Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, other Indigenous leaders were in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week to take part in a hearing concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. (Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee/Video screen grab)

Indigenous leaders support U.S. bill that aims to keep development away from ANWR

The bill was discussed at a congressional subcommittee meeting this week

In a bid to stymie development in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation told the News he and several Indigenous leaders are throwing their weight behind a bill that seeks to repeal a legislated oil and gas program.

“We need more co-signers and this summer is gonna be a scramble. We already have strong support and we will get this through the (House of Representatives),” said Dana Tizya-Tramm from Washington, D.C., where he and several other Indigenous representatives took part in a hearing concerning ANWR’s coastal plain earlier this week.

The bill, which was introduced last month by Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, has 115 co-signers.

It was heard during a congressional subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources March 26.

Repealing the section included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed in December 2017, “would best protect the unspoiled ecosystem of the Coastal Plain, the human rights of the Gwich’in, and the integrity of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” it says.

The bill will “likely be taken up for a vote in the Natural Resources Committee as early as the beginning of May. If voted out of committee, it could be voted out of the House of Representatives shortly thereafter,” wrote Keith Higginbotham, spokesperson for Congressman Alan Lowenthal, in an email to the News. Lowenthal is the chair of the subcommittee.

“However,” Higginbotham added, “because the bill repeals language championed by Senator Lisa Murkowski that was in last year’s GOP tax bill, it is unlikely that Senate Majority Leader McConnell will allow it to be heard in the Senate.”

Tizya-Tramm said there’s a good possibility the bill could pass the House, which, after the mid-term election, is mostly blue.

On Nov. 6, the Democrats gained 33 seats in the House. In total, they have 228.

Republicans hold court in the Senate, however, with 51 seats.

“The wolves are waiting in the Senate,” Tizya-Tramm said. “That’s where it’s Republican heavy. That’s where the real fight comes, as well as getting this bill in front of President Donald Trump himself.”

Indigenous delegates from Yukon and Alaska spoke to the fate of the refuge at the subcommittee.

“We walked in there together to continue this work as a caribou people to be representing the truth, to be a conduit of it,” Tizya-Tramm told the News. “Gwich’in are not afraid of change. What we fear is loss, the loss of our lands, the loss of our traditions, the loss of our freedoms as people and the freedom to continue our relationship with pristine lands and to practice our spirituality.

“The only thing that matters is the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the sacred place where life begins.”

Songs, dances, languages, health, all, he continued, hinge on the survival of the Porcupine caribou herd.

The looming threat of opening the coastal plain up, Tizya-Tramm said, would amount to cultural genocide, adding that it would be reminiscent of the mass slaughter of buffalo, which drove the species to near-extinction in the 19th century.

The Yukon government and Vuntut Gwitchin recently submitted official responses to the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement, which is one of the first steps in doling out leases to oil and gas companies.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, “fully supports” Huffman’s bill. She, too, was in Washington for the subcommittee.

Demientieff said Gwich’in delegates are going to continue to travel to Washington.

“That’s when we’re gonna have to come back down here again and go before Republicans and Democrats and go, ‘Please pass this law,’” she told the News, adding that despite GOP control of the Senate, there are Republicans who “care about the environment.”

Lowenthal, who presided over the hearing, is one of the co-signers of Huffman’s bill.

Before the testimony from Indigenous leaders began, he said the coastal plain was “forced open” with the introduction of a provision in the tax act.

While wagging his finger, he called this “not thoughtful.”

“It was barely even thought about. There is absolutely no need to open the Arctic refuge to oil and gas drilling. I will tell you that it doesn’t make sense, and we should protect the Arctic refuge coastal plain and not hand it over to the highest corporate bidder.

“Oil and gas development particularly on the tundra in the Arctic is irreversible,” Lowenthal said.

Don Young, an Alaskan Republican and a proponent of industry in ANWR, pushed back against the Gwich’in.

“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, referring to the Inupiat community. “That’s their land.”

To ignore them “is wrong,” he continued.

“These are the Alaskan natives directly impacted, not the Gwich’in,” Young said. “You’ve divided two tribes. Listen to the people that live there. If not, you’re not representatives at all.”

Tizya-Tramm told the News there is no division between the Gwich’in and the Inupiat.

“The Republicans have no problem trying to pit the Inupiat against the Gwich’in and that does not exist. We are both brothers. There is no division between Indigenous groups,” he said.

U.S. legislation stipulates that one lease must be issued in four years and that no fewer than two lease sales, each to include at least 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by 2024.

A final EIS will likely be released in early summer. The first lease sale is expected to occur this year.

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

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