For tens of thousands of years, the Gwich’in have been faithful stewards to the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plains region. For all those millennia, they’ve relied on the Porcupine caribou that migrate there each spring – both for sustenance and for their spiritual well-being. The caribou and the Gwich’in are so intertwined that their tradition holds that they share a piece of each other’s heart.
President Trump’s budget proposal is the latest in a long line that have tried to open the Gwich’in’s home to petrochemical companies that would exploit the potential oil and gas that might lie beneath the earth. There’s no certainty that the profits these companies seek can be found. However, studies have shown conclusively that discovering those answers would permanently disrupt the caribou’s migration, dwindle their population, and ruin the only way of life the Gwich’in have ever known.
The Episcopal Church has long been opposed to exploiting the Arctic Refuge. Our concern for and stewardship of God’s creation calls us to this position. What’s more, 9 of 10 Gwich’in are my brothers and sisters, of one Body of Christ, (indeed, of one shared heart) in the Episcopal Church. They know the refuge’s future is their future, and we believe the Gwich’in’s future is ours. That’s why I urge our Senators to reject President Trump’s proposal to exploit these lands and ruin my Gwich’in brothers’ and sisters’ home.
Of course, the caribou and the Gwich’in aren’t alone on the coastal plains. It’s also the migratory home for millions of birds from across the country – including Arizona – and around the world. It’s one of the few places where America’s polar bears give birth to their young. This pristine, untouched wilderness is among the last of its kind in the country, or on the planet. You can even drink fresh, clear water from its streams. All of that is in peril again, and we owe it to our Gwich’in neighbors and to ourselves to stand firm.
In the nearly six decades since the Arctic Refuge was first designated, the Gwich’in have beaten back multiple attempts to ruin what they call “the sacred place where life begins.” Washington wasn’t immune to scandal then, and it certainly isn’t now. So, we can’t let the latest headline distract us from treating our neighbors with the same dignity and respect with which we wish to be treated – perhaps, even, to love them as we love ourselves.
If someone was coming to ruin my way of life, or to destroy our community’s homes, I know my fellow Arizonans would stand by us. I ask you now to stand with my Gwich’in brothers and sisters, and tell Senators connected to Navajoland, including Senators McCain and Flake of Arizona, Senators Udall and Heinrich of New Mexico, as well as Senators Hatch and Lee of Utah, to reject President Trump’s plan to exploit the Arctic Refuge. Long after the latest scandals have subsided in Washington, the caribou will return to the plains region and the Gwich’in’s age-old rhythms will begin anew – but only if we stand up and speak out now for our brothers and sisters, and the sacred place where their life begins.
This blog post originally appeared in print as an opinion editorial in the Navajo Times on September 14, 2017.
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