Illustration of migrating caribou herd


The Climate of Sacred Land Protection

Illustration by Sally Deng

By Terry Tempest Williams

In Fall 2021, Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence and noted conservationist Terry Tempest Williams hosted a series of 10 discussions, “Weather Reports: The Climate of Now.” Covering the spiritual, social, political, and environmental impacts of worldwide climate disruption, Williams interviewed writers, poets, researchers, filmmakers, and activists on the front lines of the climate crisis. The series explored how we might recast this moment in time as a moment of meaning rather than despair, asking how the arts and acts of imagination allow us to see the glittering edges of uncertainty as places of possibility instead of breaking points. Bearing witness became acts of conscience and consciousness. Held both online and in person, each evening began with a ceremonial tea-pouring to gather the community in an atmosphere of trust and intimacy.

These dialogues emerged from some of those discussions, with sacred land activist Bernadette Demientieff, filmmaker Lucy Walker, poet Victoria Chang, and science fiction author/activist Kim Stanley Robinson. They have been edited for length and clarity. Each explores the complex ways the current and ongoing climate emergency affects the land, plants and creatures, and ourselves.

Terry Tempest Williams: Good evening. welcome to Weather Reports: The Climate of Now. My name is Terry Tempest Williams, writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. On behalf of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Religion and Public Life at HDS and the Planetary Health Alliance, in partnership with the Constellation Project, we’re so happy you’re with us.

This series of conversations is an experiment, organic and evolving, as each of us confronts the climate of now with the gifts that are ours. We are uncertain. We are evolving. This is a liminal space, a reckoning and awakening at once. Our minds seem as changeable as the weather. At least, mine does. As we ask the question, how shall we live, we do it alone, we do it together, and I believe we do it most powerfully in community.

Tonight, we’re focusing on sacred land protection with two extraordinary Indigenous leaders, Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich’in, at Fort Yukon, Alaska, and Eric Descheenie, Diné, in Flagstaff, Arizona.

“We are caribou people,” says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She is a fierce warrior on behalf of her home ground. She is a mother with five children and protector of the Arctic Refuge threatened by the rapacious appetites of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians in their pockets. This land battle has been raging for decades, fought by Native people and their allies.

Bernadette was honored in September 2021 with the Sierra Club’s highest honor, Changemaker Award for 2021. They wrote, “The Gwich’in Steering Committee is largely responsible for convincing every major US Bank to pledge not to fund projects that drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge, making this a day-one issue for President Biden.” Which it was. On June 1, 2021, the Biden administration suspended the oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Trump administration had auctioned off—the right to drill in the coastal plain—just two weeks before President-elect Biden’s inauguration.

Welcome, Bernadette. It’s so good to see you. In 2020 you wrote: “This rush to develop [oil and gas fields] is dismissing and ignoring our voices and is in violation of our right to free, prior, and informed consent. It will have a devastating impact on the land and animals of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As indigenous people, we are spiritually and culturally connected to the land, the water, and the animals. Any harm to them is harm to the Gwich’in.” Can you talk about this notion of consent and sacred land protection?

Bernadette Demientieff: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred land to the Gwich’in, known to my people as lizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “A Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For over 40,000 years, we migrated with the Porcupine Herd caribou. All our songs, all our stories, all our dances, are directed to them.

We are caribou people. If you look at the migratory route and the communities, they’re nearly identical. We carry a piece of the caribou in our heart, and the caribou carry a piece of us in their heart. Oil and gas activities on the coastal plain are a direct attack on the Gwich’in way of life and our human rights.

TTW: What are you doing with this climate collapse in the Arctic? You talk about how the health of the land is the Gwich’in health, the health of the animal: as go the animals, so go the Gwich’in—this interconnected interrelatedness. So what kinds of effects are you seeing right now on the land and in your community as a result of climate?

BD: We’re seeing the Gwich’in coastal communities of Alaska and Canada eroding into the ocean. There’s no protection on land or ice. We’ve had thousands of dead fish in our lakes and our rivers, dead birds literally falling from the sky. Ticks are now affecting our animals, our moose and our rabbits. I just came back from the Yukon River, and even that is eroding. I grew up seeing [fishing and hunting] camps all along the river, but now everybody’s camps have eroded. They’re not there anymore. So there are a lot of changes that are very concerning.

We’re not the only ones who depend on the herd. We may be spiritually, culturally, connected to them, but the Inupiaq and Athabaskan communities also depend on this herd. We depend on the herd for food security, and we’re moving into food insecurity right now. People couldn’t get fish this year. The moose season just ended yesterday, and a lot of people weren’t able to get moose. All of this is very concerning, because our land is our store. We can’t afford to be going to the store and buying meat. And we can’t, quite frankly, live off store-bought meat: it makes us not healthy.

I don’t pretend to know everything, but I do know that we are in trouble. I do know that we are at ground zero for climate change. I know that what happens up here will happen [in the rest of the world]. We are not prepared. I don’t want my children to be struggling to survive, or my grandchildren to be struggling to survive, because I failed to use my voice. That’s one of the reasons I won’t give up.

TTW: When you talk about the sacred, how do you define it? How do you see it? How do you respond to it?

BD: “Sacred” is something that is a part of you spiritually. This place, lizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, is so sacred to the Gwich’in that there is no separation between us. This is where the caribou give birth. They are the last land mammals on the planet that travel this distance. They will go up there, where the herd will have up to 40,000 calves within just a two-week period. That’s amazing. But now there is nowhere else for them to go. In the Brooks Range, there are predators. This place, lizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, is such a flat area that they are able to see when predators are coming. Also mosquitoes and other bugs can kill a newborn calf, so the wind from the ocean helps with that. The caribou have been going there for thousands of years.

Our creation story tells us that there was a time when we were able to communicate with the caribou. We made a vow to each other that we would always take care of each other. We migrated alongside them. And now, this day: I never thought this day would come, but it’s here.

TTW: What makes a good ally, Bernadette? How do we come together on this issue, for example, with the Arctic Refuge?

We need to start preparing our future generations. Every one of us has somebody we love that is young, and we need to stick our differences aside. We need to come together and prepare them.

BD: Learn. Educate yourself that this is a human rights issue. This is a food security issue. This is a spiritual issue. We are interconnected. It is all interconnected. They [corporations] want to make it about one thing, but it’s not. This is our way of life. This is our identity. Our identity is not up for negotiation. Our culture is not for sale. We should not have to destroy what little we have left so that we can send oil to people overseas.

We need to come together, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We need to start preparing our future generations. Every one of us has somebody we love who is young. We need to set our differences aside. We need to come together and prepare for the future. We can’t stop climate change. We may be able to slow it down, but we’re not going to be able to stop it. There is too much greed mixed in with it. So we need to come together, and we need to start preparing our children for what’s to come.

TTW: Your words will stay with me, like the Arctic Refuge stays with me, and all the miles between us feel lessened tonight. I’m so honored to be able to in troduce you now to a friend of mine, Eric Descheenie, who is Diné.

In 2015, as an advisor to the Navajo Nation, Eric served as the founding co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and I can tell you his voice made an extraordinary difference. The coalition consisted of five Indian Nations that share political boundaries with Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, and it championed the proposal that would amount to President Barak Obama’s presidential proclamation establishing into law 1.31 million acres of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. The monument designated protections on shared ancestral land to at least 20 distinct Indigenous peoples, including the Pueblos of present-day New Mexico. Welcome, Eric.

Eric Descheenie: Thank you so much for that introduction, Terry. I really appreciate the invitation from you and everybody else who has made this possible. Bernadette, thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of this, and thank you for this conversation. Could you explain a little bit more about caribou, caribou as relatives, or Gwich’in people as caribou people?

BD: Our creation story tells us that the Gwich’in people and the caribou made a vow together that we would care for each other. They’ve taken care of us, and now their calving grounds are threatened. They will be destroyed if there is oil development in the calving grounds. Now the other half of the northern part of Alaska is all open to oil and gas development, and the caribou herds that are there have all declined. One herd has declined 57 percent since 2010. So no one can tell us that our food security and that our caribou will not be negatively impacted by this development—not when we see otherwise.

Some of the communities in that area will no longer hunt those caribou, because when they eat them, they get sick. The caribou cannot tell us that they’re sick, they’re starving. They can’t tell us that they’re hurting, or that we are hurting them. And that is why the Gwich’in people don’t only speak for ourselves. We speak for our animals, we speak for our land, for our water, and we speak for humanity.

As a mother myself, I know how special it is to have a child. For the caribou, this land is where they go. This is their safety net. There’s nowhere else for them to go. The rest of the Arctic is open to oil and gas development because it’s state land, and everybody knows our state representatives and senators are addicted to oil. So this piece of federal lands, just 5 percent, needs to remain untouched.

But like I said, this world was not only made for human beings. Creator created the animals. We invaded their habitats. We destroyed many of their habitats, and that’s not okay. I heard somebody say that Gwich’ins have mystical beliefs. Just because we value our plants, our animals, our land, trees, the water, we’re called mystical. That’s insulting, because this is our entire way of life. We are interconnected to all these things. We respect all these things because they’ve come from Creator. Creator didn’t only make this Earth for human beings. He made it for all creation.

ED: What would your message be—a warning perhaps—to folks down here in Arizona, where we’re not at ground zero, but, from where I’m looking, we can definitely feel it. What would be your message?

BD: My message would be that I think everyone is feeling the impacts of climate change, whether it’s drought, storms that are supposed to be 500 years apart, or fires. But I would remind them that what happens up here is going to happen down there. We are dying two times, almost three times, faster than the rest of the world. I couldn’t believe when I went home and saw an island right in the middle of the Arctic. There’s even a tree on it. We have seasonal hunters who know the land like the back of their hand, but they are falling through the ice at a time when the ice is supposed to be solid. We have some of the greatest hunters we’ve ever known having accidents and dying, so it’s like our hunters are going, and the animals are, too.

TTW: Bernadette, I think we have all heard you: all hands on deck, Native and non-Native alike, making vows together to the places we call home. You’ve given us a lot to think about. It’s somber. Love is tied to grief, and we are in motion, and where that motion is going to take us, we can only imagine.

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