Vuntut Gwitchin delegation heads to Washington to lobby on behalf of Porcupine caribou

The Vuntut Gwitchin people see Porcupine caribou as part of their lifeblood.

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

Just Posted

City of Whitehorse tells taxi passengers who feel unsafe to not travel alone

Suggestion criticized by advocates for placing burden of safety on passengers, not taxi companies

Whitehorse’s new emergency room slated to open in early January

40,000-square-foot building will be more efficient, officials say

Judge finds Whitehorse man not guilty of raping teen in 2015 after second trial

Judge Raymond Wyant found Jackie James Kodwat not guilty of sexual assault.

Whitehorse’s sidewalks are a deathtrap

In the interest of safety and simplicity, the city should just plow the sidewalks

Police, coroner investigating suspicious death in Pelly Crossing

Investigators have ordered an autopsy, which will take place in Vancouver Dec. 18

Two Yukon projects shortlisted for the Arctic Inspiration Prize

Projects from Whitehorse, Carcross up for cash

Lower Post, B.C., man suing Yukon RCMP over assault allegation

Suit alleges man ended up with ‘ended up with bruising on his arms, biceps and chest’

Yukon needs a better plan for long-term care

The government can find solutions if it has the will. Does it have the will?

Hard travel over the Yukon’s winter trails

The overland trip to Dawson City today is a cakewalk compared to a century ago

Globalization infiltrates the Yukon’s recycling bins

You’re going to have to do a better job sorting your junk or else China won’t take it

Driving during the holidays

It’s hectic on the roads at Christmastime

Whitehorse council chambers needs new audio-visual equipment

‘More than 10 people’ watch city’s televised meetings

Most Read