The Vuntut Gwitchin people see Porcupine caribou as part of their lifeblood.
“It’s not hyperbole, it’s not an exaggeration, to say that they are part of our family. They’re the reason we’re here today and we all know it,” said Dana Tizya-Tramm.
“When young children draw pictures they draw pictures of their camps and hunting caribou. At four years old, five years old.”
Each year, the 169,000-animal herd travels through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to use part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge as their calving grounds.
Sophia Linklater Flather moved to Old Crow three years ago after going to school in Whitehorse.
“Caribou is such a big part of our lives, it’s the reason for our survival on this planet, we’ve lived on that for thousands of years,” she said. “We owe everything to the caribou herd.”
For decades there have been those who want to drill in the herd’s calving grounds. One study suggests there could be billions of barrels of recoverable oil there.
Those who want to protect the refuge say drilling would disrupt the herd by pushing them away from that safe habitat where food is abundant.
Past efforts to drill have been vetoed by Democrats. But with a Republican president and Republicans in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the possibility that drilling could be approved seems higher.
Linklater Flather and Tizya-Tramm are part of a delegation of five Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation members travelling from Old Crow to Washington, D.C. to explain the importance of the refuge and try to convince American lawmakers to vote against drilling.
“It’s not so much of a choice as it is an absolute duty,” said Tizya-Tramm. “Just like there is gravity that holds everything to earth, as Gwich’in we are pulled to caribou.”
Lorraine Netro is also part of the group. She has been working to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for about 17 years, so long that she says she’s lost count of how many trips she’s made to Washington.
She was there the day after the American election and said she could feel a difference.
“We’re more fearful that there might be activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” she said.
Since the election, Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a bill that would allow drilling in parts of the refuge, including the caribou calving grounds.
There’s no word on if or when that bill might come to a vote. It’s been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Without the possibility of a veto, those who want to prevent drilling will need 41 senators on board to filibuster the bill.
If somehow drilling was included as part of a budget reconciliation bill this year they’ll need 51.
Netro has heard estimates that right now they have about 36.
She’s told the Vuntut Gwitchin delegation to wear comfortable shoes.
They’ll be crisscrossing the U.S. capital attending meetings and trying to change some minds as part of Wilderness Week, an annual event put on by the Alaska Wilderness League.
Advocates are invited to Washington from March 11-15 to learn how to lobby. They’re then split into groups to meet with as many lawmakers as possible to make their voices heard.
About 80 meetings are planned, said interim executive director Kristen Miller.
It’s important to have representatives from the Gwich’in people, she said.
“They tell their story. There’s no better spokespeople for the importance of this issue than the people that rely on it and we always prefer for people to hear that story first-hand.”
After years of lobbying, Netro has her pitch down pat.
If there’s time she’ll ask the people she meets if they have children or grandchildren.
“I say, ‘I’m here. It takes me three days to travel here from my community of 200 people. It’s our responsibility to protect our sacred places for future generations.’”
The goal is to always be respectful, she said.
Over the years she’s heard all the arguments in favour of drilling but has never been swayed.
“There is no compromising. We face enough challenges, not only with oil and gas development in the Arctic refuge. We also face the impacts of climate change,” she said.
“Over the years we’ve seen and experienced food insecurity when the caribou didn’t come by our community, sometimes for a year or two. We really, really feel it.”
Tizya-Tramm said it’s important to look beyond the value of what might be in the ground.
“Caribou represent the most primordial existence and (the) relationship we have with this planet. It’s through them.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org