Republican congressman Don Young shakes his fist at Democratic congressman Jared Huffman during a hearing regarding oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while in Washington, D.C., on March 26. Five Gwich’in chiefs submitted a statement to a congressional subcommittee that says Young disrespected Indigenous representatives. (Subcommittee hearing/video screenshot)

Comments from an Alaskan congressman were ‘incorrect and inappropriate,’ say Gwich’in leaders

‘Representative Young does not speak on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation’

Gwich’in leaders are criticizing a Republican congressman over what he said last month at a hearing that involved the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), calling his comments “incorrect” and “inappropriate” in a statement.

Five Gwich’in chiefs, including Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s Dana Tizya-Tramm and Bobbi Jo Morgan-Greenland, grand chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, signed the statement, which has been submitted to a congressional subcommittee.

Congressman Don Young, a proponent of industrial development in ANWR’s coastal plain, “misrepresented himself as Gwich’in and disrespected the Gwich’in representatives who were invited to testify…” it says.

Young seemed to pit the Inupiat against the Gwich’in during the hearing, which occurred on March 26, playing up a divide that Indigenous leaders previously told the News doesn’t exist.

Requests for comment sent to Young’s press secretary weren’t returned.

“I’ll tell you Mr. Chairman, I want to believe the people, not the Gwich’in because they’re not the people. They’re 400 miles away. I’m talking about the Inuits (sic) that live there,” he said during the hearing, referring to the Inupiat community. “That’s their land.

“These are the Alaskan natives directly impacted, not the Gwich’in,” Young said. “That’s my tribe. My wife was Gwich’in. My daughter’s a Gwich’in.

“You’ve divided two tribes. Listen to the people that live there. If not, you’re not representatives at all.”

The Gwich’in believe the coastal plain to be too sacred to visit, being the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, the statement from the Indigenous leaders says.

“For millennia the Gwich’in have lived within the boundary of the Porcupine caribou herd’s range, and relied on the herd for sustenance and our way of life.”

They take issue with Young’s claim that he’s part of the Gwich’in Nation.

“This is false,” the statement says. “Mr. Young isn’t Gwich’in, and is in fact originally from California, not Alaska.”

It goes on to say that “Having a native spouse does not confer tribal membership, nor does it provide an inherent understanding of native issues or a right to speak on behalf of tribes.”

The statement clearly states, “Representative Young does not speak on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation.”

Speaking with the News by phone, Tizya-Tramm called the claim “disconcerting.”

“It’s highly offensive,” he said. “He actually turned it into a bit of a circus. For a representative whose only interest is in the development of our sacred grounds and in the same breath is trying to infer that he is speaking on our behalf at this committee hearing is a major violation of the congressional hearing itself, as well as just a normal practice of respect.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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