Sarah James, Gwich’in activist and environmental prizewinner, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am the board chairperson for the Gwich’in Steering Committee. I work as I live the life. And I am open to opportunities to tell my story in order to protect the calving and nursery grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.
What does your organization do?
The Gwich’in Steering Committee works on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation to protect Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — the caribou calving and nursery grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1988, when we learned of the threat of oil development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in elders called upon the chiefs to hold a gathering, Gwich’in Niintsyaa, to discuss this threat. We agreed unanimously to speak with one voice in opposition to oil and gas development in the birthplace and nursery grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Our communities established the Gwich’in Steering Committee with the mandate that the organization represent the interests of the Gwich’in Nation in the Arctic Refuge debate.
Representatives were appointed from each region within the Gwich’in Nation. In 2002, three of us — Jonathon Solomon, Norma Kassi, and myself — were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Solomon, the former chairperson from Fort Yukon, passed away this summer. The Gwich’in gathering was dedicated to his memory. He was a very good leader and is greatly missed.
The board, staff, and volunteers of the Gwich’in Steering Committee have succeeded in working on a grassroots level to educate the public and decision makers of the many reasons why this sacred place must be protected and why this is a human-rights issue for the Gwich’in Nation. We want to be able to continue the way of life that we have known since time immemorial. We hope that through our work, people will become better educated about the Arctic Refuge and tell their friends and the decision makers why it needs to be protected for them and for future generations.
What are you working on at the moment?
One of the projects that we hope to begin soon is to document an oral history of the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s work on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation to protect the Arctic Refuge.
How do you get to work?
If I am in Arctic Village, I work out of my cabin. If I have to travel, I take a small plane from Arctic Village to Fairbanks, and from there get on a jet to Washington, D.C., or wherever I have to go.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
This is my way of life. We are born with this way of life and we will die with it. It never occurred to me that something had to wake me up to do this. Nothing magic happened to me. Our life depends on it. It’s about survival; it’s something that we have to protect in order to survive. It’s our responsibility. It’s the environment we live in. We believe everything is related.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Fort Yukon, Alaska, because that is where the hospital was. I grew up part of the time in Fort Yukon and Salmon River, but most of the time in Arctic Village, Alaska, where I live now.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Just before the Exxon Valdez disaster happened, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was about to become a reality.
What’s been the best?
About the only good thing that came out of the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez was that Congress decided against drilling in the Arctic Refuge. It’s terrible: The Gwich’in way of life continues, yet for the people of Prince William Sound, their way of life has been devastated. It continues to this day without any real compensation for what they have lost.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
When politicians attach the Arctic Refuge to unrelated bills and say it will benefit alternative energy or work on climate change. In 2005, politicians tried again and again to attach the Arctic Refuge to the budget bill. It wasn’t going to help with the budget, but it was a trick to get the Arctic Refuge open to drilling.
I hope that the recent elections lead to a better energy policy. We have a chance to protect the land, and the elections showed that the people of the United States, along with the Gwich’in people, want an energy policy that makes sense. We have to pay attention to climate change. I have been seeing changes around Arctic Village for several years now, like the tree line changing and lakes drying up. This is serious — we have to do something now.
What’s your environmental vice?
I don’t recycle enough.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
I play Scrabble with my sister.
Read any good books lately?
Fort Yukon Trader, by C. Masten Beaver.
What’s your favorite meal?
Mountain sheep, caribou head soup, caribou meat, bone juice, bone marrow, duck soup, Fort Yukon king salmon, salmonberries and blueberries, fry bread, and campfire tea.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Red Sheep Creek, north of Arctic Village.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Permanent wilderness protection for the Arctic Refuge.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Then: Jimmy Clayton. Now: Bob Dylan.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Donate to the Gwich’in Steering Committee. The calving and nursery grounds will never be completely safe until the Arctic Refuge has wilderness designation. We have to continue to educate people and work like we have since 1988 in order to protect the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.