arctic coastal plain. In addition, organizations like Gwich’in and Iñupiat-led Resisting Oil Extraction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) helped defeat Shell’s plan to open new wells off the northern coast of Alaska in the early 2010s and coordinated the efforts of different Alaska Native communities to protect their lands from fossil fuel extraction.

In recent years, this cooperation and the work of organizations like Native Movement, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, and Defend the Sacred Alaska have developed into a full-fledged Indigenous-led movement for a just transition to renewable energy in Alaska and beyond. Indigenous leaders like Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation are taking a central role in this cause. Opposition to resource extraction has also moved to new platforms and realms of political action. Some, like Sam Alexander of the Gwich’in Council International and Chief Tizya-Tramm, have continued to speak directly to federal policymakers. Others have shared their message through videos and op-eds with an increasingly online activist audience. Others have made use of different media, including filmmaking and podcasting, to expand their reach.

Image on this page courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.