“Native Rights are Human Rights”: Congresswoman-Elect Deb Haaland Joins House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in Rallying to Defend the Gwich’in & Arctic Refuge

Congresswoman-elect Deb Haaland rallies for Indigenous Rights on Capitol Hill

Published December 12, 2018

WASHINGTON — Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Congresswoman-elect Deb Haaland (D-NM), joined fellow lawmakers Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Ruben Gallego and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) at yesterday’s Indigenous Solidarity Rally at the House Triangle on Capitol Hill in support of the Gwich’in Nation whose homeland and cultural existence is once more threatened by extractive industry development. To the Gwich’in, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is “Izhik Gwats’an Gwandii Goodlit,” The Sacred Place Where Life Begins, but to the Trump Administration it is coveted for potential fossil-fuel development.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at the Gwich’in Nation’s Indignous Solidarity Rally on Capitol Hill

The rally came as Interior’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a peer-reviewed report which concludes that the Arctic is experiencing a prolonged span of unparalleled warming “unlike any period on record.” NOAA’s report further undermines Interior Secretary Zinke’s position as a “climate change skeptic.” Among the tribal representation at the rally, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and the Global Indigenous Council provided a joint-statement which is the most comprehensive insight and summation of what continues to be one of Indian Country’s most urgent human rights challenges.

The statement is published here, in full, exclusively by Native News Online”

Joint Statement of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, and the Global Indigenous Council in support of the Gwich’in Nation.

“American energy dominance will be declared a strategic, economic and foreign policy goal of the United States,” was a pledge Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke made to fossil-fuel corporate heads and operatives before taking office. In this lone respect, Zinke has been as good as his word. A campaign finance beneficiary of extractive industry, Zinke has staffed the Department of Interior (DOI) with former fossil-fuel corporate lobbyists, industry executives, and climate change deniers as he has enacted the Trump Administration’s documented mandate to suppress scientific data, purge records, and dismantle environmental justice mandates to benefit extractive industry. In two-years, Zinke has overseen the largest reduction in public lands protection in history, stripping tribal sacred and historic sites such as Bears Ears National Monument of protections, to open those lands to fossil-fuel development. What price “American energy dominance”? The Gwich’in people are about to find out as their place of Creation, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), is on the cusp of being opened to drilling due to a most insidious legislative maneuver that enabled passage of the Trump Administration’s questionably designated “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

Trump’s signature legislation required the vote of Senator Lisa Murkowski, so the McConnell-led GOP majority enabled Alaska’s senior senator to attach a rider to the budget reconciliation package that produced the bill, which fulfilled Murkowski’s decades-long ambition of opening the Arctic Refuge. Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was detailed with sourcing $1-billion to offset Trump’s tax cut to the wealthy, and so predictably pushed the measure to open the Arctic Refuge through the committee. Like Interior Secretary Zinke, Murkowski claims that drilling in the Refuge will benefit Alaska Native Corporations, when, in fact, no Native lands rest within the so-called 1002 Area. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation have rights outside the 1002 Area in the Refuge, so the “divide and conquer” playbook so effectively manipulated by Zinke will continue be on full display.

Tribal Nations have always been the collateral damage in America’s addiction to extractive industries. The destruction of our lands and traditional lifeways were and continue to be acts of cultural genocide, and the Gwich’in now face the reality of being the latest victims. The Refuge’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain that stretches between the Arctic Ocean and the Brooks Range is where the Porcupine caribou herd migrates to give birth in one of the last remaining sacred cycles of life on this continent that proceeds uninterrupted. The Gwich’in are “The Caribou People.” The caribou is to the Gwich’in what the buffalo was to the tribes represented by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association: before the mass slaughter that took them to the brink of extinction, the buffalo was our staff of life, our physical and spiritual nourishment in balance. We know what it is to be robbed of that sacred heart so fundamental to your culture. Today, we fight to retain and regain it. For the Trump Administration and the GOP’s fossil-fuel donors, this isn’t “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” it is just another sacrifice zone demarcated by profit and loss projections. With the passage of Trump’s tax bill to benefit the rich, the rider to open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling signaled that the Gwich’in way of life that has endured for millennia was about to be engulfed by a reinvigorated colonial legacy.

In September 2018, Zinke, who remains mired in multiple ethics investigations, including one referred to the DOJ, instructed Interior to rescind longstanding environmental justice procedures which directly impact Tribal Nations. Produced following President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice, the two memos from 1995 and 1997 required DOI to evaluate environmental consequences on the health and well-being of vulnerable communities impacted by federal actions, and specifically DOI’s responsibility to protect tribal trust resources and sacred sites on federal lands. Zinke’s decision further undermines the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to benefit extractive industry at the expense of tribal heritage and culture.

Even before President Trump stated, “I don’t believe it” in response to November 2018’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) which summarizes the impacts of climate change on this continent now and in the future, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was among those who echoed the Global Indigenous Council’s position that Trump is guilty of crimes against humanity for ignoring the ongoing and deteriorating impacts of climate change. By disavowing the NCA, Trump, followed by Zinke, has dismissed the findings of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee who produced the report. The Union of Concerned Scientist’s December 2018 report, Science Under Siege at the Department of Interior, details Zinke’s systematic deconstruction of scientific criteria in Interior’s decision-making process to benefit his fossil-fuel “dominance” agenda. Consistent with Zinke’s MO, Interior attempted to bury a new USGS report on greenhouse gas emissions on federal lands that found carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuels extracted on those lands under Zinke’s purview already account for 24% of all US greenhouse gas emissions. Before it was gagged, the government’s Earth to Sky agency partnership of NASA, the National Park Service (NPS), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) predicted that it is not if but when permafrost will thaw in the Arctic Refuge as temperatures continue to warm.

Pre-Zinke, Interior’s USFWS reported on the current impacts of climate change on the Refuge. The agency found that temperatures have increased by 5 to 7°F, snow covered areas have decreased by 10%, sea ice has thinned, coastal erosion is advancing, and permafrost has warmed from 3 to 5°F and is projected to rise by 9°F. Without intervention, in the next eighty-years the glaciers in the Brooks Range will disappear, as so, it appears, will species critical not only to the ecosystem, but to Gwich’in and Alaska Native cultures. Muskox are declining in the Refuge, and polar bears are increasingly been found emaciated, starved to death, and drowned in waters where sea ice has melted. Trump and Zinke’s “American energy dominance” will continue to undermine US national security, particularly in the Arctic, if their present course remains. Melting sea ice opens new, potential shipping passages for powers hostile to US interests, and the US military will be among the climate refugees from rising sea levels as numerous military bases are coastal installations.

The Arctic Refuge may seem to be a distant place and the Gwich’in an unfamiliar tribe to most Americans, who may consider the fate of both to have negligible impact upon their lives. Tragedy always hits others. Until, that is, it hits you – as the citizens of Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Texas and California can attest in the wake of catastrophic climate-related events. “Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poisonous gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, marks the rise and fall of our democratic faith,” wrote Felix S. Cohen, a towering figure in federal-Indian law. Six-decades later, it would behoove the American people to take note. The Gwich’in maybe the miner’s canary in the Refuge, but if extractive industry development proceeds, it won’t only be the Gwich’in who are impacted by the environmental degradation. Even if, like Zinke and Trump, one chooses to ignore science, two words should be enough to oppose oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge: Exxon Valdez.

With extractive industry development comes the imposition of “man camps.” With every “man camp” there’s the potential for an increase in sexual violence against Indigenous women in not only neighboring communities, but city hubs that serve the transient workforce. The Urban Indian Health Institute’s November 2018 report, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Woman and Girls, identifies Alaska as the state with the third-highest incidence of MMIWG cases, and identifies multiple victims in both Fairbanks and Anchorage. Senator Lisa Murkowski called the statistics “pretty shocking,” and bemoaned, “Canada has contributed tens of millions. We’ve invested about zero,” in reference to the US government’s lack of commitment to the crisis. “We have a great deal of work to do. We need to be doing more,” Murkowski added. Opening the Arctic Refuge to extractive industry and raising more “man camps” will only do one thing “more” – according to existing data, it will create more MMIWG victims.

In line with a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projection, Senator Murkowski alleges that Refuge oil leases will generate $2-billion over the next decade, but ignores the CBO estimate that in all, the Arctic Refuge might generate $5-billion in oil, a conclusion it reached a decade ago when oil prices were much higher. In contrast to Trump and Murkowski, the Center for American Progress finds that if the Refuge is opened, the US Treasury will only gain $37.5 million in the same period, which won’t put a dent in the $1.4-trillion deficit the CBO projects Trump’s tax bill will impose over the next decade. What price the lives of Alaska Native women and girls? What price the Gwich’in people’s way of life? What price your way of life which is not immune from accelerated climate change catastrophes?

The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC) serves all tribal nations located in Wyoming and Montana, plus the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho and the Piikani Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) is composed of the 16 Tribal Chairmen, Presidents, and Chairpersons of the federally recognized sovereign Indian Tribes within the Great Plains Region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska).

The Global Indigenous Council is an international advocacy organization representing tribal nations and indigenous rights across the hemispheres, which is reflected in its leadership structure which has tribal representation from the Americas to Australasia.


Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.

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