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Gwich’in leaders descend on White House to defend Arctic refuge from energy development

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm is among those stressing threats to area’s cultural and spiritual significance
Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation joined fellow representatives from the Gwich’in Nation in Washington, D.C. in their efforts to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign/Twitter)

Gwich’in leaders from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska have descended on Washington, D.C. as part of their ongoing campaign to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation travelled with representatives of the Gwich’in Nation to meet over four days with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and members of Congress to advocate for repealing the oil and gas drilling program in the refuge.

“This is a critical time to make critical connections as the reconciliation budget is going to the floor, and this is the Biden administration’s last chance for sweeping and meaningful legislation before the midterms,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“In 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is what was weaponized against the refuge with the inclusion of mandating the refuge to produce oil and gas, which is completely against its original purposes.”

In addition to reforming the tax code, the bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by former president Donald Trump, opened up the 1002 area in the Alaska-based refuge to energy development. The Alaska State Legislature had been urging Congress to pass legislation to allow oil and gas exploration and production in the coastal plain of the refuge.

On June 1, 2021, the U.S. Department of Interior announced its decision to suspend oil and gas leases in the refuge, pending an environmental impact analysis of the coastal plain oil and gas-leasing program.

“This budget reconciliation is vital to amend this – retract the language – that coincides with the Biden’s administration’s already historic efforts by suspending the lease sales,” Tizya-Tramm said.

Tizya-Tramm said his group of Gwich’in Nation representatives has been working “very hard” with individuals in the White House and executive staff that negotiate with Senator Joe Manchin, the chair of the U.S. Senate committee on energy and natural resources and an influential vote, to have this reconciliation budget bill pass.

“We are asking that the reconciliation budget retain its current wording, retracting the oil and gas lease sale mandate from the prior budget of 2017,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“Although the President and his administration is looking in this direction, the entire country of the United States is now looking and waiting with bated breath on Senator Manchin, who has recently been voting against his party.”

Manchin’s office did not respond to an email request for comment.

Neither did the office of Brenda Mallory, who is the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality within the president’s executive office. On its website, the U.S. agency works to ensure that environmental reviews for infrastructure projects and federal actions reflect the input of the public and local communities.

The refuge is located on the traditional homelands of the Iñupiat and Gwichʼin in the northeastern corner of Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services website indicates the refuge is 19-million acres, approximately the size of South Carolina, with no roads or facilities.

“It’s really the key and the underpinning of our people,” Tizya-Tramm said about the land.

The Vuntut Gwitchin Government website indicates the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd exist primarily in the 1.5-million acre coastal plain, or 1002 lands.

“The caribou are a part of some of our earliest stories about our presence on the land,” Tizya-Tramm said.

The First Nation’s website describes how Gwich’in livelihoods overlap with the seasonal migration of the caribou herd, which gets its name from the herd’s crossing of the Porcupine River during its spring and fall migrations. The First Nation resides in the northernmost community of Old Crow at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine rivers.

The website indicates Gwich’in still rely on the herd for food, clothing and crafts. Each spring and fall, caribou hunting camps are set up and all parts of the animals are used.

The territorial and federal governments in Canada have been very friendly to the position of Tizya-Tramm and his Gwichʼin allies, who allege the current drilling program threatens their cultural and spiritual foundation and is a human rights violation.

“This issue is a proxy,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“This issue is representative of the choice that we have now. As a species, we are eclipsed and made all the same when we face our changing climates. If this area is not sacred, and instead is for sale, then it shows us as the world that nowhere on our planet is sacred.”

Agreements between certain Indigenous Peoples, the Yukon government and the federal government protect nearly 13,000 square kilometres of the caribou herd’s range in the Yukon, according to the territorial government’s website.

“At this point, it’s literally the heart of the Gwichʼin Nation, the heart that beats outside of our chest, so we’re really here in partnership with the Canadian and U.S. governments to make the right choices in the right places at the right time.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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