Trump Administration Scrambles to Sell Alaskan Land As Indigenous Activists Push Back

By Julia Stern

New York City, New York

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

For forty years, activists and politicians have debated drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the largest wildlife refuge in the country, on the land of the Inupiat tribe. On December 7, the Trump administration announced that they would sell drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a process that normally takes years, in the last weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. According to Cultural Survival, this marks the ninth attempt in twenty years of the government to permit oil and gas drilling in the ANWR.


The sale opens up 1.6 million acres of land, an area the size of Delaware, to oil companies, and while the area is considered a jackpot for oil, financing exploration in the Arctic is a large investment. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price war, it remains unclear whether oil and gas companies will bid in the lease sale.


In a press release, the Bureau of Land Management said Congress directed them to lease sales in the ANWR for the purpose of “meeting our Nation’s long-term energy demands” and said the program “will help create jobs and economic opportunities.” 


The Oil and Gas Leasing Program is set to be sold on January 6, and as oil companies bid on the land, many Indigenous activists and environmentalists are protesting the action. NPR reported that various conservation groups and Indigenous tribes, as well as fifteen states, have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration to protect against climate change and preserve the 287 animal species in the refuge, including endangered polar bears, caribou and arctic foxes. 


According to an article by the Sierra Club, various conservation groups have pushed the government to protect the refuge and banks to refuse financial support to projects in the Arctic, a region that, according to NASA, is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet.


In 2017, with support by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Congress agreed to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas companies. By August 2020, the Secretary of the Interior agreed to open the refuge to development. In September, the National American Rights Fund opened on behalf of three Gwich’in tribes the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, the Venetie Village Council and Arctic Village Council.


In Kaktovik, the only community inside the ANWR, many locals, including Inupiat tribal administrator Matthew Reford, approved of the announcement, per NPR. Many Inupiat people thought it an opportunity for economic development and believed proper regulation would prevent harm to the land. Alaska Public Media reported that some Inupiat, the only people who actually live on land, are frustrated that people are deferring to opposition primarily from Gwich’in tribes, who live 100 miles away from the refuge.


According to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the coalition of Gwich’in tribes are vehemently opposed to development of the Coastal Plain. The Arctic Refuge is one of the last landscapes in the world untouched by colonization and is part of the Gwitch’ins’ sacred ancestral range. In Athabaskan, the Gwich’in language, the Coastal Plain is called  “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”


NARF reported that the refuge is home to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which are significant for Gwich'in as a primary part of their diet and as their traditional, spiritual and cultural identity as caribou people. The First Chief Margorie Gemmill told the National American Rights Fund that oil drilling could change the caribou’s migratory patterns, fertility rates and habitat, which in turn would impact the 7000 Gwich’in people whose culture depends on caribou. Developing the land would corrupt traditional ways of life in a form of environmental racism and violence, as tribal communities will have to choose between using limited resources to protect their way of life or mitigating the life-threatening issues of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, NARF wrote.


NARF has criticized the Trump Administration for its endangerment of the sacred land, disregard of indigenous Gwich’in Tribes and lack of research about how the Gwich’in people and the caribou species they rely on will be impacted. 


Biden said he opposes the drilling, but if the Bureau of Land Management finalizes leases to oil companies before Biden’s inauguration, it could be difficult to undo and pose a threat to Biden’s long-term plan to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050. If the Biden administration delays permits, companies could call off purchase of the ANWR––at least until the administration changes again. 


Native activists have begun the Instagram accounts @defendthesacredak and @native_mvmt to gain public attention and have created a Defend the Sacred Alaska’s toolkit for action before January 6. Many activists have also encouraged people to leave a public comment  with specific guidelines, before December 17.