The Gwich’in Nation has relied on the area known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for survival for millennia. Three members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee traveled from the Arctic across the desert Southwest to tell their story and to meet others with similar struggles. Bernadette Demientieff, Jeneen Frei Njootli, and James Nathaniel, Jr. stopped by the KXCI studios while they were in Tucson on May 18th for the first stop on their tour. The Arctic Refuge is one of the world’s last untouched wild places. Now, much like public lands across the Southwest, it’s facing the greatest threats in decades. To raise the alarm, the group will traverse four states in just over a week, showing the new Patagonia film The Refuge, and finding common ground with communities that depend on public lands.
Bernadette Demientieff is the Executive Director for the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She represents the Gwich’in nation from both sides of the border in the U.S. and Canada. Bernadette was born and raised in Alaska. She is Gwichyaa Zhee Gwichin and her family is from Old Crow YT Canada and Fort Yukon Alaska. She takes her culture and traditions very seriously, and although she was disconnected for awhile she’s finding her identity as a Gwich’in women. Bernadette values her way of life and everything she learns she passes on to her children. She has always stood for protecting the very sacred coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the porcupine caribou herd, and the Gwich’in way of life. “Our identity is not up for negotiation,” Bernadette says. “We must stand united to protect the indigenous communities throughout the world.”
Jeneen Frei Njootli is an Indigenous artist from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Her people’s home territory is located in the Northwestern corner of Canada’s arctic. Currently based between Old Crow, Yukon and unceded Coast-Salish territories in Vancouver, Frei Njootli frequently does community-based projects and workshops. She is the co-creator of the ReMatriate Collective, which focuses on positive representation of Indigenous women in media and their right to visual sovereignty.
James Nathaniel, Jr. is a Board Member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. He graduated from the University of Alaska/Interior Aleutian Campus with a degree in Tribal Management and the Tanana Valley College with a degree in Drafting Technology. After receiving his education, he took a position with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments (CATG) in Fort Yukon, Alaska. He went back home to Chalkyitsik to work for the Tribe and was later assigned to the Tribal Administrator position in Chalkyitsik. His experience in environmental planning/cleanup, including protecting our pristine waters and land, was instrumental in his interest to serve on the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
Recorded and produced by Amanda Shauger.